Despite promise of data, police unions will likely stand in the way of reforms in Baltimore
The Baltimore Police Department plans to utilize a data monitoring system to track acts of misconduct. But it likely won't give rise to reforms thanks to the power of police unions.
A Baltimore police officer has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, providing yet another example of the widespread corruption within the department.
The plea entered by Steven Angelini, who The Baltimore Banner reported has been suspended since 2020, adds importance and urgency to the police department’s recently announced plans to create a data monitoring system to keep tabs on officer misconduct.
Unfortunately, there is little hope for the data system to spur meaningful reforms in response to crimes committed by cops such as Angelini thanks to one of the most powerful entities in local politics: the police union.
The Banner reported last week that the police department, one of the most crooked law enforcement agencies in the country, was approved for $2.5 million to ink a three-year contract with Chicago-based Benchmark Analytics.
The department’s history, however, undercuts any intentions to improve its standing in the public eye.
After all, does anyone expect the data to serve as a catalyst for reforms when police unions, which have incredibly powerful political sway in the U.S. thanks to deep lobbying coffers, would undoubtedly fight tooth and nail to keep officers out of trouble and on the force?
For some context, the recent plea on Monday, when Angelini admitted to trading the president of a motorcycle club oxycodone, information on a homicide and a ghost gun for cocaine, was far from an isolated act of wrongdoing.
Perhaps most notably, the department’s antics prompted nationwide protests after officers got off scot-free despite being responsible for the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a Black man who died while in their custody in 2015.
In a separate incident two years later, eight officers of the Gun Trace Task Force were charged with racketeering, robbery, extortion and other charges.
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In what has been considered the biggest scandal in the department’s history, the officers on the team meant to get weapons and drugs off the streets were later convicted.
Others were also convicted for covering up the GTTF’s crimes.
The recent push for a system to track cop data, after all, was a result of a consent decree spurred by the GTTF debacle in the first place.
It’s a no-brainer that using funds to hold the department accountable is a good use of money compared to what the dollars are typically appropriated for, especially based on its history.
But police unions, which are significantly different than the unions celebrated this past Labor Day, stand in the way.
Rather than fight for the fair treatment of workers, police unions have harnessed immense political power to ensure that officers stay on the force regardless of their actions.
These unions spend millions on campaign contributions each election cycle. Their presence is unavoidable, and the influence they have on local governments is immense.
Although publishing data tracking misconduct is an important step, that’s all it is.
Expecting systemic reforms may be a mistake, as studies that demonstrate the actual impact police unions and their intentions have demonstrated.
For example, a 2018 University of Chicago study of a Florida police union showed violent misconduct among sheriff’s deputies increased by about 40% after the state supreme court allowed deputies to unionize, The Washington Post reported.
The study found a surge in misconduct in relation to crimes such as sexual assault and excessive force, which the union made more difficult to detect and punish officers due to certain contract provisions.
Even if officers were disciplined, only 12 states at the time made those records public, a 2017 study published in the Stanford Law & Policy Review stated. Maryland did not make the records public until 2021.
The Post, in a 2017 investigation based on a study by Stephen Ruskin, an expert in criminal law and police accountability, also reported that "a stunningly high percentage of officers fired for misconduct are eventually rehired after a lengthy appeals process.”
In nearby Washington, D.C., 45% percent of the officers fired for misconduct between 2006 to 2017 were rehired after the appeal process.
The Post also found that the share was 62% in Philadelphia and 70% in San Antonio.
In a separate report based on a study by Ruskin of 178 police union contracts nationwide, about 88% “contained at least one provision that could thwart legitimate disciplinary actions against officers engaged in misconduct,” the news outlet reported.
With these studies, the takeaway is both clear and unfortunate, particularly for those who advocate for union representation in the U.S.
Police unions are in a position where the employees they empower are de facto arms of the State, and their goal is to protect officers regardless of the heinous crimes they commit when interacting with the general population.
As a result, it’s not only been proven they make it harder to detect misconduct — which would ostensibly distort any data about officers’ wrongdoing — but also get them off the hook when they are caught.
At the end of the day, many of them, if not the majority, end up back in a cozy position with a pension.
Once again, the Baltimore Police Department’s plan to create a database of misconduct is, theoretically, a benefit to anyone who wishes to hold its officers accountable.
But without drastic policy changes to curb the power of police unions, that data will fail to kickstart reforms that would hold to account officers who have sworn to uphold the law but fail to follow it themselves.