As reform gains traction, Chicago police union pushes back
The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police is trying to stop the consent decree, and it’s fighting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s other reform efforts at the state level and through local labor grievances
By Dan Hinkel
CHICAGO — Comprehensive police reform is gaining significant traction in Chicago after decades of damaging scandals, as politicians and activists line up behind an overhaul that soon could have the force of a federal judge behind it.
But even as fallout from the fatal Laquan McDonald shooting has turned the political tide, one local group continues to strongly push back: the union that represents most of the city’s officers.
The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police is digging in on multiple fronts. The union is in court trying to stop the consent decree, and it’s fighting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s other reform efforts at the state level and through local labor grievances.
As the stakes have risen, the FOP has publicly aligned itself with President Donald Trump, who repeatedly has decried the city’s violence and encouraged cops to “please, don’t be too nice” while arresting people. His administration has weighed in against the consent decree, saying too much police oversight could lead to more street violence. The union has offered a similar point of view.
“The narrative of systemic police corruption prompting the need for a consent decree is false. It does not hold up to reasonable investigation. In fact, this narrative, pushed by a corrupt media machine and ambitious politicians, is costing lives,” FOP President Kevin Graham said in the April police union newsletter.
The combative approach is led by a team of union executives elected last year as calls for change in the department grew louder. Officer Jason Van Dyke stood charged with murdering McDonald, Emanuel had acknowledged a “code of silence” that shields bad cops and initiated a host of changes, and the U.S. Department of Justice had finished a yearlong investigation that concluded officers were ineptly supervised and needlessly violent toward minorities.
Against that backdrop, candidates from the Graham-led “Blue Voice” slate campaigned on a vow to take a confrontational approach to reform, castigated past union leaders as too accommodating and promised to try to win back lost benefits.
Indeed, the battles between the union and City Hall are playing out as pivotal negotiations over the next police contract are underway. Reform advocates want changes to a collective bargaining agreement that for years has given protections to officers in disciplinary cases. Union leaders, meanwhile, say they intend to keep those protections. That fight is likely to be one of the biggest tests Chicago’s next mayor will face.
For their part, federal officials knew going into their investigation that the police union would present a challenge to reform efforts in part because of the protections written into the contract, said Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped lead the investigation here and worked on inquiries in other cities.
“I think it’s a complete disservice, not only to the public, but to their own officers, to take this approach,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what it is about CPD, but it is one of the more broken cultures of a police department I’ve seen.”
Graham declined to comment, citing the union’s policy of not speaking to the Tribune. The FOP has accused the news organization of a “powerful anti-police agenda,” according to a post on its blog. Among the evidence it cited was the Tribune’s failure after an especially violent summer weekend to note that officers had not shot anyone.
Dean Angelo Sr., union president until last year, also declined to comment, as did Jim Pasco, executive director of the national FOP.
Consent decree opposition
The Chicago Police Department has weathered a series of scandals dating back decades, from the alleged torture of dozens of suspects to crime-fighting units operating as criminal gangs. Previous panels and inquiries have recommended reforms, but the Justice Department report released in January 2017 offered the most damning and complete condemnation of the city’s police agency yet. Perhaps most significantly, the report seconded, in extensive detail, a contention that African-Americans in Chicago have made for generations — that cops have abused minorities with little fear of consequences.
Those conclusions were based on thousands of pages of documents and a review of hundreds of uses of force, including shootings. Justice investigators talked to some 340 CPD members, including “so many officers that were happy we were there,” Lopez said.
Allegations that officers have been violent and unaccountable again were aired late last month during two days of hearings on the consent decree in federal court.
Often the testimony came from African-American activists who spoke of their fear and distrust of police, and some shared stories of loved ones killed or wrongly imprisoned by officers. Some spoke angrily toward the police union and dismissed its leaders as obstructionists; one woman compared the process of creating a consent decree to building a house, and then said the FOP wanted to blow the house up.
Maria Hernandez of Black Lives Matter Chicago implored U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr., who is overseeing the consent decree process, not to let the union waylay the process. “I don’t want your work or our work to be a waste,” she said.
In contrast, a handful of FOP officials spoke against the decree itself and also took issue with specific elements of it, including its call for the department to investigate anonymous complaints and its mandate for officers to report incidents in which they point guns at people. They also suggested that further oversight would restrain cops from doing their jobs. In addition, union officials highlighted rampant violent crime in many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and pointed to social problems that have little to do with policing.
“Nobody wants to address that,” said First Vice President Patrick Murray. “They go to bad schools. They get recruited by gangs.”
Financial Secretary Michael Garza said, “Police didn’t make this environment. The criminals made this environment.”
The testimony came after the police union filed a so-far unsuccessful legal challenge of the consent decree process. The proposal is the product of a federal lawsuit Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed against the city last year after Emanuel waffled on the need for judicially mandated reforms. The two politicians eventually submitted a proposed order that aims to tighten police discipline and supervision and improve training.
Police union attorney Joel D’Alba has written in court filings that the FOP gave input on the court order through meetings with Madigan’s office, but its concerns were not reflected in the draft. The union filed a motion to intervene in the litigation, as well as a motion to dismiss the case that contended that Madigan lacked legal standing to sue the city. But Dow rejected the union’s attempt to intervene, ruling that the FOP waited too long before filing.
The union has appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to rule. Oral arguments took place Friday.
Beyond fighting efforts to overhaul the department, the union also has adopted a more aggressive public profile.
The Chicago FOP played a visible role during Van Dyke’s trial, which ended with the officer convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. The union funded much of the officer’s defense, and current and former leaders often were in court to show support. In the most recent union newsletter, Graham wrote that “the state wanted to punish a police officer for doing his job.”
