By Sandy Malone and Holly Matkin
Washington, DC – The police union representing members of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) filed a lawsuit against the city and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on Wednesday to block part of the newly-passed emergency police reform law.
The lawsuit filed in federal court on Wednesday by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) took issue with provisions in the new law that made it easier to fire a Metropolitan police officer for disciplinary reasons, according to the DCist.
The union argued in its complaint that the new law effectively barred the FOP from negotiating disciplinary procedures for sworn officers in labor negotiations, preventing DC cops from protections enjoyed by thousands of other city employees.
“These reductions in our employee protections are a violation of our rights under the Constitution, particularly the guarantee of equal protection under the law to all citizens and groups,” the FOP said in a press release on Aug. 5. “The DC Council and the Mayor have enacted legislation that targets and discriminates against DC police officers.”
DC Police Union Statement on Federal Lawsuit Challenging the Elimination of Collective Bargaining Rights as Unconstitutional. pic.twitter.com/yb7CfCv76o
— DC Police Union (@DCPoliceUnion) August 5, 2020
The press release called some elements of the new law “catastrophic.”
“While the Union remains in agreement with many of the provisions in the law, there are recently enacted sections that are catastrophic to our employee rights and protections under the law,” the union said.
“The DC Council and the Mayor have enacted legislation that targets and discriminates against DC police officers,” the press release said. “There are more than 40 other labor unions that represent DC government employees in this city. Each of them has retained their rights under the law and have been excluded from this new Act.”
The union’s press release said that because the city council had prohibited debate on the new police reform measure, the FOP’s only recourse on behalf of officers was to file a lawsuit in federal court.
It also pointed out that the city has already begun suffering a mass exodus of officers since the legislation was passed.
The union said the recent police reform measures had hurt the department’s efforts to recruit new officer candidates, too.
The FOP said in June that nearly 75 percent of DC police officers were thinking about leaving the department after the council voted to pass the sweeping reform law.
The union said in a press release on June 18 that the council’s reforms will “have wide ranging negative impacts to the working conditions of police officers in the District” and will make it even more difficult to hire and retain new officers.
“Many of our members have voiced that the Bill eliminates collective bargaining rights for employees,” DC Police Union Chairman Gregg Pemberton wrote.
“It makes it exceedingly more difficult to charge a suspect with assaulting a police officer, it changes body worn camera policy in such a way that [it] can no longer be used as an evidence collection tool, and it changes the language in use of force policy in the most utterly confusing way,” the statement said.
Pemberton said that the use-of-force policy changes are now so convoluted due to the bill “that even the Councilmembers could not figure out the intent or the impact of the language.”
On June 16, the union conducted an anonymous survey involving nearly 600 members of MPD in order to gauge their thoughts regarding the police reform bill, according to its press release.
A whopping 96 percent of officers surveyed said they believe crime will increase under the new changes, and 88 percent said that they feel the measure decreases officer safety.
Ninety-three percent of respondents said they believe there will be an increase of disciplinary action taken against officers.
Nearly all officers – 98.7 percent – said they agreed with MPD Chief Peter Newsham when he declared that “the DC Council has abandoned the police,” according to the union.
Perhaps the most concerning finding from the survey was the revelation that a stunning 71 percent of MPD officers said they are considering leaving the department altogether.
Twenty-five percent of those who are thinking of quitting said they may now retire sooner than they originally planned, and another 35 percent said they are looking into working for other law enforcement agencies, according to the union.
The remaining 39 percent reported that they are strongly considering getting out of law enforcement altogether.
“The DC Police Union remains steadfastly committed to important discussions on police reform and is always willing to be on the cutting edge of responsible and professional policing,” Pemberton wrote, “but the idea that our department has systemic racism which manifests itself in brutality and civil rights violations is preposterous.”
Pemberton noted that the MPD “has been at the forefront of police reform” for the past two decades, often successfully eliminating problems that still exist in other cities.
“The language in the emergency legislation completely degrades the rights and working conditions afforded to police officers in this city,” the union chairman concluded. “This legislation will cause an exodus of our best police officers and make hiring and retaining qualified employees next to impossible.”
Under the DC Council’s emergency police reform bill, the names of officers involved in shootings must be released to the public along with their bodycam footage within 72 hours, NPR reported.
The city council announced it will also release bodycam footage from in-custody deaths dating back to 2014, and tasked the MPD with finding and notifying surviving family members about those video releases before the council makes them public on July 1, according to The Washington Post.
The measure banned police from using chokeholds and prohibited the department from buying any equipment from the federal government or using rubber projectiles, tear gas, stun grenades or riot gear when they are trying to disperse rioters, NPR reported.
The legislation also provided more “legal protections” for suspects who are asked to consent to searches.
Training requirements for police will be expanded under the bill, as well as the department’s authority to discipline officers and to fire them more easily.
The expanded discipline measures will enable the department to bypass the police union, which has historically played a major role in shaping the MPD’s disciplinary and appeals processes through collective bargaining, The Washington Post reported.
Under the bill, future contracts “should not be used to shield employees from accountability, particularly those employees who have as much power as police officers,” according to The Washington Post.
New contracts also cannot “restrict management’s right to discipline sworn officers,” according to the city council.
As a result, officers facing disciplinary measures will no longer be able to negotiate potential penalties, The Washington Post reported.
“We get accused all the time that we’re protecting bad cops or getting cops back on the force through some sort of loophole,” Pemberton told the paper. “That’s all rhetoric. The union helps manage the disciplinary process to make sure it is meted out fairly.”
Pemberton said that under the restrictions imposed by the city council, the police union will only be able to negotiate working conditions and salaries.
“The allegation that, somehow, police officers should not be entitled to the same employment rights as firefighters or nurses is preposterous,” he told The Washington Post. “We hope that cooler heads will prevail before there is an exodus of officers, who can easily go to other departments where their rights are protected.”
Under the new measure, felons incarcerated in the DC Jail will be given voting rights, and anyone accused of attacking or assaulting police must be given a jury trial, NPR reported.
The city council put additional restrictions on when police will be authorized to use deadly force, and ordered the creation of a 20-person Police Reform Commission.
The independent office tasked with investigation allegations of police misconduct will also be revamped, to include adding civilians to the board, The Washington Post reported.
At least one of those civilian members will have to have “personally experienced the use of force by a law enforcement officer.”
The bill also bans the MPD from hiring officers who have been accused of police misconduct while they were working for other law enforcement agencies, NPR reported.
The city council passed the bill unanimously, thereby enacting the changes for 90 days, The Washington Post reported.
The council will then be able to extend the changes for another 225 days following another vote.
In order to permanently implement the bill, the council will need to change the law by holding public hearings and a third vote.
Councilmember David Grosso unsuccessfully pushed the city council to impose a cap on the number of MPD officers at 3,500 – a move that would have cut 363 currently-employed officers from the force, NPR reported.
“In addition to the thousands of federal law enforcement personnel which create an environment of over-policing, MPD has the highest number by far of officers per resident,” Grosso declared prior to the bill being passed. “Let’s not race to the top number of police officers in the country. Let’s put a limit in place now.”
Grosso, who has pushed to disarm police in the past, said he is “tired” of hearing calls for increasing the number of officers on the city’s streets, NPR reported.
He said he would much rather fully dismantle the MPD in order to “[start] from scratch” with a new department.
But other councilmembers said they would prefer to defund the department in order to reallocate funds to other programs.
During a radio interview in June, Pemberton said that it seems the entire country “has gotten drunk on the idea of police reform,” NPR reported.
“And if people don’t sober up real quick about this, there’s going to be a really nasty hangover,” the union leader warned.