Police unions are once again under fire for allegedly “protecting bad cops” because of the supposed “code of silence” said to exist among police agencies across the nation coupled with the myth of police officers targeting and “hunting down” people of color, which we have heard about in the wake of high-profile use-of-force cases within the past year.
Police labor organizations exist for three primary reasons:
- Negotiations of wages, benefits and working conditions
- Representation in the areas of discipline and grievances
- Legal defense access coverage in the event of a use-of-force or critical incident, including:
˚ In-custody deaths
˚ Officer-involved shootings
Politicians and media outlets often refer to elected police union board members, including myself, as ‘union bosses.’
Where collective bargaining is allowed, unions negotiate what their members can expect in exchange for working for their agency and enter a contract with the employer. Our contract is referred to as a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU. Basic items of bargaining include wages, benefits and work schedules, but may also include agency, association and officer rights, plus additional compensation for a variety of topics. Under our MOU, overtime, working weekends or other than day shift, standby, call-out, court standby and court overtime, levels of education and training, linguistic skills, uniform, clothing and equipment allowances, off-duty employment, and educational reimbursement are all compensable topics which have been negotiated for over the past 45 years PLEA has been in existence.
PLEA is the certified bargaining unit for all rank-and-file Phoenix police officers and detectives, referred to by the City as “Unit 4.” PLEA, and only PLEA, can represent them with regards to negotiating the MOU, during investigations where misconduct is alleged, and filing grievances when their MOU rights are violated. Dues-paying members have the extra benefits of assistance with filing grievances, representation during the disciplinary process, criminal legal defense coverage for critical incidents and access to attorneys to handle discipline appeals. Unit 4 members who choose not to pay dues or don’t want PLEA to be involved in these types of cases can obtain an attorney of their choice, but PLEA is under no obligation to pay for the attorney or any fees associated with the services provided by that attorney.
Politicians and media outlets often refer to elected police union board members, including myself, as “union bosses.” They equate us to the Mafia Dons, who have had their hands in businesses like trucking, loading and unloading cargo ships, construction and demolition, and trash collection. In the area in New Jersey where my family is originally from, we had union bosses like that. Growing up and into adulthood, I heard stories from my grandparents and my parents about them and the things they did. In July, when I was visiting my parents, my dad told me stories about incidents involving union bosses during his employment as a laborer and manager in the metal can manufacturing industry before he left to open his own business. No police labor organization head would have ever gotten away with what a few of those union bosses did; some of their activities included crimes like extortion, loan sharking, illegal gambling and theft.
As public employees, police officers, including union officials, are subject to following rules and laws set forth by the state, county or municipality they work in. They include administrative regulations, personnel rules and agency work rules like our Operations Orders. Violating the law or any of those rules is considered misconduct, which may result in discipline, up to and including termination, depending on the severity of the violation. Employees represented by a union have Weingarten Rights, meaning if the employer is investigating, and it can result in discipline, the employee has the right to have union representation during that interview. If a work rule violation is sustained, the employee also has the right to a disciplinary hearing and an appeal process if discipline is deemed to be excessive for the level of the violation.
Lately, in the media, I’ve read accounts where several “professional police chiefs” chimed in on the inability of police agencies being able to fire “problem employees.” These are chiefs who left the agency they grew up with and move around from agency to agency, much like some of the very problem employees they talk about. While they may have amassed a wealth of knowledge overseeing various agencies, my own personal opinion is that because they have been in executive management positions for so long, they are far removed from the reality of what the street cop has to deal with every day. While they may claim to know policy, I’d like to know the last time they actually had to interact with a combative suspect while making an arrest. Better yet, when did they last attend and participate in their agency’s in-service training with the rank and file? I’m referring specifically to #8859 firearms drills and qualifications, decision-making in a use-of-force simulator, stress inoculation drills, hands-on arrest/defensive tactics refreshers, driver’s training, and tactical scenarios like traffic stops, building searches, active shooter and mental health crisis hostage situations. My belief is while they may review and approve the training, they don’t actually participate because of their positions.
What many of these chiefs, politicians and members of the public fail to take into consideration when it comes to terminating these so-called problem employees is due process and just cause. Due process simply means if an employer is going to terminate an employee, there are certain procedures that must be followed. Just cause means there are specific standards that must be met before that employee can be terminated.
