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Opinion: The FOP contract and how the police do not keep us safe

Some 10 members of the Philadelphia police department on bikes July 23, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose

Disclosures

This guest column was written by Mary Stricker, a member of Reclaim Philadelphia’s Mass Liberation Task Force and a professor of instruction in Sociology at Temple University.
In 2017, the parents of a 17-year-old in a mental health crisis brought their son to the hospital for treatment. He was upset about being there, and hospital staff called security to restrain him.  A Philadelphia police officer approached the scene and punched the youth in the torso multiple times and kicked him at least twice while he was restrained.

Shocked hospital staff filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD). The PPD Internal Affairs substantiated the hospital staff’s reports and sent the case to the Police Board of Inquiry (PBI) for a hearing. The PBI found the officer guilty and issued a 3-day suspension. The PBI chair stated it reflected the seriousness of the misconduct.

The matter should have been settled. However, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) immediately filed a grievance. They argued the Department did not have “just cause” and that punching and kicking a kid in the emergency room did not deserve any form of discipline.

The FOP felt empowered to protect an abusive officer because of the police contract — an agreement between the City and police detailing salaries, raises and discipline measures, which is negotiated every four years. According to the current contract, the FOP can file a grievance on behalf of any cop who receives discipline and have the case go to binding arbitration. This process is “binding,” meaning it cannot be disputed.

Arbitration is the means by which most Philadelphia police avoid discipline. Since 2013, only 2% of community member formal complaints against Philly police have resulted in a guilty finding, and 70% of those guilty verdicts were reduced or overturned after binding arbitration.

However, the City has the power to change that this summer.

In early 2020, at the height of COVID uncertainties, the mayor’s office and the FOP agreed to a one-year extension of the existing contract rather than negotiate a new one. The FOP also requested and received a 2.5% raise (higher than all other unions). The current contract officially ends on June 30, but negotiations over the new contract have been extended by another month until July 30. Contract negotiations are underway, and arbitration is the word of the day.

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Binding arbitration is protected by state law, Act 111,  but the mayor’s office can negotiate for more rules. For example, they can disallow the practice of arbitrators reducing or reversing discipline even when there is consensus that a cop has committed a crime. People are tired of cops committing crimes and getting away with it.

We heard this loud and clear in City Council chambers at the unprecedented public hearing on the contract. The FOP filed a lawsuit to stop the hearing, but nearly 100 community members shared stories of experiencing police violence in Black and brown communities and of being harassed, tear gassed, and physically assaulted by PPD during the uprisings in protest of George Floyd’s murder.

However, even the end of arbitration is insufficient. We have only to finish the story above: it took three years for the arbitrator to sustain the guilty verdict, citing the officer’s “offensive kicks” to the youth as indefensible. The officer’s 3-day suspension remained in place. But let’s be real here. Philly police officers can be dismissed for speaking “profanely” to a senior officer but viciously assaulting a 17-year-old with severe mental health struggles apparently only warrants a 3-day vacation. This is not meaningful accountability or justice.

Our communities need education, mental health care, addiction treatment, housing, jobs, community-led anti-violence programs, and an end to mass incarceration. The police are not what we need.

The mayor’s Office must demand transparency, discipline, and most of all divestment from police. To divest, we must reallocate funding to community-led public safety and community support programs: not more raises, weapons, and unbridled violence from police.

We cannot allow the FOP to dictate our future.

Let this be the moment where our city negotiates for us. We deserve it, and our lives depend on it.

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