LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A proposed contract with the Louisville Metro Police union lacks accountability and economic flexibility, some local officials and residents say.
They point to controversial sections of the contract such as a ban on officer layoffs, stipulations for allowing some complaints and disciplinary records to be destroyed and murky language about a chief’s authority to discipline officers.
“Several of these are in and of themselves bad, but when you take them as a whole, it’s just a bad piece of policy,” said Metro Councilman Brandon Coan, D-8th, who is also an attorney.
On Monday, the Metro Council’s labor committee is holding a two-hour public hearing on the contract so residents can speak, followed by a special two-hour committee discussion.
“I think everybody, even those critical of contract, thinks police officers deserve to be paid more and have good benefits to attract and keep them,” Coan told The Courier Journal. “But that has to come with full accountability for what they’re being paid for.”
Two residents who spoke at the last Metro Council meeting also expressed concern about officer accountability in the proposed contract with the River City Fraternal Order of Police, describing the ways officers treated them during protests.
“The research shows these police union contracts incubate a culture of impunity,” said resident Demi Bechtloff.
“We are not asking for the impossible. We are asking to hold violence accountable because what is in that contract directly affects the people in Louisville,” Bechtloff said.
Ariana Levinson, a labor law professor at the University of Louisville Brandies School of Law who has studied the contract with her students, said it isn’t written clearly. It also contains conflicts with LMPD’s Standard Operating Procedures, she said.
“My perspective is it seems whoever is negotiating for the city for many years at this point has dropped the ball,” she said. “… I know they (police) say they’re not funded enough, but it doesn’t seem like the city is getting much in return.”
Levinson said when the economy nosedived earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the mayor’s office should have gone back to the negotiating table.
Coan said it’s ridiculous the contract forbids layoffs.
“There needs to be flexibility in Metro Government to account for financial situations and how we decide to run our government,” Coan said.
FOP President Ryan Nichols said a no-layoff provision has always been in the contract because training an officer is an expensive, lengthy process.
“They manage our manpower by hiring,” he said. “If they don’t have the budget to fund more police officers, they don’t hire more. They accomplish the same exact goal.”
Nichols said the last hired recruiting class had space for 48 students, but only 19 graduated and they’re down to 16 now. He said with officers who have left this month, they’re at a net loss.
“We’re nowhere near a point where we would begin to talk about laying off officers because we don’t have enough,” he said.
The contract is retroactive to July 1, 2018, but financial provisions such as officer pay will go back to July 1 of this year, according to Daniel Frockt, the city’s chief financial officer.
If approved by Metro Council, the new contract would expire June 30, 2021.
Nichols said there’s nothing in the contract that requires any benefit retroactive to 2018; much of it is the same, he said.
The contract includes a higher base pay for officers across the board, especially for new officers the department is seeking to attract and retain.
But Nichols said what seems like a $10,000-plus raise for new officers is really only about half that. The contract stipulates that a stipend for uniforms and equipment will be incorporated into officers’ hourly pay.
Officers are issued a set of uniforms when hired, but they’re required to buy their own firearm, leather gear and future uniforms, Nichols said.
Missing ‘fundamental accountability’
Several sections require the destruction of certain disciplinary records and put limits on how long they can be used, Coan said.
“What is largely missing from it are just fundamental accountability requirements that allow the department to sufficiently discipline officers who commit misconduct,” Coan said.
A written reprimand can be considered for one year, a suspension of 72 hours or less can be considered for three years and a suspension of more than 72 hours can be considered for five years, according to the contract.
In the contract, if someone making a complaint against an officer does not want to make a sworn statement, a “complaint inquiry form” would be completed for any criminal allegations. That form would also get filled out if there was information that corroborated the informal complaint, but not otherwise.
If the allegations are not criminal, the complaint can be handled “in an informal manner” and no investigative paperwork is put in an officer’s personnel file, according to the contract.
The forms are then given to the chief, who can direct an investigation or destroy the records after 90 days.
“Why throw it away? It’s not like we have a resource limitation on documents,” Coan said. “We have all the storage we need in the world. People’s files should be complete. It’s a very basic concept.”
The contract also says documents in supervisory files can’t be retained after one year.
Nichols said the police officer bill of rights is written into state law, and that officers have a right to due process when being investigated. He also said the majority of LMPD’s complaint investigations are chief-initiated rather than from citizens.
“That’s why there are multiple ways to lodge a complaint,” he said.
Councilwoman Jessica Green, D-1st District, said the community expects transparency and the propensity should be to keep documents.
“We can no longer not have officers held accountable,” she said. “The public is expecting something different. We cannot do the same things over and over.”
Nichols said he understands a lot of reform issues are being discussed, but the contract is a labor agreement, not necessarily a place for reforms.
“The FOP is always interested in fair, balanced and effective ways to change the complex issues of policing. We always want to build community trust,” he said.
Levinson said language in the contract is unclear in many places, and some undefined terms would need to be interpreted based on state law and past practices.
A 2015 memorandum of understanding that lays out the circumstances under which a chief can suspend an officer without pay was put into the new contract word for word. Levinson said the language is conflicting and confusing and has requirements that would make it difficult to get someone suspended without pay.
“It appears to set too high of a bar. At every level, they’re requiring more and more things,” she said.
The section is less clear because the chief has the ability to fire officers, which conflicts with the idea that chiefs are limited in suspending an officer without pay, Levinson said.
Levinson said she would need much more information, such as past merit board decisions, to understand how the parties interpret some of the vague terms.
Nichols said even though the chief has the authority to fire an officer, the section pertaining to suspension without pay would allow the chief to suspend the officer but still continue the investigation. He said it has happened in cases where evidence is clear from the beginning.
“If those (protections) aren’t there, it’s possible the officer didn’t do it,” Nichols said. “That investigation could clear the officer.”
One new section allows officers to review body camera footage of any incident they were involved in before making a statement or report.
Nichols said body camera footage in police-involved shootings gets released to the public anyway, and officers should be able to review their footage so they can give an accurate statement.
He also said some criticize that officers are given 48 hours’ notice before they’re interviewed about an incident.
“If I get investigated months down the road for something, I’ve probably had countless contacts with citizens since the incident,” he said. “We want officers to be truthful. It’s imperative they know what they’re being investigated for.”
Metro Council President David James said council members are asking a lot of good questions.
“It’s a work in progress,” James said about the contract. “There’s a lot to it.”