One thing that PLEA has consistently seen in the 45 years that we have been around representing Phoenix police officers is the subpar quality of some administrative investigations conducted by our Professional Standards Bureau. I think back to my time in the academy as a police recruit where we were told what must be included in any police report: facts. Who, what, when, where, why and how, were the basic elements, and it was equally important to include information that could potentially eliminate or exonerate a suspect’s involvement in the incident. We were also told to keep personal feelings and opinions out of it unless you could substantiate your point with facts. This was all reinforced during field training, and failure to write a detailed, accurate report resulted in plenty of red ink on the draft prior to it being corrected, then finalized. In the courtroom, the result of poor report writing was getting your ass handed to you by a defense attorney as they picked your report apart paragraph by paragraph.
When PSB investigates, the involved employee gets a draft copy to review and is afforded the opportunity to participate in the Investigative Review Process (IRP) within 21 days of reviewing the draft. I’ve lost track of the number of times where PLEA has attended IRPs, and some of the investigators felt like that rookie officer in court because of flaws in the investigation, including blatant exclusion of exculpatory evidence, or inflammatory comments based on opinion. Yet, in many of those cases, PSB refused to make changes to the draft and finalized it.
When officers went to the Disciplinary Review Board, there were members of the board who recognized one-sided investigations and made recommendations that either discipline should be reduced to a lower level, or there shouldn’t be any discipline at all. When a chief moved forward with what PLEA believed was excessive discipline or an unjust termination, the case moved to the Civil Service Board. While there were instances where the board upheld the chief’s recommendation, there were plenty of instances where the board reduced discipline and/or reinstated employees.
Nobody dislikes a bad cop more than a good cop, and throughout our existence, PLEA has walked many employees out the door and helped them surrender their AZ POST Certification. However, when a member’s due process rights were violated, or PLEA believed their discipline was harsh or unwarranted for the level of misconduct, we fought to have that discipline reduced to a level commensurate with the policy violation. As humans, police officers aren’t perfect and will make mistakes. When you have a policy manual of 1,300-plus living, breathing pages that are constantly in flux due to politics, changes in case law, new equipment and technology, updated training and internal processes, officers are bound to violate policy at some point in their career. The difference is whether that violation was deliberate or a mistake of the heart. When an officer deliberately violates policy and doesn’t have a valid or justifiable reason for doing it, then the appropriate discipline should be meted out. If that discipline results in termination, the affected officer can use their appeal rights to see if the decision can be changed.
Absent a dedicated public relations spokesperson, you rarely hear about the philanthropical activities police labor organizations participate in, either through in-house organizations like PLEA Charities or in conjunction with others. PLEA Charities evolved from a long line of charity golf tournaments, starting with one held in honor of fallen Phoenix Officer Patrick Briggs, who was killed in an on-duty motorcycle crash in June of 1990. Over time, the tournament morphed into Tuition Assistance For Police Survivors (TAPS), a scholarship fund for children of Phoenix police officers killed in non-line-of-duty deaths. Once TAPS became self-funded, PLEA Charities became our primary nonprofit, dispersing most of the funds to families of police officers killed or seriously injured in the line of duty. Those funds helped sustain families with covering their expenses until federal benefits were paid out. PLEA Charities’ board decided that community members also needed assistance, so it became a two-pronged approach, providing for police and caring for the community.
Since its inception, PLEA Charities has disbursed over $1.3 million to families of fallen and injured officers and officers enduring family tragedies. My last article mentioned PLEA’s involvement with the Police Cadet Program, and we have also assisted community members who have fallen on hard times. For the past decade, we have facilitated the annual Shop with a Cop program for children in low-income, high-risk families, and until we had to taper things back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PLEA ran a back-to-school program for schools in low-income neighborhoods, primarily in West and South Phoenix. Students received backpacks with school supplies, and teachers received classroom supplies. The irony is that many of these students live in #8883 city council districts where elected representatives have shown little or no support for the Phoenix Police Department. They are Betty Guardado (District 4), Laura Pastor (District 5) and Carlos Garcia (District 8). Regardless of political differences, PLEA Charities will continue to support less fortunate members of our community to bring hope into their lives when there is despair, and encourage them to be productive members of our society.
Above all, PLEA will continue to advocate for our members, standing up for them when they have been wronged, and having them acknowledge and accept when they were wrong, with the caveat that they learn from their mistake and will do their best moving forward to not let it happen again. For those who take issue with problem employees who allegedly “game the system” to retain their jobs, PLEA suggests that investigators do a better job. That includes abiding by the MOU and not violating the employee rights laid out in it, conducting fair, impartial investigations, based on facts, not conjecture, and understanding that an allegation is just that until it has been proven. PLEA would also suggest that politicians and citizens have a better understanding of the terms, “just cause” and “due process,” because when you take our uniforms off, we are American citizens with the same constitutional rights as every other American, and are just as deserving of those rights, which incidentally, we took an oath to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.