Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Why the next Philly police contract may not be negotiated behind closed doors

A group of activists are fighting to reform the Philadelphia Police Department through its collective bargaining agreement.

Philadelphia police union chief John McNesby, President of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #5, is shown on Sept. 4, 2019. As police contract comes up for renewal, several progressive groups are asking to have a say in shaping the new contract to effect police reform.
Philadelphia police union chief John McNesby, President of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #5, is shown on Sept. 4, 2019. As police contract comes up for renewal, several progressive groups are asking to have a say in shaping the new contract to effect police reform.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

After 2½ years, the Kenney administration and Philadelphia’s police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, are about to go back to the negotiating table.

But this time, in a conversation that’s bound to divide the city’s progressive left, a group of community organizers is turning the contract negotiations — which generally come and go without much public acknowledgment — into a fight for more police accountability.

“Every time we looked at an issue with regard to policing, it seemed to come back to the contract," said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, who is leading the campaign through the interfaith organization POWER. “If you’re talking about excessive use of force and issues of deescalation, well, that’s a contract issue. If you’re talking about bad cops being fired and miraculously getting their jobs back ... how does that happen? Well, they’re protected through the contract.”

Nearly three dozen groups, as well as eight of the 17 members of City Council, have signed a letter with recommendations to the mayor regarding what should be in the contract. At an event organized by advocates last week, Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey and District Attorney Larry Krasner urged Kenney to take the contract negotiations — as well as the appointment of a new police commissioner — as an opportunity to change a department that has long been marked by scandal.

The city and the FOP, which represents 6,000 officers, have declined to comment on their aims for the contract. Contracts typically run for three years.

How common is it to fight for change in the police through a union contract? Why is it such a touchy subject on the left? And could activists succeed?

We’ve got those answers.

What do they want?

The advocates’ main recommendations include:

  1. Reforming an arbitration system that often overturns police firings or discipline.

  2. Ending “stop and frisk" pedestrian and vehicle stops.

  3. Creating an oversight agency that has teeth.

  4. Requiring police officers to live in the city.

Changing the rules around grievance arbitration will likely be the biggest battle, according to a WHYY report.

» READ MORE: How a flawed system hid a Philly police commander's sexual misconduct for 15 years

How common is this?

In Philadelphia, it’s unusual for a group of advocates to target the police contract, since, as Billy Penn’s Max Marin noted, the pacts have historically been “negotiated behind closed doors — and without much fanfare.”

But these activists are part of a growing trend in police accountability that has roots in the Black Lives Matter movement.

This fall, advocates in Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis took up similar campaigns, calling for their elected officials to take a tougher stance in contract negotiations on a variety of issues. And last year, advocates in Austin, Texas, succeeded in getting a stronger police oversight office as part of contract negotiations. It’s been held up as an example of what activists can win in these kinds of fights.

» READ MORE: Dozens of Philadelphia police were reinstated after top brass tried to fire them. Once-secret records show how it keeps happening

Activists are focusing on these contracts because of a realization that “you can win whatever policy victory you want at the ground level, and all that can easily be undone by collective bargaining," said Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability, which provides support to groups doing police reform work. (Rivera’s organization is not currently working on the Philly campaign.)

But it’s still a fledgling movement, he said, and there’s no playbook.

Plus, there’s a lack of knowledge around the collective bargaining process that makes it difficult to design a successful campaign.

When it comes to police contracts, activists "don’t even know what to ask, because none of us even knows how to read those things,” he said.

‘Are cops workers?’

Out of the nearly three dozen groups that signed the letter to Kenney about the contract, none are labor unions. Labor is hesitant to throw support behind any effort to influence a collective bargaining agreement, fearing that it could open their own contracts to such influence.

Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, said advocates were “overstepping their bounds" by attempting to influence the contract.

“That’s between the employer and the workers,” he said. “It’s sacrosanct in that area, and that’s where it belongs.”

» READ MORE: New Pa. law requiring immigration checks on construction workers shows labor’s identity crisis

Tyler, of POWER, said he’s “100% behind unions and the right to organize," pointing out that he and his organization have marched alongside Philadelphia’s unions. But the FOP, he said, doesn’t operate like a union.

“It operates like a political party,” he said. “As such, I don’t think we ought to treat them in the same ways we treat all other unions.”

Rivera said the question at the heart of this debate is: Are cops workers?

It’s a sensitive subject to a movement that has sought to frame everyone as a worker in an effort to build solidarity and a sense of class struggle. That labor has faced attacks such as the Janus Supreme Court ruling, makes it even harder to break ranks with other unions.

And yet, police were breaking strikes and protecting strikebreakers during the period of labor unrest in the late 19th century.

“You end up in this Catch-22," Rivera said, “where on the one end, cops can be seen as workers in the context of labor, but in practice, they’re actually enemies of workers.”

Could the advocates win?

It’s going to be a tough battle.

Rivera, who formerly led the student organizing group Philadelphia Student Union, said that successful campaigns require strong community organizing, which Philadelphia has historically lacked. Much of the organizing in the city is through unions.

And he questioned if Philadelphia’s elected officials would be willing to take on the FOP. Politicians generally aren’t willing to take on the police for fear of being portrayed as standing against them, he said. And police unions have a pattern of attacking those who criticize them.

» READ MORE: Malcolm Jenkins calls Philly police union president’s criticism of his calls for reform a ‘distraction’

Still, a new group of city councilmembers, many of whom signed the letter, will enter office next week. When he first ran for mayor, Kenney campaigned on abolishing stop-and-frisk. That’s one of the advocates’ recommendations for the new contract.

Tyler said elected officials seem to be afraid of taking on the FOP, but with Kenney in his last term as mayor, he hopes the mayor swings for the fences.

“What do you have to lose at this point?” he said. “If you believe in these reforms, take on the FOP.”