The problems of the teacher tenure system, especially in big cities where powerful unions defend members against dismissal, are familiar enough. Less well known is the newer, parallel–and arguably more alarming–rise of police and prison-guard tenure under what are known as Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR or LEOBOR) laws.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, for example, has blamed Maryland’s LEOBR law for frustrating the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Maryland’s law provides that after an incident superiors cannot question an officer without the presence of a lawyer of the officer’s choosing, and that officers have 10 days to line up such representation. Critics say that by the time those suspected of misbehavior have to commit to a story, they will have had ample opportunity to consult with others about what to say. Most of the officers present have cooperated with the investigation of Gray’s death, the city says, but at least one has not.
While the details of LEOBR laws vary from state to state, Mike Riggs’s 2012 account in Reason (“Why Firing a Bad Cop Is Damn Near Impossible”) cites these features as typical:
Unlike a member of the public, the officer gets a “cooling off” period before he has to respond to any questions. Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation is privy to the names of his complainants and their testimony against him before he is ever interrogated. Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation is to be interrogated “at a reasonable hour,” with a union member present. Unlike a member of the public, the officer can only be questioned by one person during his interrogation. Unlike a member of the public, the officer can be interrogated only “for reasonable periods,” which “shall be timed to allow for such personal necessities and rest periods as are reasonably necessary.” Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation cannot be “threatened with disciplinary action” at any point during his interrogation. If he is threatened with punishment, whatever he says following the threat cannot be used against him.
What happens after the interrogation again varies from state to state. But under nearly every law enforcement bill of rights, the following additional privileges are granted to officers: Their departments cannot publicly acknowledge that the officer is under investigation; if the officer is cleared of wrongdoing or the charges are dropped, the department may not publicly acknowledge that the investigation ever took place, or reveal the nature of the complaint. The officer cannot be questioned or investigated by “non-government agents,” which means no civilian review boards. If the officer is suspended as a result of the investigation, he must continue to receive full pay and benefits until his case is resolved. In most states, the charging department must subsidize the accused officer’s legal defense.
A violation of any of the above rights can result in dismissal—not of the officer, but of the charges against him.
Maryland was the first state to pass a LEOBR, in 1972, and by now many states have followed, invariably after lobbying from police unions and associations. Often the bills are sponsored by Republicans, who seem to forget their normal skepticism of public employees as an interest group when uniformed services are involved.
Prison and jail guards are often covered by these laws as well, and scandals of corrections administration (the state-run Baltimore jail had a huge one in which the Maryland LEOBR was implicated) are often hard to investigate because of the law’s barriers. Union contracts often add further layers of insulation from discipline. In its coverage of abuse allegations at New York’s notorious Attica prison, for example, the New York Times reported, “Under their union contract, corrections officers are obligated to answer questions only from their employers and have the right to refuse to talk to outside police agencies. State Police investigators attempted to interview 15 guards; 11 declined to cooperate.”
Aware of Baltimore’s long (and still-unfolding) history of police misconduct, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the state ACLU and other groups have called for a partial rollback of Maryland’s LEOBR. Yet its defenders are well organized, and reform bills never made it out of committee in the now-concluded state legislative session.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s House unanimously voted last year to enact a “Correctional Officers’ Bill of Rights”–as if this all were completely uncontroversial. It shouldn’t be.