Laws, contracts can give police buffer after fatal shootings

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CHICAGO (AP) — After fatally shooting a black teenager 16 times, white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke had the option of taking a day or two before internal investigators could interview him. Many cities stipulate a 48-hour wait. Officers in Baltimore get more — 10 days.

The waiting periods are among the shields specially tailored for officers under union contracts, state laws and departmental directives. Unions defend them, citing uniquely dangerous jobs requiring split-second decisions. Critics say they can give officers time to craft narratives favorable to themselves and must be scaled back if officers are to be held truly accountable when there's wrongdoing.

That authorities charged Van Dyke with murder only after 13 months had passed since he shot Laquan McDonald, and with compelling video evidence available earlier to investigators, has emphasized how powerful police unions lobbied to get and keep police protections that are little-known to the public and usually unavailable to the civilians police deal with.

"There is something particularly problematic with the fact that the privileged group of suspects here is the police," said Katherine Levine, who teaches at New York University School of Law. "This preferential treatment leads those outside the justice system to doubt its legitimacy."

Other protections include the mandated destruction of complaints against officers in some cities and bans on launching inquiries on the basis of anonymous complaints. Maryland and more than a dozen other states enshrine officer-friendly provisions in state legislation, known nationwide as the "Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights."

A general counsel to the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police defended the police protections before a legislative panel after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a broken neck while being transported in a police van.

"(Officers) take great risk of life and limb for very little money, and they are certainly entitled to some fair process before you take away their jobs, tarnish them, and have them and their families suffer the consequences," Herb Weiner said.

Protections for officers don't typically apply once an officer's actions are deemed potentially criminal. But internal investigators play crucial roles in determining if an officer may have committed a crime and whether prosecutors should be notified.

Protests calling for change in Chicago followed the Nov. 24 release of the video showing Van Dyke shooting as McDonald walked away, carrying a 3-inch knife that appeared to be folded. It isn't clear when Van Dyke spoke with investigators.

Some reformers say the city's collective bargaining agreement with police needs to change.

"It's shameful that cities, including Chicago, have bargained away the public's right to transparency and accountability," said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and reform advocate.

Among the provisions being questioned is one that officers not shown existing video of some alleged misconduct before being interviewed can't be disciplined for lying even if it becomes clear later that they did lie. In Chicago, complaint records are supposed to be destroyed after five years, precluding investigators from spotting an officer's history of bad behavior.

Dean Angelo Sr., president of Chicago's 17,000-member police union, defends the records destruction, saying officers are susceptible to false complaints.

"If you have complaints that are never substantiated, why should they have an infinite shelf life?" he said.

The most hotly debated protections are the waiting periods. Many are set at two days under the theory that a couple nights of sleep helps restore an officer's memory, especially after the trauma of a fatal shooting.

Samuel Walker, a Nebraska-based criminologist, says that's a "self-serving" view that research doesn't support. The privilege of delayed investigations isn't extended to suspected criminals, who he said might also claim flawed memories after a traumatic event.

Levine notes other provisions include that those questioning officers avoid abusive language and allow them bathroom breaks — thus avoiding tactics from the "confession-inducing playbook these same officers use when questioning civilian suspects," she says.

Any drive to pull back the provisions will face major obstacles.

Federal civil-rights probes, like one begun of the Chicago Police Department, usually result in detailed court-enforced settlements. But the federal government has no authority in most cases to force changes in collectively bargained contracts or state law, said Jonathan M. Smith, a former senior litigator in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.

That likely leaves it up to reformers to lobby lawmakers. Some Chicago aldermen say they intend to push for changes in the city's police contract as it expires in 2017.

Dean noted that aldermen unanimously approved the contract in 2014: "We did not hoodwink the city of Chicago."

Alderman Howard Brookins Jr., who represents a predominantly African-American area of Chicago, said the city council could only approve or reject the contract in its entirety, so he reluctantly voted 'yes.' But after protests over McDonald's death, he says his constituents are demanding more police accountability and he vows to scrutinize the next police contract.

"Public sentiment," he said, "is on the side of reform."


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