One Bill of Rights for You, Two Bills of Rights for Them

Congress wants to give police officers an additional bill of rights. Does this mean that they would have more rights than you and, if so, could that mean you’ll have even less rights than before?

wall-1Back when he was a senator, Vice President Joe Biden had a pet piece of legislation that he would try to ram through the senate year after year. This bill was the “Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights” which was an attempt to amend the Omnibus Crime and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Even though Biden is no longer a senator, his legacy continues as the congressional bill that is now called H.R. 1972, The Law Enforcement Officer’s Procedural Bill of Rights Act of 2009 which is now sponsored by Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Erik Paulsen (R-MN).

The legislation seeks to enforce a set standard for internal investigations and disciplinary procedures in all state and local law enforcement agencies. Essentially it limits how police departments can investigate cases of police misconduct and how they can discipline police officers found to have committed misconduct. The bill also contains a provision that would exempt disciplinary records from public records laws by forcing those departments to keep all personnel records sealed.

While the police union lobbyist organizations, like the FOP and NCPSO, try to suggest that this doesn’t give police officers more rights than the average person. However, it’s hard to see how this isn’t the case since average citizens do not enjoy a federally mandated set of procedures that tell their employers how they can and cannot investigate complaints and how they can discipline or fire their employees. This is especially true in “at-will” employment states where employment arrangements can be severed for any reason.

The introductory text of the bill asserts that it is designed to improve police accountability, however the actual language of the bill contains no provisions that  dictates any type of process that would improve accountability at all. In essence, it only gives police officers more rights and communities fewer rights in how they can police their own police.

Several states already have their own versions of a “police officer’s bill of rights” which grant law enforcement officers rights that are over and above a regular citizen’s. While these existing state laws would not be reduced to the federal standard, they do show how an additional bill of rights set aside just for police officers already prevents law enforcement agencies from disciplining officers who have committed acts of misconduct in the states where such a law has already been established.

For example, one of the states which currently gives police officers their own bill of rights in addition to the rights normal citizens enjoy is Louisiana where these rights were currently cited in the police brutality case of Angela Garbarino.

On November 17 of 2007 Shreveport Louisiana police officer Wiley Willis was conducting a videotaped interview with DUI suspect Angela Garbarino who appeared so inebriated that she apparently didn’t understand that she couldn’t leave the room or refuse the breathalyzer test the officer was attempting to administer. After a few minutes of the officer arguing with Garbarino the officer turns off the camera… and later turns it back on to show a handcuffed Garbarino on the floor in a pool of blood.

The officer was later fired after a polygraph appeared to show that his testimony to investigators about what happened was a lie but he appealed that termination to a civil service board. That board ruled this week that it found that the officer’s bill of rights was violated. As a result of that finding, Shreveport was forced to rehire Willis this week and give him a year and a half of back pay, benefits, retirement benefits, and any other compensation he would have received during the time he was fired…

In other words, thanks to that state’s police officer’s bill of rights, Willis got a great year and a half long paid vacation for his actions.

No criminal charges arose from the incident and while the FBI and DOJ both claimed that they were going to investigate the incident, no results of that alleged investigation were ever released. Garbarino won a $400,000 civil settlement from Shreveport and all charges against her were dropped for the broken nose and other injuries she suffered, but the video made the national news and severely damaged that city’s reputation.

Louisiana isn’t the only state with an additional set of civil rights it gives to police officers. California and Washington State also provide additional rights to police officers through their own “police officer bill of rights” legislation which force cities to seal records or keep the names of police officers secret during investigations.

Due to these additional rights, cities like Seattle Washington have to cede disciplinary process rights to collective bargaining processes which allows the police officers themselves to dictate how they may or may not be investigated and disciplined. In Seattle this has resulted in failed attempts to close loopholes the disciplinary process and a crippled disciplinary process that police officers can appeal at five different levels.

Clearly, these state police officer bill of rights laws severely limit the authority local agencies have over their police officers and act in ways that prevent localities from maintaining police discipline. Furthermore, because of this, not only do police officers have a set of rights that exist over and above those of ordinary citizens, this set of additional rights makes it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to protect the more limited set of rights for citizens against abuses by police officers.

In other words, not only do these laws give police officers more rights than the average citizens have, they also reduce the rights that citizens have by making it more difficult for police agencies to discipline bad officers, which only serves to encourage more abuse through a lack of consequences.

A national police officer bill of rights would enforce that standard across the nation and would lead to a severely increased rate of police misconduct and abuse, especially since this bill also forces localities to seal the disciplinary records of police officers, which would make it even more difficult than it is now to report on incidents of police misconduct and track them, which would reduce public pressure for police accountability reforms.

So, not only would such a bill increase the rights of cops at the expense of our own constitutionally protected rights, it would make it so that you never would know just how badly your rights had been reduced since police misconduct records would no longer be public record.

garbarinoWith such a bill, you could very well be the next Angela Garbarino and nobody would ever hear about it because the officer who did it to you would never be disciplined and any record of video associated with the incident would never be released.

Amended 8/17/09 01:28: Some analysis

The last time this bill came before congress in 2007 it failed to make it out of committee. While this bill is currently in the same committee, the membership of that committee has drastically changed and now three of that committee’s members are also 3 of the 41 members of congress that co-sponsored the bill last time it came out.

Additionally, 39 of the 41 members of congress who sponsored the last version of this bill were Democrats. But, now with Biden as VP and his party in the majority of the house and senate, it appears as though this new version of the bill stands the best chance in it’s history of actually passing and it appears doubtfull that President Obama would veto it since his own VP authored the original in 2003.