Who in the city has the most power over the course of law and order in Philadelphia? Is it the mayor? The police commissioner? The district attorney?
Unfortunately, it’s none of those. That power fundamentally rests in the hands of a single individual who has the power, as a police arbitrator, to rule on police discipline cases. And those rulings often overturn the recommendations of the police commissioner and police management, including reinstating fired police officers.
In fact, according to a recent Inquirer report that analyzed 170 cases from 2011 to 2019, police discipline was overturned or reduced in arbitration about 70% of the time.
The cases showed a stunning range of bad behaviors on the part of cops, including domestic violence, drug use, use of force, and other actions that led to discipline or firing. These decisions were challenged by the Fraternal Order of Police and brought to arbitration.
Arbitration was codified by Act 111 in 1968, instituted in exchange for police not being able to strike. It has not been changed in 50 years. It imposes arbitration on the collective bargaining process, and on discipline; those grievances are heard and ruled on by a single arbitrator.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that single arbitrator has an outsize impact on law and order. If problem cops who police management moves to discipline or fire can successfully challenge those decisions, then the standards for police conduct moves away from those in charge of running the department. That sends a signal not only to police but to the community that standards are arbitrary and unenforceable. And the bad cops get the message that they don’t have to change.
All this comes at a time when the relationship between law enforcement and the community at large is problematic at best, and in some communities, dysfunctional. That erosion of trust is not limited to law enforcement but extends to all institutions. That erosion leads to more crime and more chaos.
The problem with the process is that the arbitrators rule without being accountable for the outcomes or impacts of their decisions. They have power without responsibility. The public is not privy, nor has access to the process. (It took the better part of a year for The Inquirer to get the records of the disciplinary outcomes.)
Police deserve due process. But it’s time to recognize policing is not like other jobs. Their powers — to arrest, to use force — are extraordinary. Decisions about who deserves to wield that power don’t belong to a secret few who have nothing at stake and little accountability.
The paths for reform and improvements are limited. Reforming Act 111 is an option but unlikely to be a fast or easy step. The public — especially those most impacted by police policies — must be vocal and apply pressure to elected officials to demand change, demand a say, and demand more transparency in the processes designed to shape the behavior — and the values — of the police. Those values shape the safety and very future of the city.