Why Chicago Police Reform Could Hinge On This Expired Contract | WBEZ
Skip to main content

WBEZ News

Why Chicago Police Reform Could Hinge On This Expired Contract

After a month of sometimes raucous public hearings, City Hall politicians and labor leaders are again faced with the same tough question: Is the Chicago Police Department ready for reform?

In the post-Laquan McDonald era, advocates are clamoring for more civilian oversight of the department.

Cops who feel like they’re under attack are clamoring for some support from City Hall.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel is facing pressure from all sides as he nears the end of his second term. It began with the explosive release of the video of McDonald being shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Rahm later asserted that a “code of silence” exists among cops and pledged to fix the problems facing the department.

Yet one obstacle looms over that promise which could determine whether there will be true civilian oversight of the CPD: negotiations over a new union contract for police officers.

Here’s what you need to know about City Hall’s ongoing contract fight with Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police and how the impasse could affect efforts to beef up police oversight.

What’s collective bargaining got to do with police reform?

A lot. Come June 30, roughly 10,000 rank-and-file Chicago cops will have been working under an expired contract for one year. And several provisions in the contract’s “bill of rights” section have become bones of contention in the debate over police reform.

One requires people who complain about cops to sign a sworn affidavit. Reform advocates say that would subject complainants to retaliation, but the union argues anonymity would allow for people to target cops with complaints. Another provision lets cops view video and audio recordings of an incident before they have to talk to misconduct investigators. And another stipulates that complaints can’t be investigated or re-opened after five years.

In the fallout of the McDonald video release, these are the contract elements the Department of Justice calledprocedural hurdles” that impede the investigative process.

And Emanuel’s hand-picked Police Accountability Task Force said the contract is “dictating and micromanaging” how investigators question police officers.

Both cited the contract as the culprit for the city’s record-breaking total of police misconduct settlements, saying it fostered collusion among police officers and discouraged citizens from filing complaints.

Why has it been so difficult to negotiate a new contract?

Because Chicago’s police union lodge is fighting against stricter oversight as hard as advocates are fighting for it. And lurking behind the debate over who should police the police are disagreements about whether cops even need more accountability, and whether the so-called “code of silence” even exists.

Members of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7 protest ahead of a City Council meeting in May. (Claudia Morell/WBEZ)

“[Negotiations] between the City and the Lodge do not take place in a vacuum,” wrote Steven Briggs, an independent arbitrator who has previously brokered Chicago police contract talks. “They occur in what might be characterized as a boiling cauldron of countervailing influences from external unions, political and civic groups, various City and State officials, the federal government, other cities, and even the occasional national celebrity.”  

When the union feels the city has overstepped, they bring in the lawyers. And since public safety employees can’t strike, their main recourse is to duke it out in arbitration or before the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which takes time.  

The FOP could use the contract talks as leverage in the larger discussions about overhauling police oversight, said Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

“It is as much of an impediment to reform as FOP makes it out to be,” he said.

What’s the status of negotiations?

There’s been little headway on the contract since its expiration last June. The FOP says it hasn’t even presented a proposal to the city yet. And the city’s attorneys wouldn’t answer any questions, citing ongoing labor negotiations.

The police union president, Kevin Graham, didn’t seem to offer much hope last month when reporters asked him about his relationship with the mayor.

“He congratulated me when I won,” Graham said. “And when he came to our memorial, I think we talked about the weather. ... But no, we’ve never had a conversation.”

The FOP refused to make Graham available for an interview. But after the talk last month, he made it clear that many of the changes being pushed by reformers will have to survive the collective bargaining process.

No one from the FOP would talk about what it will take to get a contract deal this time.

But Dean Angelo, a former union president, recalled the last time the city tried to amend the bill of rights section: “And I told them, ‘You better bring your checkbook, because you don’t just get what you want without giving something in return.’ It’s a quid pro quo.”

Where do Chicago politics fit in?  

Complicating an already complex situation are the 2019 citywide elections, when the mayor and all 50 aldermen will face voters.

The politics of police reform are tricky for Emanuel and many aldermen: On the one hand, reformers criticize them for not doing enough. On the other, the powerful police union criticizes them for trying to hamstring cops.

Many of Emanuel’s 2019 challengers jumped into the race as a result of the administration’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting. Former CPD Supt. Garry McCarthy alleges “the cover up happened at City Hall.” And former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot has called out the mayor and members of the City Council for dragging their feet on reforms.  

The political stakes were made clear earlier this month at the final public forum on civilian oversight, when Chicago Police Officer John Catanzara was heckled into silence by a crowd of reformers.

Afterward, he highlighted what he said was a rare area of agreement.

“They want to keep talking about accountability,” he said of the reformers in the audience. “Accountability is in elections. If they don’t like what’s going on, they replace the mayor, because believe you me, the majority rank-and file police want to get rid of the mayor as bad as everyone in this room.”

Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X