So far, Mayor Marty Walsh and most members of the Boston City Council have said all the right things in response to the national outpouring of grief and anger about police violence against Black people, and the abject failure of so many police departments to get abusive officers off city payrolls.
Now, as Walsh’s administration negotiates the next contracts with the four unions representing most law enforcement in the city, they need to demonstrate that commitment goes beyond words — by insisting on a transformative deal that overhauls police discipline in Boston and makes it easier for the city to fire officers who commit serious misconduct.
Officers like David Williams, who was twice found to have used excessive force but twice beat efforts to fire him. Officers like Timothy Kervin, who was found in 2007 to have scores of payroll violations but managed to remain on the force and is once again the city’s highest-paid officer.
Until Boston and other cities can get rid of bad officers, the culture of impunity that was revealed in Minneapolis — the culture that leads a police officer to believe that he can kneel on a Black man’s throat for nine minutes until he loses consciousness and dies, and suffer no consequences — will persist.
Boston should aspire to be a model city, where the public can trust that officers will be held accountable for misdeeds and abuse — not one where even officers with repeated disciplinary problems are allowed to keep their badge.
Granted, changing disciplinary procedures is a tall order, because state law puts municipalities at a disadvantage in contract negotiations with police unions. But the Walsh administration has to seize this moment — the old contracts expired Tuesday — to restore accountability. And city councilors, accustomed to skedaddling from confrontation with powerful municipal labor unions, play a critical role too; they must not vote to approve any contract without serious reforms.
Specifically, the single most important change elected officials should demand in the new contract is an end to the practice of allowing officers to appeal discipline, including terminations, to a third-party arbitrator.
On its face, arbitration might sound like a reasonable system. Yet the way that private arbitration works in practice is so slanted in favor of the union — arbitrators overturn about three-quarters of disciplinary actions imposed by the police commissioner — that it deters managers from even trying to impose appropriate discipline, which in turn fosters the culture of impunity that breeds more misconduct.
Worse yet, studies have shown that officers who are rehired after being terminated are more likely to reoffend. “A small number of officers are often the cause of a disproportionate amount of the misconduct within a police department,” says Stephen Rushin, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago who has studied the loopholes in municipal police contracts. “If you’re not able to remove those repeat offenders over and over and over, that makes it harder for you to engage in organizational change.”
That rigged system is no secret, and high-profile cases like Williams’s have shown how absurdly biased arbitrators are in favor of the union. Yet successive mayors have agreed to keep the arbitration system, in collective bargaining agreements that one city council after another has approved.
Other cities have disciplinary systems that are more balanced, while still preserving due process for accused officers. In Murrieta, Calif., for instance, the final appeal for disciplinary decisions is with the city manager. A police department spokesman told the Globe that the city has never been forced to rehire a cop who had been previously fired. Los Angeles has a Board of Rights, with a civilian representative, that hears disciplinary appeals.
Frankly, it does not make sense for police discipline even to be on the table during union negotiations — a change the state Legislature could make by narrowing the scope of permissible subjects in collective bargaining so that the city and the police unions could only bargain over salaries and benefits. Having a fair, transparent system for handling allegations of excessive force and other abuses is too important to public confidence in the police to be made into a bargaining chip.
But since, at least for now, disciplinary procedures are on the table in union negotiations, the city needs to insist on an end to the arbitration system. (Officers could still appeal their dismissals to a state civil service review board, which also needs reform at the state level.)
Boston should also fix other flaws with the current contracts. The Walsh administration has already pledged to close the loophole that has permitted officers to turn off their body cameras during overtime shifts. The city also needs to find a way to reduce overtime, so that the money can be used for other needs.
If the city and the unions fail to reach a deal, an impasse in negotiations could go to an arbitrator to settle. Cities typically try to avoid that at all costs, because contract arbitration, like disciplinary arbitration, is heavily slanted in favor of the union. But the arbitrator doesn’t have the last word: The final approval for a contract, negotiated by the mayor or handed down by an arbitrator, lies with the Boston City Council.
Councilors typically come under heavy pressure to approve collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the mayor, or decisions by arbitrators in the case of an impasse. And there is indeed something a bit unreasonable about expecting a union to negotiate with a mayor and then with 13 councilors. But councilors are elected officials. They can, and should, base their vote on any contract or arbitrator’s decision on whether it’s good for their constituents.
After weeks of protests, it’s hard to imagine how those constituents could be any clearer that they want reform. Yes, the state needs to do its part by taking discipline out of collective bargaining and reforming civil service laws. But the City of Boston can’t waste this opportunity to scrap the arbitration system that’s proved itself to be such a huge obstacle to the kind of police accountability the public demands. The protestors in the streets deserve nothing less.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.