One Big Obstacle for Minneapolis Police Abolitionists: The Cops’ Union Contract

It could have implications for whether officers who kill get rehired.

Outside the Minneapolis Police and Fire Union offices on June 6Chris Juhn/ZUMA Wire

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Not long after the Minneapolis police chief fired the officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck and the other three officers who did not intervene, Lt. Bob Kroll, who leads the department’s police union, was scheming for a way to get the men’s jobs back. “They were terminated without due process,” he wrote in an email to the 800-plus rank-and-file officers in the union, leaked to the public on June 1. Kroll, who appeared onstage with President Donald Trump at a campaign rally last year, wrote that he was working with the four officers’ defense attorneys and labor lawyers to try to force the chief to rehire them.

It wouldn’t be unheard of. In Minneapolis and other cities, fired officers are regularly reinstated to their jobs after a police union intervenes. Last week, Mayor Jacob Frey described Kroll’s union, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, as one of the biggest impediments to disciplining cops who use excessive force. “The elephant in the room with regard to police reform is the police union,” he told the New York Times. The mayor described the union’s current contract with the city as a “nearly impenetrable barrier” to disciplining officers for racism and other misconduct, partly because of the protections it gives them after a firing. Often, he said, “we do not have the ability to get rid of many of these officers that we know have done wrong in the past.”

That contract expired in January and is now up for negotiation, meaning that Minneapolis has an opportunity to reform how officers are treated after they injure or kill someone, and to rethink what other protections they get on the job. Putting even more pressure on the negotiations—and adding to the uncertainty—a veto-proof majority of the city council on Sunday promised to work toward defunding and dismantling the current police department, something no other major city has yet pledged to do.

But that will take time. The council members, who control the police department’s budget and must approve any new union contract, said dismantling the department would not happen overnight, and that they would need to consult with community members as they reenvision how Minneapolis will approach public safety. They would also need to amend the city’s charter, which requires them to fund a police force with at least about 730 employees, based on the city’s population. And any amendment would require a public vote, or approval from the mayor and the entire city council, a few of whose members oppose the plan. “We might have to take it to the people to have a vote on it, but I think there are a lot of ways in which the council can move forward with the plan even if the mayor isn’t on board,” council member Jeremiah Ellison, who supports the plan, was quoted as saying.

Negotiating with the police union could be a way to secure substantial changes in the short term as council members begin that lengthy process. And in some ways, their announcement about wanting to defund the department is a kind of opening offer to the bargaining unit—an indication that they are willing to veto any and everything short of a complete overhaul. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed,” Lisa Bender, the council’s president, said Sunday in front of a crowd of hundreds of people. In a call with reporters on Monday, she added that the police union was “a clear barrier to change.”

Frey, not the council, has direct control over the police department and its rules, and his administration sits opposite the police union during collective bargaining. And over the weekend, Frey said he’s not on board with a complete dismantling of the force—an admission for which protesters heckled him. But the mayor, too, has repeatedly said he wants to remove power from Kroll and other police union members, whom he has accused of creating a culture of impunity at the department. Over the weekend, Frey said that instead of completely defunding the police, he wants to see “deep structural reform of a racist system” by changing the police union’s collective bargaining process.

Compounding the uncertainty around the negotiations, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced on Wednesday that he is pulling out of the union’s bargaining process. Arradondo, a Black man who sued the police department in 2007 for a culture of racism, will ask advisers and lawyers to examine how the union’s contract might be restructured in areas dealing with use of force and the discipline process, to improve accountability for officers who engage in misconduct. “History is being written now, and I am determined to make sure that we are on the right side of history,” he said. The move was widely interpreted as a suspension of negotiations, but the police department did not immediately respond to questions from Mother Jones about how the chief’s decision would affect the timeline of the bargaining process.

