Seventeen. That is the number of complaints former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin had against him before he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, suffocating him and setting off a national protest movement over police brutality. While Chauvin is now charged with second-degree murder, we wonder why an officer with over a dozen complaints remained on the force.

The answer, in part, gets us to why the protests in our streets are not about a single officer or a single act of brutality. Rather, there is a history of mistreatment that has continued on even as reforms were passed and even as some departments made strides forward. Why is reform so hard to enact, you might wonder, even when there are reform-minded leaders?

Part of the answer is police union contracts. Across the country, those contracts include numerous clauses folded into the fine print to prevent officers from being disciplined or removed, even in the face of wrongdoing. As we work now to reform police departments and press for a culture of service where officers pause before using excessive force and even deadly force, we should take a harder look at the role of police unions in keeping bad cops on the force.

One place to start looking is the Police Union Contract Project, which tracks the contracts unions strike with major cities and states. And here we can see that Dallas is among the better cities. Dallas is just one of nine cities out of 81 of the largest cities in America with a police contract that does not contain “problematic provisions,” provisions that make it harder to discipline officers. Other cities in Texas, however, have such provisions. In Fort Worth, interrogations of police officers are limited to six hours, and an officer can’t be incentivized to answer questions. In El Paso, the city covers legal defense costs for officers under investigation. Houston affords officers greater access to statements against them than a member of the general public would enjoy when similarly being investigated for a crime.

Such rules exist outside of Texas as well, and some cities and states also allow officers to cede their investigation to binding arbitration – a process that has a history of putting problematic cops back on the street.

The point isn’t that police officers should face unreasonable scrutiny. The police should have the same protections that civilians have when they are investigated for crimes, including when they see the evidence against them, access to a lawyer and other normal protections in our criminal justice system. What they shouldn’t have is special protections. But our larger point is that, in essence, union contracts insert a third party into a personnel process that’s needed to hold abusers accountable and create a culture where abuse is not tolerated. That third party makes it harder to rein in small abuses and can even shield actions that are particularly egregious. The end result can be deadly, or create a perception of special treatment. And all of that erodes public trust in the police.

Recall the night then-DPD Officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean: Dallas Police Association President Michael Mata quickly arrived on the scene. He was able to visit privately with Guyger and even told an investigating officer to turn off the in-car camera system so he could speak to Guyger in private. It is hard to imagine Mata being able to act as he did that night absent the authority he carried as the leader of the Dallas police union.

We recognize that police officers have particularly dangerous and stressful jobs, ones that most of us cannot fully understand. Nevertheless, police unions have shown time and time again that they will unapologetically protect every officer, including the absolute worst offenders, from being held accountable for their misdeeds.

There should not be a third-party union between the investigation of a police officer and the investigators. Nor should unions hold power over commanders’ ability to discipline officers.

The killing of George Floyd is just a recent and stark reminder of why it is crucial that bad officers are quickly and appropriately dealt with, including being removed from the force when their actions demonstrate they can’t be entrusted with a position of public trust. Even with a reform-minded police chief in Minneapolis, an officer in that department still ended up killing a constituent, and three other cops nearby did not stop him. That’s clear evidence of a culture that needs to be uprooted.

Police unions are strong, and if we want to ensure that officers with numerous complaints against them are held accountable, we recommend starting with reviewing the merits of each provision of those union contracts.

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