Police have their own ‘bill of rights,’ raising questions about accountability

Illinois is among 14 states that has a police "bill of rights," a law that grants police special protections in criminal and other investigations.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Illinois is among 14 states that has a police "bill of rights," a law that grants police special protections in criminal and other investigations.

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.

“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.

Uniform Peace Officers’ Disciplinary Act (Police “bill of rights”) (Text)

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.

Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Contract (Text)

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.”

  • PatriciaDonalds

    ~ Our good, brave, honest police officers and agents with integrity deserve not only better training and standards, but leaders that lead by good example in their agencies for their officers to follow. It is up to the management to weed out the bad apples and when one of their own breaks the law or their own code of conduct or ethics, or even a mistake, it is their superiors that have to take responsibility and hold them accountable. The lives of all law enforcement officers are in their care. As are the lives of the public. People want the Truth.

    ~ Bad cops lie, falsify reports, plant evidence, use excessive force, flat out lie under oath in a court of law. And never even blink.

    ~ And good ones sometimes feel like they have to also and break their own code of ethics and conduct to cover for the bad ones. Or otherwise be labeled a rat and face retaliation. If any officer breaks the Law, Code of Conduct or Ethics, he should not be shielded by the Police Bill of Rights.

    ~ What is more concerning and a national security threat, is what the bad apples do off duty, or on duty but off camera……………….?

    ~ Yes, polygraphs can be beat. Yes, the are inadmissable in court. Yes, they are only as good as the examiner. But if used as a tool to weed out the bad apples, and protect the good cops, maybe they would think twice before breaking the very laws they were sworn to uphold.

    ~ All Levels of Law Enforcement have for decades felt that the polygraph is a much needed and essencial part of the hiring process. Why not change Policy that Polygraphs and Psych Evals for new Hires expire every 5yrs? (Including applicants for higher ranking positions)

    ~- National Institute of Ethics: Police Code of Silence – Facts Revealed http://www.aele.org/loscode2000.html

    ~ What Happens When an Officer Calls Out Police Corruption Within His Force? http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1221825-what-happens-when-an-office… via @epochtimes

    ~ The Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project http://www.policemisconduct.net/

    ~ Police Misconduct and ‘Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights’ Laws | Cato @ Liberty http://www.cato.org/blog/police-misconduct-law-enforcement-officers

    ~ Center for Investigative Reporting ~ “Crossing the line: Corruption at the border” – http://bordercorruption.apps.cironline.org/

    ~ DoD: Random Lie-Detector Tests Increase Personnel Security https://sm.asisonline.org/Pages/dod-random-lie-detector-tests-incre… (“the polygraph is the single most effective tool for finding information people were trying to hide.”)

    ~ Federal, State and Local Governments (including police) are excluded from the Polygraph Act of 1988. http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs36.htm

    ~ Break the Code. Break the Culture.

  • Melissa

    Thank you for getting their dirty little secret out I have been trying to tell people for years! The injustice lies within the system, it starts with the lying testimony and or falsified evidence, then it moves to the corrupt DA”s office in which they trump up the charge and if you are poor you are appointed a corrupt Public Defender who intentionally sabotages your case, then by forced and or coerced plea deal you are sent up the river when you see the corrupt judge they sentence you to the max for sport, fun, and kickbacks from the privately owned prison system. This is why we have so many people incarcerated, more than any other country in the world it all starts with that first lying cop!

  • SouthSideSkeptic

    Everyone fails to understand that police officers are called upon to make split-second decisions while the media can take its time to twist facts in order to sell papers.

    All the hoopla over Michael Brown was for nothing. Keep hearing that he was unarmed. No mention of the fact that he was 6’2″ 290 lbs ex-high school football player.

    Even the most anti-police AG in history couldn’t find a basis to prosecute. Why? Because there was none. Like most police use of force incidents. Everyone whips out their cell cameras and starts recording 5 minutes into an incident but never catch the start.

    And as much as you may hate it, the police do have rights under the Constitution of the United States. As does anyone else. Even illegal immigrants.

  • carvelli3

    1.) Police in Maryland are ordered to answer all questions during internal affairs investigation interrogations. Failure to obey such an order equals disciplinary measures, including termination. The ten day period mentioned in the article is to allow the officers to obtain legal representation before they are questioned. They still have to answer all the questions and can’t invoke any right not to do so (lawyer present or not). Normal citizens can’t be ordered to answer any questions. Nor can they be forced to answer questions without legal representation. Police can be and are so ordered. After the ten day period is up, the police are ordered to answer all questions, representation or not. How would you like to find a lawyer to attend questioning with you in 10 days? Good luck finding one. The purpose of the law is to provide a fair legal and job environment free from political coercion and corruption by providing due process rights for the officers and giving them a limited chance (just 10 days, no more) to seek legal representation. Before this law existed, an officer could be ordered to answer all questions immediately or fired based on unsubstantiated complaints. Under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, an officer’s due process rights have to be followed; and standards are set regarding investigations and hearings. This prevents coercion and corruption and makes it possible to be an honest police officer and survive the law enforcement job environment. Without the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, coercion and corruption will rule.

    2.) There are no such protections in Maryland for police officers who find themselves the subject of a criminal investigation. The playing field and rules for criminal investigations is exactly the same for police in Maryland as for everyone else.

    3.) It’s illegal to compel a statement in a criminal investigation. That means that an officer’s compelled statement from an internal investigation can’t be used in a criminal investigation. However, everything developed in a criminal investigation can be used in an internal investigation. This is why the criminal investigation should always precede an internal investigation when possible (i.e. so that the officer under investigation can’t claim information he was ordered (compelled) to give was leaked to the criminal investigators).

    I hope this helps to clarify this topic, because I found the article a bit misleading and inflammatory.

  • Elisa

    Just felt like saying you all sound like a bunch of people who believe their own opinion and don’t ever want to listen to others experience. Each one of these replies comes across that way to me. I’m not sure if that is the case in fact, but all we ever really know is our side, and most of the time we get that wrong to.