New Philly police union contract falls short on disciplinary reform

New Philadelphia Police Department officers being sworn in - from the PPD website

New Philadelphia Police Department officers being sworn in - from the PPD website

After a month of hushed negotiations, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has reached a new three-year contract with the Philadelphia police union.

In a press release Tuesday, the administration trumpeted the final agreement, which includes increased contributions to the city’s anemic pension fund and also maintains the in-county residency requirements for uniformed officers.

Not mentioned in the release: a single change to the contract’s language regarding officer discipline.

Amid a pitched national debate on police misconduct, there has been little protest from police reform advocates since contract talks began in July with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the city’s second-largest union, which represents the majority of its 6,300 police officers. Press coverage was also scant. City&State PA reported on the few calls made to reform arbitration practices in the police contract — and how even those were met with a tepid response.

Thanks to notoriously officer-friendly arbitration policies currently in place, officers who are terminated from the force — for everything from aggravated assault caught on video to wide-ranging federal corruption scandals — may be reinstated and receive back pay behind closed doors, regardless of community opposition.

Over the years, accountability advocates in Philly and across the country have pointed to the language of the police contract that gives the FOP outsized influence over the grievance process, as well as in the handling of officer-involved shootings. While cities like Philadelphia have made progress in other ways, advocates argue that police contracts provide the most protection to officers accused of misdeeds.

The sole discipline-related amendment in the new contract stipulates that reinstatement will be “contingent upon the employee completing all conditions of employment.” Those conditions were not immediately clear in the arbitrator’s award letter.

Asked for clarification, Kenney spokesperson Lauren Hitt said that in order to get reinstated, officers must now meet three conditions: complete a medical exam that includes psychiatric and drug tests; complete a state-certified physical fitness test, which includes proving competency to carry a firearm; and hold a valid Pennsylvania driver’s license. 

In the past, Hitt said, the city had to “beg” arbitrators to ensure that reinstated officers can clear these seemingly commonsense checks.

Reform advocates were hardly calling this a victory.

Democratic district attorney nominee Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who has previously sued the city over police misconduct, reviewed the new contract at the request of a reporter.

“It appears that the arbitration process once again has not introduced a level of accountability that would be appropriate for police officers,” Krasner told Philly Weekly. “The terms of this contract will directly impact everyone in this city, yet it is a result of a process carried out in secrecy, designed to shut out public input that could improve it.”

Beth Grossman, who is running for district attorney on the Republican ticket with an early endorsement from FOP Lodge 5, noted via email that the district attorney’s office “plays no role nor has standing in police discipline, arbitration actions or contract negotiations.”

Krasner and the FOP have had an adversarial relationship for years, although the two reportedly made some amends after the May primary election. FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby could not be reached for comment on the new deal.

Penn Professor David Rudovsky, who has also sued the city over police misconduct in the past, said he didn’t have time to review the new contract extensively, but “it does not appear that any changes were made with respect to police accountability issues.”

Asa Khalif of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania did not return a request for comment.

Pressed for an explanation on the disciplinary shortcomings of the contract, Hitt cited Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross’ testimony before City Council this spring when he warned advocates to be “cautiously optimistic” of such reforms.

“The chances of winning any more extensive reform on this issue through arbitration is incredibly small,” Hitt said.

But Hitt also said that the reinstatement process is less common than most people think. Between 2012 and 2016, 85 officers were dismissed from the force and only 9 were reinstated, she said, but “in some cases, people are rehired because we didn’t do a good enough job of proving our case to the arbitrator.”

However, the issue has been documented for years at length. Media reports indicate that at least 19 disgraced officers were reinstated between 2008 and 2014 — many of them in high-profile cases involving corruption and police brutality. Long-term statistics were not immediately available.

Hitt pointed to the city’s successful opposition to loosening residency requirements for unionized officers. The new contract, which extends through 2020, will continue requiring new officers to reside in the city for their first five years and to remain in the state for their entire tenure with the force.

Totaling $245 million, the current contract will guarantee Philly officers annual raises of about 3 percent for the next three years. The largest fiscal changes in the new contract deal with the union members’ increased contributions to the city’s ailing pension fund. While the Kenney administration was not able to secure its preferred pension plan model — which was successfully negotiated DC33, the city’s largest union — officials still expect to meet long-term goals of funding the pension. 

Kenney has signed off on the new contract, Hitt confirmed.

Max Marin is a reporter for Philadelphia Weekly, where this story first appeared.