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NAACP Legal Defense Fund Challenges Police Union Contracts

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The issue of law enforcement accountability has been top-of-the-mind for many Americans over the course of this difficult summer, especially after the deaths of a number of unarmed African Americans. And different groups have looked for answers about why this is happening and what can be done.

Well, now one of the nation's premier civil rights organizations, the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, has looked into the question of police union contracts. The group has developed a toolkit to allow activists and officials to consider changes in their own communities. Monique Dixon is the deputy policy director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and she's here with us now to tell us more about this.

Monique Dixon, thank you so much for talking to us. Welcome.

MONIQUE DIXON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, it seems clear that we've hit a tipping point in the willingness of many people to at least consider changes in how the police and law enforcement in general operates. But why focus on police union contracts? Why do you think this is important?

DIXON: Well, you know, we started considering police union contracts as well as state laws called Law Enforcement Officers' Bills of Rights in 2015 in the aftermath of the police custody death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md. And the reason we became interested in union contracts and state law is because days after Mr. Gray's death, city officials complained that several of the officers involved in the incident had not been interviewed. And they blamed the state Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights for the delay.

So in 2016, advocates went to the state legislature, persuaded legislators to change the law. And by reducing the number of days in which an officer had to obtain counsel and also increase the number of days that a person who was a victim of police brutality could file a complaint - and that experience as well as requests from activists across the country, you know, led to us researching contract and state laws to see how common those provisions were nationwide.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, I mean, you looked at 112 police union contracts for 82 of the largest cities in the country.

DIXON: Yes.

MARTIN: Are there some common threads or defining features, as briefly as you can?

DIXON: Sure. We found that of the 112 contracts we reviewed, 75 of them contain one or more provisions that could be used to delay the investigation of misconduct complaints or shield officers from discipline. And the most common provisions that we found was provisions that allowed officers to expunge discipline records.

Also, interestingly, the use of vacation or other leave in lieu of suspension - that was pretty common among the contracts we reviewed. So if you - an officer is found to have engaged in this conduct, they could just use their vacation time instead of being suspended, which to us, you know, takes the weight of incentive not to engage in misconduct going forward.

MARTIN: And to the point that you made earlier, you know, you highlight the fact that many departments allow or require that an officer have a representative with him or her if questioned. Why shouldn't people have a representative with him when they're questioned?

I mean, you just pointed out people are familiar by now with the concept of Miranda rights, that people have a right to remain silent, and they have a right to counsel. I mean, recognizing that law enforcement has greater responsibility than the average citizen does, should they have fewer rights? I mean, why shouldn't they be able to have a representative with them?

DIXON: They should. I mean, we support having a person's right to due process. What we do not support is a process in which an individual can delay to the point where they are - have an opportunity to consult with other officers to get their stories together. And we have seen that in instances across the country, where there is a police report which officers will submit describing a situation. And then a video comes out, and it's completely different from the report. And if there is a delay, there are more opportunities for that to happen.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, you engage with law enforcement all the time. Are you seeing a willingness on the part of people in law enforcement to consider these issues?

DIXON: Sure. I'm seeing a willingness of police commissioners and police chiefs in particular who are interested in taking a look at these - at the provisions because they too want to have officers in place who have the integrity and the mindset of service because policing is a public service. And that is why most recently, after the death of George Floyd, we're seeing more conversations about police union contracts and how it influences the investigation of complaints and the discipline of officers. And we're hopeful that this toolkit will influence those discussions.

MARTIN: That's Monique Dixon, deputy policy director and director of state advocacy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Monique Dixon, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DIXON: Thank you for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.