Even as violence erupted in Baltimore days after the death of Freddie Gray, the police officers at the center of his death still had not explained how he suffered fatal injuries in their custody weeks earlier. A special Maryland law known as a police “bill of rights” gave the officers 10 days to respond to investigators – a protection that the average citizen doesn’t have.
Thirteen other states, including Illinois, have a similar law. In Illinois, police officers have a waiting period before they have to talk to investigators in response to complaints from citizens or even fellow officers. They also can get in writing key information about the investigation, including who will question them and what they’ll be asked.
Critics say Illinois’ 30-year-old law establishes two sets of rules – one for police officers and one for average citizens. And combined with police union contracts, which lay out further protections for officers, advocates for police reform say the law complicates efforts to address police misconduct in Chicago and elsewhere.
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“The protections are stronger than what you and I would enjoy in a criminal investigation,” said Mark Iris, president of the Chicago Police Board for 23 years. “Is any one of these things critical by themselves? No. Collectively do they add up to give an officer a big advantage? Yes.”
Police nationwide lobbied for the bill of rights laws in the aftermath of the civil rights movement as people organized against police brutality and demanded civilian review boards. Today, as protests against alleged police abuse take center stage, policing experts say officers are benefiting from rules they created decades ago.
Police “bill of rights”
Police officers shouldn’t be treated like average citizens because of the dangers of their job, said Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents local officers.
The police protections in the Illinois law are necessary because officers’ lives are on the line and because of false and unproven allegations against them, he said. “At some point in time, that person isn’t happy going to jail,” Angelo said. “The easy target becomes the police officer.”
The law applies to officers until they are charged, but investigations of police misconduct, especially excessive force and death cases, rarely result in charges.
Critics of the law say the protections give police an unfair advantage because they have time to prepare a statement and know in advance what they’ll be asked. Both impede prompt investigations of alleged misconduct.
Illinois differs from Maryland where officers have a 10-day waiting period before they are questioned in a criminal case. In Illinois, police establish the waiting period in their union contracts. Chicago police officers typically have two days before giving a statement.
The state law also allows police officers to receive a transcript of their interview with police officials sooner than the average citizen would. Under the union contract, an officer must receive a transcript or recording within 72 hours of an interrogation, and before any additional interviews.
“Let’s say a cop is called in for a subsequent interview,” Iris said. “It’s far easier to be consistent when you’re telling the truth. But when you tell a falsehood and have to do it on repeated occasions, you have to remember, ‘What lie did I tell last time?’ It’s easier with a transcript.”
Under the state law, a police officer has to be interrogated “at a reasonable time of day” and the officer has discretion about what is reasonable.
That’s not the case for civilians, Iris said.
“If it’s three in the morning and police need to speak with you about a shooting case — you’ll be at the police station at three in the morning.”
A history of police protections in Illinois
The story of Illinois’ police “bill of rights” starts in Chicago in the early ’80s with the Fraternal Order of Police.
In 1980, the FOP was elected to represent Chicago police in collective bargaining with the city. The union established its version of a bill of rights in its first contract with the city — and then ushered a law through the statehouse. The Illinois Police Association also backed the law.
A transcript from a 1983 debate in the Illinois General Assembly indicates that the office of Chicago’s top cop helped draft the state law. House Speaker Michael Madigan was among the sponsors, along with Rep. Roger McAuliffe, a former Chicago police officer.
Co-sponsor John S. Matijevich, a former Democratic representative from North Chicago, said police had a strong lobbying presence in Springfield to get the bill passed. Earlier that year, Matijevich had sponsored successful firefighters’ bill of rights legislation, following a strike by Chicago firefighters and a push by public employees to unionize. At the time, other states were passing similar laws.
“I can’t recall everything now,” said Matijevich, “but I was convinced that [police] needed a voice.”
State Sen. Sam Vadalabene, a Democrat from Edwardsville, sponsored the bill in the Senate.
In 1974, Maryland became the first state to approve a police bill of rights. The state laws gained traction amid a rising tide of police unions, which drove the measures around the country.
Samuel Walker, a scholar who consults with cities about policing practices, said the push for a bill of rights was in part a response to the civil rights movement and attempts to strengthen police accountability, including the establishment of civilian review boards.
“Police departments, mostly white at the time, resented accusations of discrimination and racism, and this was their defensive response,” Walker said. “They opposed almost every measure to improve police accountability. They still do.”
A federal police bill of rights remains a top priority for the national FOP, though so far legislation has been unsuccessful in Congress.
Walker emphasized that even where there aren’t state statutes with bill of rights stipulations, police have provisions in their union contracts “that shield officers from meaningful investigations of possible misconduct.”
The power of police unions
The Chicago police union’s contract with the city, which expires in 2017, spells out details that the state law leaves open. For example, the law says the delay period for an interrogation has to be “reasonable.” Under the contract, a police officer is given two days from the date of notification to meet with investigators. If someone has been shot, they must meet with investigators no later than two hours after notification of a request for an interview. The deadline can be pushed back if an officer claims he isn’t in mental or physical condition to be interviewed by the Independent Police Review Authority.
Angelo of the Chicago FOP said officers are questioned at the scene of an incident, including shootings, and have to give superiors their version of events. An official statement, however, could be several days coming.
“You kind of give an individual some time to cool off, or relax or compose themselves,” Angelo said.
Northwestern University professor Locke Bowman said dismantling the extra police protections in the law and union contracts is key to improving police accountability, but elected officials are reluctant to take on a powerful union.
“It’s a tough nut to crack in terms of state law,” said Bowman, executive director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. “It’s a tough nut to crack in terms of contract negotiations with the FOP, which has enormous clout that is greatly feared by every politician here.”
Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office agrees that the contract allows officers to skirt accountability. He said under the contract the department must destroy misconduct files after so many years, and the city has to pay to defend police officers in court and to pay for misconduct settlements, which topped $50 million in 2014.
“The community never has any impact to speak of with the contracts … and there are no public hearings,” Taylor said. “The community has no voice.”
Angelo said the FOP protects its officers from undue discipline or prosecution, just like any union would do for its members. He said how a police officer responds to an allegation of misconduct can follow him throughout his career.
“We are there to protect the officer’s rights,” Angelo said. “It’s just looked upon differently by people because it’s a police officer involved.”
But Iris said police have more protections than private sector and most public sector employees. “These protections have been pushed strongly by police officer unions,” Iris said. “They’re trying to make it more difficult to take action against their members, not to make it easier.”
The Chicago Reporter is a non-profit investigative news organization that focuses on race, poverty and income inequality.