However the negotiations unfold, it won’t be an easy fight: The union, like police unions around the country, has one primary goal, which is to protect police jobs. And Kroll, who has described the nationwide protests over Floyd’s death as a “terrorist movement,” seems hell-bent on opposing changes that would put his officers at risk of discipline. Chief Arradondo, when asked if he believed that Kroll should step down, sidestepped the question but said he was having serious conversations with Kroll, and that Kroll was aware of his position. “Lt. Kroll has not been helpful in any way, shape, or form to generating accountability and measures of reform that we’ve been trying to see through,” Frey told reporters Wednesday. “And if we’re going to ignore the elephant in the room, we’re going to continue to not see the progress that is necessary to be made.”

The legal protections guaranteed to Kroll’s union through its current contract are deeply entrenched in Minneapolis and around the country. “Police unions have gotten in their contract all sorts of provisions which make it difficult to investigate and fire officers guilty of misconduct,” says Samuel Walker, a professor and leading researcher on police unions at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. These provisions are so strong that officers may feel immune to discipline: One study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that complaints of violent misconduct by Florida sheriff’s offices jumped about 40 percent after deputies won the right to unionize and gain collective bargaining protections.

In Minneapolis, one of the biggest hurdles to firing cops is a guarantee enshrined in state law and the city’s union contract: that officers can appeal their firing to independent arbitrators, who can reinstate them to their jobs with back pay. Cops in many states do the same. In Oakland, California, arbitrators in 2011 overturned the firing of Hector Jimenez, an officer who shot two unarmed men in the same year; he shot one of them in the back three times. Last year, an arbitrator reinstated a University of Minnesota cop who was accused of choking a woman who’d kicked his car while he was off duty; he denied the allegation, though her collarbone was bruised, and he admitted to getting into her personal space during an argument.

In fact, it’s exceedingly common for firings to be overturned. In a national study of 92 cases between 2011 and 2015, a University of Minnesota researcher found that arbitrators sided with the fired officer nearly half the time. From 2006 to 2017, about 70 percent of fired officers in San Antonio were reinstated after arbitration, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Sixty-two percent got their jobs back in Philadelphia, and 45 percent in Washington, DC. In St. Paul, Minnesota, another analysis showed that nearly half did. “It’s an emotional issue among police chiefs. To do the hard work of firing an officer and then have the arbitrator hand them back to you, it’s infuriating,” says Walker. Arradondo, the police chief, echoed this sentiment: “There is nothing more debilitating to a chief, from an employment matter perspective,” than when a fired officer is reinstated, he told reporters Wednesday. Arradondo added that his legal advisers would examine how to reform parts of the union process dealing with the arbitration process. Frey said that advisers would also consider whether state law concerning arbitration should be revised.

A review of police union contracts in 81 of America’s 100 biggest cities found that at least 48 cities allowed officers to appeal disciplinary decisions to an arbitrator, according to Campaign Zero, a data-driven activist campaign to reform police departments. This isn’t too surprising: Arbitration is a benefit that’s afforded to many government employees, not just police officers. But when it comes to police, the stakes are drastically different, because unlike teachers or firefighters, cops can use deadly force on the job. When an arbitrator returns a fired officer to work, it means a person whom a police chief deemed unfit for duty now has that state-sanctioned power to kill once again.

So why are so many arbitrators siding with cops? One major reason, including in Minneapolis, is that they’re often bound by precedent. If an officer shoots an unarmed man, an arbitrator might overturn his firing if another officer engaged in similar misconduct in the past but wasn’t fired. That’s problematic when you consider that police departments around the country have a long history of not punishing officers who use excessive force. In the case of George Floyd, it’s possible an arbitrator would look back to 2010, when another Minneapolis police officer restrained a man named David Cornelius Smith for four minutes by holding a knee to his back, even after he stopped breathing. Smith died of asphyxia, and the officer was never disciplined.

