The deaths of Alton Sterling this week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota have drawn national attention to the killings of black men and women by police officers. And as protests surrounding police brutality continue and the stories of Sterling and Castile remain in the public’s conscience, one of the looming questions is the fate of the officers involved: Will they be punished, at all, for their actions?
The data says most likely not. Despite committing heinous acts while on duty, police officers often receive no punishment, whether from a grand jury or an internal investigation. In fact, 97 percent of police violence cases in 2015 resulted in the officer facing no criminal charges.
In looking at the Baton Rouge Police Department specifically, there are a number of policies and regulations outlined in the BRPD’s police union contract and Louisiana’s police bill of rights that make it difficult for a police officer to be held accountable for actions of misconduct or use of excessive force — even when it results in the death of another person.
The BRPD, which unionized last year, has four policies in place that protect its police officers, two of whom were involved in Sterling’s death. These are the outlined policies, from Check the Police:
- Restricts/delays interrogations: Officer interrogations are limited to a “reasonable amount of time,” and allows for officers to take breaks to address “personal needs.”
- Gives officers unfair access to information: Any officer who has been interrogated in an investigation is entitled immediate access to a copy of the entire investigation record.
- Requires cities pay for misconduct: The city must shoulder the costs of misconduct settlements as well as provide legal defense. The city is also expected to indemnify any officer who is “sued in connection with activities occurring during the course and scope of his employment.”
- Erases misconduct records: “Sustained” complaints against an officer are erased after 18 months if no similar complaints are filed within that amount of time. Sustained violations are also expunged after five years. However, the removal of these complaints are subject to public records law.
Louisiana’s police bill of rights contains three similar provisions that ensure officer protection even more. There is a 30-day delay in an officer’s interrogation, during which the officer is meant to “secure representation.” During interrogations, officers are allowed breaks that are not offered to civilians. The vukk of rights also gives police officers special access to information similar to what is outlined in the BRPD’s union contract.
The police bill of rights has further guidelines on the erasure of misconduct records, in which an officer can have expunged from his personnel file any exonerated or unsubstantiated formal complaints involving domestic violence, criminal battery, and any violation of other ordinances or state statutes. This action can be done if the complaint was made anonymously and the claims were not substantiated within 12 months of the claim being filed. In addition, if any negative comments are made about an officer, the involved officer must sign off on those comments before they are entered in their personnel file.
Past reports from the BRPD further show how officers are often not held accountable for violent actions. According to 2014 data, there were 35 use of force complaints internally investigated by the BRPD. Within these complaints, 17 were not sustained, 12 were exonerated, one investigation was terminated, and five complaints were still pending. Not one investigation found that an officer had violated policy nor did any lead to charges against the officer.
In one example, a grand jury investigation spanning from 2011 from 2014 chose not to indict BRPD officer Christopher Magee for shooting and killing Carlos Harris. The shooting took place outside a nightclub, where police had handcuffed Harris’s friend and had asked Harris to move his friend’s car. At first, Harris objected, saying he was intoxicated, but police demanded he drive the car anyways. Harris proceeded to crash into several cars, leading Magee to fire bullets at the car and kill Harris.
The regulations in the BRPD’s union contract and the state’s police bill of rights may have already protected the two officers involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling. The two officers, who have been identified as Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni, have had four “use of force” complaints filed against them. According to internal affairs documents released Thursday, both officers were cleared in all complaints. The complaints came from three black men and a black juvenile, where one of the men was shot by police and the other three suffered injuries during arrests and in a vehicle during a police pursuit.
While there is no specific information found on the police department involved in Castile’s death, Minnesota’s police bill of rights contains three policies that deter the accountability of police officers. For one, officer interrogations are limited to a “reasonable amount of time” and gives breaks that are not also provided to civilians. The bill of rights also says interrogations must be held during an officer’s regularly scheduled work shift, and if they are not, the officer involved must be paid for the interrogation time. Similar to Louisiana’s police bill of rights, Minnesota officers are given immediate access to a complete copy or transcript of the recorded interrogation.
Minnesota’s police bill of rights also gives no discipline power to civilians, stating that a civilian review board, commission, or other oversight body does not have the authority to make a finding or determination in a complaint against a police officer or impose discipline on an officer. A civilian review board is only allowed to make a recommendation. Minnesota’s bill of rights legislation also prohibits any law enforcement agency or unit from releasing the identity of an officer to the public without his consent.
Details of these police union contracts and police bill of rights were compiled by Black Lives Matter activists this past year for Campaign Zero, resulting in a police contracts database called Check the Police. The data outlines ways in which police union contracts and police bill of rights legislation across the country protects officers and makes accountability more difficult.
“Beyond the rhetoric and the stuff they were doing to raise money for officers who had been charged or indicted, the question was: what more were police unions doing on a policy level to protect those officers and block accountability?” Sam Sinyangwe, one of the founders involved with Campaign Zero, told ThinkProgress back in December.
The policies present in Louisiana, Minnesota, and the city of Baton Rouge are reflective of widespread legislation that aids in the protection of police officers. Data from Check the Police, which looked at contracts in 81 major U.S. cities and police bill of rights in all 14 states where one exists, identified six primary areas that contribute to the difficulty of officer accountability: disqualifying misconduct complaints, preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately or restricting how, when, or when they can be interrogated, giving officers access to information civilians do not receive, limiting disciplinary consequences, requiring cities to pay the costs relating to police misconduct, and preventing information on past misconduct from being recorded retained.
The report found that 72 cities and 13 states imposed at least one of these six policies. In 63 cities and 12 states, three or more provisions were in place that proved an obstacle to officer accountability.
Celisa Calacal is an intern with ThinkProgress.