A few years back, my Philadelphia Daily News colleagues Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker wrote a series about corruption among some city police narcotics detectives that was so disturbing – and so well nailed down – that it won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
But winning over their hard-nosed fellow journalists proved a lot easier than convincing an arbitration panel that – after then-police commissioner Charles Ramsey fired a central figure, Jeffrey Cujdik, over evidence that the detective had falsified an arrest warrant and had an improper business relationship with an informant – sided with lawyers for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and gave Cujdik his job back.
That might seem shocking unless you'd followed the cases of Philadelphia Lt. Jonathan Josey – whose dismissal after a punch that landed on a female spectator at a Puerto Rican Day Parade and that was captured on video was similarly overturned – or the six narcotics officers whose alleged misconduct caused 450 drug cases to get tossed out, but whose firing by Ramsey also got tossed out by a similar arbitration panel.
Those cases, and others, exposed the frustration of top officials and activists trying to tackle the problems of police brutality and misconduct. It's not just that seemingly solid cases against police officers – increasingly captured on video – fall apart in a criminal justice system that's stacked toward law enforcement. But even when respected police brass like Ramsey determine they have a bad-apple cop on their hands, arbitration rules that critics find heavily stacked in favor of the police union make it difficult to get rogue officers off the street. Some of the un-fired cops even got back pay. It's not just a local problem — this month a major investigative piece in the Washington Post found that more than a quarter of cops fired for serious misconduct in big-city departments get reinstated by arbitrators.
In Philadelphia, officials always offered a stock answer: Their hands were tied by the union contract with the FOP. But the old contract expired on June 30, finally bringing the city and police union leaders back to the bargaining table. The moment for change had arrived – but if you've followed the history of the long struggle to rein in police misconduct, you won't be surprised what happened next.
In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, with police conduct on the political front-burner for the first time in decades and with a newish mayor in Jim Kenney who'd promised major criminal-justice reforms, the $245 million three-year deal announced between City Hall and the FOP, with the aid of a three-member arbitration panel, offers just one middling change in the arbitration rules.
"It just doesn't appear that the city made this a priority," said David Rudovsky, the veteran Philadelphia civil rights attorney and advocate for criminal-justice reform. It's a difficult issue, to be sure. The political clout of police unions – which have long resisted any meaningful efforts to deal with rogue cops – seems stronger than ever, especially in Pennsylvania. Kenney would have been forced to use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office, call in chits, invest political capital. He chose not to do that. Now, reforming a system that favors bad-apple cops is off the table until 2020 – and it's hard to imagine there'll be any more political will and courage then than there was in 2017.
Lauren Hitt, Kenney's spokeswoman, defended City Hall's handling of the matter, noting that the arbitration process where the contract ended up makes sweeping change difficult. She said the city had been moving in a positive direction on police reform since Kenney took office in 2016, citing a 72 percent drop in "stop-and-frisk" incidents last year, expanded funding for body cameras, strengthening of the Police Advisory Commission, and changes that reduced tensions during last year's Democratic National Convention.
The mayor has walked a tightrope on police reform ever since his 2015 campaign, when he pledged to end so-called stop-and-frisk searches that disproportionately target nonwhites while he also won the FOP's endorsement. The new contract does add a requirement that reinstated officers have to pass a battery of tests — medical, psychological, and drug — and have a valid driver's license. That's one small — very small — step for humankind.
It's a lot less dramatic than the powerful message from thousands of Philadelphians who want the pace of criminal justice reform speeded up and who voted for civil rights advocate Larry Krasner, who won May's Democratic primary for district attorney.
Krasner told me that he's dismayed by the lack of arbitration reform in the new deal with the FOP – that the message that bad-apple cops can avoid consequences frays the trust between police and the community and sends the wrong message to new graduates of the Police Academy that abuses on the job may be tolerated.
"I think that the public recognizes there is a bit of crisis of confidence in police interaction with the public," Krasner said. "The public expects that with great authority goes accountability. They expected that from the last D.A. [Seth Williams] – that's why he's sitting in a jail cell – and they expect that from doctors and lawyers and police officers and others." The lack of accountability for rogue cops, the Democratic D.A. nominee argues, is a disservice to the overwhelming majority of officers who do their job well.
Nonetheless, you'll probably hear more clucking about the high cost of the contract and its 3 percent annual raises for officers than about the lack of arbitration reform. I think our law enforcement officers deserve that kind of raise – partly because most working Americans are underpaid, and partly because police work has such unusual trade-offs. One – and it's the one you hear about most – is the risk of going to work one morning and not coming home at night.