If negotiations with the union proceed, some activists want the city to prohibit arbitrators from relying so much on precedent. “We proposed a reset mechanism, stating that we’re only going to look forward now,” says Pete Gamades, who co-leads Minneapolis for a Better Police Contract, an advocacy group that put forward recommendations for a new contract last year. “We’re not going to look back at how discipline was handled in the past. They could start a new benchmark of what the appropriate discipline would be.”

But even if that problem were fixed, there are other issues. When an officer is accused of misconduct, the union’s contract requires the police department to provide the officer with documentation at least two days before asking the officer to make a formal statement, giving him or her ample time to come up with a story or justification for what happened. The contract also prohibits the department from recording misconduct in an officer’s personnel file if the officer was not disciplined. (And in Minneapolis, less than 1 percent of misconduct complaints filed by the public have led to discipline since 2012.) What’s more, the contract doesn’t cap the number of hours that officers can work as off-duty security guards for private companies that pay them directly, something activists fear could lead to exhaustion that impairs their judgment. In 2017, for example, after an officer named Mohamed Noor shot and killed a woman approaching his patrol car to report a rape, investigators learned he had gone on patrol that night after working seven hours off-duty at a Wells Fargo branch.

Community activists are also pushing for transparency in contract negotiations, which have traditionally been held behind closed doors. When bargaining sessions began last October, members of Minneapolis for a Better Police Contract wanted to attend, but the union requested that the meetings go into private mediation. Shut out, the activists filed records requests asking for information about what proposals had been made; the records never came.

Contract negotiations stalled during the pandemic, and it’s unclear when they will resume in the wake of Floyd’s killing. The police department and the mayor’s office did not respond to questions from Mother Jones about how the process would be affected by the city council’s goal of defunding and dismantling the department, or the chief’s decision to pull out of bargaining. And council members speaking with reporters on Monday did not say whether they planned to continue working toward reforms with the union. “I’m really gonna want to lean into this public process, and that might mean we move forward with this bargaining unit, but it might mean we don’t move forward with this bargaining unit,” Ellison said. “In the very least, we need a clear, transparent public process for negotiation,” added Bender, the council’s president.

If the council proceeds with its plan to defund the police department, Minneapolis would be the biggest city to do so, but not the first. In 2012, the city of Camden, New Jersey, disbanded its police force because it could not afford to put enough officers on the street and pay them the salary required under their union contract. Instead, the city shifted policing over to a countywide force. Before doing that, it negotiated with the old union members and offered to rehire them all if the union promised not to sue over the dismantling of their department. The union rejected the offer and sued, unsuccessfully. The city then said it planned to rehire less than 50 percent of the old officers to the new force, so that it could scrap the former union contract under federal labor law.

While Minneapolis council members plot their next steps, they appear to be hoping for a more radical outcome than replacing one police force with another, as Camden did. On the call with reporters, they emphasized a need to build up public health responses to emergency calls in the city—for example, by getting social workers to respond to certain types of complaints, rather than armed officers. Asked whether Minneapolis could scrap its union contract by firing the police department and how the courts might respond, Ellison said the council was weighing its options. “Look, we are entering into, as far as the country is concerned, unchartered territory,” he told reporters. “And so I have no doubt there are gonna be forces that work incredibly hard to maintain the status quo…I think that can’t be a deterrent for us.” Council member Phillipe Cunningham said that regardless of what happens with the union contract, he did not envision “rehiring the police department, even if it’s under different rules,” because “that fundamentally still does not change the system of policing and public safety.” 

Because the mayor, not the council, has direct control over the police department, Gamades of Minneapolis for a Better Police Contract suspects negotiations with the union will continue after the chief’s advisers complete their review of the contract. He hopes the council will veto any agreement that doesn’t include major reforms. In past years, he says, the council has rubber-stamped union contracts without pushback; in 2017, council members approved the agreement after reading a short summary, rather than the entire thing. This time, as people across the country protest Floyd’s death and police violence against Black people, council members appear to be fully making use of their leverage over the bargaining process. And their opening offer—to completely defund the department—shows they’re not here to play games anymore.


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