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U.S. police union contracts: Main takeaways from Reuters analysis

(Reuters) - Police unions across the United States are keeping contract protections that make disciplining cops difficult even as public scrutiny and demands for greater accountability rise, a Reuters examination found.

FILE PHOTO: A member of the Rochester Police Department prepares for the start of protests over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, in Rochester, New York, U.S. September 4, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The news agency analyzed police union contracts signed or extended over the last five years by 100 of America’s largest cities. Reporters also examined 118 court and labor board rulings.

In addition to retaining protections won in earlier contracts, police unions in some cities gained new ones in recent negotiations that are helping fend off reform efforts.

Here are eight takeaways from our analysis:

* Contracts, state labor laws and court rulings have created a system that leaves it to the cops themselves, rather than independent investigators, to police their own conduct.

* Cities continue to cede these issues in labor negotiations with the unions. Reuters reviewed contracts renewed or extended over the past five years in 100 of the nation’s largest cities. Most -- 88 -- set strict limits on how civilian complaints are investigated or how cops are punished.

* At least 35 large cities have signed contracts since 2016 that give officers multiple days’ notice before they can be questioned about use-of-force incidents or civilian complaints.

* Contracts in 25 cities include language that neutralizes outside oversight boards by limiting who can serve on them, their access to department records or their ability to question officers.

* Even when cities want to change the way discipline is meted out, state labor laws that govern collective bargaining often stand in their way. These laws require cities to negotiate with public employee unions over any changes in working conditions. Among the conditions that must be negotiated are disciplinary procedures.

* Police unions often object to unilateral changes in disciplinary policy, and disagreements often end up before arbitrators or judges. Reuters found unions across the country have had broad success challenging city efforts to impose reform.

* Efforts to change state law to make it easier for cities to enact reform face hurdles across the political spectrum. On top of labor laws, both law-and-order Republicans and pro-labor Democrats in many states have approved “bills of rights” for police officers that expand protections for cops beyond what other government workers get.

* Unions also exert control over how communities are policed. Backed by the same state laws and court rulings that require cities to negotiate over discipline, unions have fought changes in where officers are assigned, who directs traffic, who catalogs evidence and who answers 911 calls, among other matters.

Reporting by Reade Levinson; editing by Janet Roberts and Blake Morrison

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