“The politicians, prosecutor and police-haters lack any understanding of what police officers face day in and day out. There is an implicit bias against the police stoked by years of media stories pushing the mythology of police corruption. It is not true,” the union president wrote.
Graham also has defended three officers who are charged with lying to protect Van Dyke after the shooting. Their indictment cites claims the officers made in their official reports that are contradicted by video, including that McDonald swung a knife at police and appeared to be trying to get up off the street as Van Dyke continued to shoot him.
“It would appear that they are guilty of nothing more than writing a police report the special prosecutor doesn’t like,” Graham wrote of the indicted cops in the July 2017 newsletter.
It’s not new for the FOP to defend its members in the face of high-profile charges or take positions that go against the city’s political winds. A quarter-century ago, the union planned to enter a float in the South Side Irish Parade to honor the recently fired Detective Jon Burge and four other disgraced cops, but scrapped the idea after complaints from African-American officers.
Burge was found by multiple investigations to have overseen the torture of suspects on the South Side. Burge was never convicted of torture — prosecutors cited statutes of limitations — but federal prosecutors had to prove allegations of abuse to secure his conviction on perjury charges in 2010.
During Van Dyke’s trial, news broke that Burge had died. The union marked his death with a statement offering condolences to his family and noting “the Fraternal Order of Police does not believe the full story about the Burge cases has ever been told.”
One particularly visible FOP leader is spokesman and Second Vice President Martin Preib, who has alleged that the media and civil rights lawyers falsely accuse police of misconduct. The union’s official communications have adopted this theory, accusing media outlets of nurturing a “bloodthirsty antipathy to the police.”
In December 2017, Preib went before the City Council Finance Committee to oppose a proposed $31 million settlement for the “Englewood Four.” The African-American teenagers had confessed to raping and murdering a prostitute, and each spent some 15 years in prison before DNA recovered from her body linked the crime to a convicted murderer and sex offender who was in the area where her body was found as police investigated the crime. A judge threw out the four men’s convictions, and they were granted certificates of innocence.
Despite that, Preib told aldermen that there was “powerful evidence that these men were indeed involved in this crime” and cited their confessions, which the men alleged were coerced. Preib did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The union’s social media accounts have shared President Trump’s messages, including statements with no clear link to law enforcement, such as the president’s recent tweet reading, “THE ONLY REASON TO VOTE FOR A DEMOCRAT IS IF YOU’RE TIRED OF WINNING!”
Dovetailing with the union’s public statements, its internal communications have criticized reform efforts and those leading them. In September, Murray, the first vice president, wrote a column mentioning a meeting with a negotiator from Madigan’s office who made the hairs on his neck stand up. The person, he wrote, reminded him of the villain in the 1986 Eddie Murphy movie “The Golden Child,” a murderous demon.
While the police union has long been the city’s most prominent voice on behalf of cops, the organization’s mostly white leadership does not reflect the department’s demographics. About half of the force is black, Hispanic or Asian.
On a national level, the FOP — with some 335,000 members, according to the union — clearly does not represent the views of all officers in the diverse big-city agencies some of its chapters cover, said Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor and former federal prosecutor who has written critically of the organization.
“I will say you can’t argue with success,” he said. “If what they do is to protect the police no matter what the evidence, and they’re trying to get … politicians on their side, then they are effective.”
City Hall battles
In addition to the Chicago FOP’s ratcheted-up rhetoric and opposition to the consent decree, the union is trying to fend off changes through other avenues.
In recent months, City Hall and the police union started negotiating a contract to replace the one that expired last year. For years, reform advocates have called for the removal of various rights the contract confers on cops accused of misconduct. Those provisions include the clause forcing disciplinary officials to give officers the names of complainants, and a section that holds that officers must be allowed to amend their statements after they view video of an incident.
State labor records show bargaining sessions started in May. Nearly a year earlier, Graham wrote in a union newsletter that “we are not going to surrender our rights when it comes to discipline.”
The Emanuel administration declined to comment on negotiations.
Even before the current leaders took over, the FOP also had been challenging Emanuel’s reform efforts at the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which rules on whether governments have violated unions’ rights.
In November 2017, an administrative law judge determined that the city violated the union’s rights by imposing new guidelines to standardize officer discipline, which has been unreliable and often weak. Following the finding, the city reassessed discipline issued under the new rules and suspended the guidelines, and the two sides now are bargaining over the issue, according to the labor board.
On another front, the union is fighting elements of Emanuel’s policy requiring the release of videos of police shootings within three months of an incident, a rule introduced after the long-delayed release of the McDonald video spurred public anger.
The FOP sent a letter last month threatening a grievance against the city and calling for the disciplinary authorities to immediately stop posting reports that give the identities of officers who shoot people, and to blur officers’ faces in video. So far, the union has filed a grievance specific to the paper reports, but not one addressing the release of videos, Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said last week.
For several years, the union also has taken an aggressive approach against discipline for individual officers.
In 2010, the FOP filed 48 disciplinary grievances with the Police Department’s labor section, which helps settle labor disputes. In 2015, it filed 200, and in 2016, the FOP filed 134 grievances on behalf of members contesting the discipline they’d been handed.
In 85 percent of discipline cases handled through the labor-grievance process since 2010, officers ended up with shorter suspensions or, in many cases, had their punishments wiped away altogether, according to an analysis last year by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. The total number of suspension days collectively was cut by half, the analysis found.
More broadly, it remains to be seen how effective the current Chicago police union leadership will be in defeating the reform efforts playing out at City Hall and in court. Union leaders have vowed to keep fighting those who seek wholesale change in the Police Department.
“We will continue to fight the imposition of this consent decree to protect our officers and the public,” Graham said in a statement on the FOP blog in July, “ … because our elected officials have decided not to.”