Police accountability starts at the top

You can't blame the union for problems you didn't even try to solve.

It seems relatively uncontroversial to say that if there is a police department in America with serious problems, it is the Minneapolis Police Department. Between the Chauvin incident and the shooting of Justine Ruszczyk, they either just have really bad luck with egregiously unjustified uses of force in a short period of time or they have some kind of real structural issues.

Despite this pretty obvious fact, two people have somehow escaped meaningful scrutiny: The current and former chiefs of the Minneapolis Police, Janee Harteau and Medaria Arradondo. Harteau was chief of police starting in 2012 until she resigned in the wake of the Ruszczyk shooting in 2017. Arradondo took over for her as chief, but before that, he was the head of the MPD Internal Affairs unit starting in 2013. And yet despite being the head of internal affairs and then chief of probably the most criticized police department in the country, Arradondo gets sympathetic headlines from the media like “Minneapolis chief has sought to reform department.”

Harteau and Arradondo, as police chiefs, are supposed to be the ones holding officers accountable. They run the entire organization. They set policy and make all the rules. And it seems like are pretty bad at their jobs in this respect. So why don’t they come in for harsher treatment? Why does Arradondo still have a job?

Harteau—who now works in a cushy private sector position—blames the police department’s problems on the police union. Arradondo does too, and made a big show of withdrawing from negotiations with the Police Officers’ Federation of Minneapolis after Floyd’s death.

But that argument, frankly, is bullshit.

How police discipline works

It’s important to start with an understanding of how police discipline works in a unionized police department, because I think a lot of people don’t really understand it. Partly, this is because the process varies a lot from city to city. Some cities don’t have police unions at all. Some cities have civilian boards that investigate some or all complaints against police. But I think I can give a general overview of the process.

First, someone makes a complaint against a police officer. Usually, the complaint comes from a member of the public, but cops (contrary to popular belief) also regularly file complaints against other cops. For example, about 20% of complaints filed against LAPD officers were generated by the department or other officers.

Then, the police department’s internal affairs unit or civilian investigators will investigate the complaint. An investigator will look into the complaint by gathering evidence, looking at video, and interviewing witnesses and the officer.

Once the investigation is complete, it goes to a decision-maker. Usually, this is the chief of police, but sometimes it is a civilian board, some other decision-maker, or a hybrid process. The chief will decide if the complaint is sustained or not sustained. If it is not sustained, then obviously the officer will face no discipline. If it is sustained, then the chief will decide what punishment is appropriate.

At some point in here, the officer is entitled to a meeting with the chief so he can make his case for why he did nothing wrong. This is called a Loudermill hearing. Such a hearing is a constitutional requirement because the government cannot legally deprive people of a public benefit—including public employment—without due process. This applies in many other areas as well—for example, even though you have no right to drive, the government cannot revoke your driver’s license without providing some kind of due process.

And throughout this process, a police union has very little role. When you are the officer under investigation, all you can really do is go along with the investigation. I would get a union rep who came to interviews with me, but he had no authority to really do anything about the questions I was asked. Sometimes he would ask a few questions himself to get more facts on the record, but that was about it. It isn’t like the union can file a motion to halt the investigation or object to questions that investigators ask.

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When the internal investigation concludes the officer did nothing wrong, then there is nothing for a police union to do. There’s no discipline to grieve or arbitrate. And this is how almost all complaints against police end, because the overwhelming majority of complaints filed against police are false. In fact, a large portion of complaints are “unfounded” - meaning the complaint against the officer is essentially fabricated.1

Some people will just say these statistics reflect police departments covering up for bad cops or something. But you see similar numbers when the decision-makers are civilians. In Seattle, where police all wear body cameras and complaints are investigated solely by a civilian-run agency, only about 11% of complaints against police are sustained. Almost 40% are found to be unfounded.

But the larger point is that in about 90% of cases, the police union has nothing to do with a cop not being disciplined. That’s a command-level decision.

Minneapolis police discipline

Much has been said about the fact that Derek Chauvin had 17 prior complaints filed against him prior to the murder of George Floyd. As a threshold matter, I actually don’t think this means a lot—one complaint a year over a 20-year career working patrol in a tough district doesn’t say much. But more importantly, only one of those complaints ended in disciplinary action— a written reprimand. So in the other 16 cases, the department didn’t even try to discipline Chavin. This means that one of two things must be true:

  • The complaints against Chauvin had no merit.

  • The complaints against Chauvin had merit, but department management decided not to do anything about them.

Either way, this is not the union’s fault. It’s not like the department tried to fire Chauvin and then he filed a grievance and got his job back. If the complaints against Chauvin had no merit, an honest police chief should be willing to own up to that and explain why no discipline was imposed. Alternatively, if the complaints had merit but the department never bothered to impose discipline, this is also management’s fault.

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Harteau became chief in 2012 and Arradondo was the head of internal investigations starting in 2013. They both almost certainly knew a great deal about Chauvin’s disciplinary record, and probably even adjudicated some of the complaints against him. But they decided not to do anything about them. In fact, they apparently thought Chauvin was such a good cop that they decided to make him a field training officer.

And Chauvin is not an outlier in this regard. Looking at Minneapolis Police complaints over a six-year period, only three percent of complaints were sustained by police management. So Arradondo and Harteau can blame the union, but the fact of the matter is that in 97% of cases, they apparently did not even attempt to impose discipline on the officers. And compared to the national average of complaints, MPD management imposes discipline on officers at about one-third of the rate that other police departments do.

For his part, Arradondo actually claimed that despite being the head of internal affairs and then chief for eight years, he somehow has no idea which officers in the police department are getting a lot of complaints:

“There have been questions raised about when an incident occurs, ‘Well, Chief Rondo, how come you didn’t know about this person and this number of complaints?’ and what have you. We need to reevaluate that. We need to do it with real-time data.”

This is absolutely preposterous. You were head of internal affairs, and then the police chief, but you’re saying you don’t know who in the police department is getting complaints? Does the Minneapolis Police Department have computers? You’re the one overseeing these investigations! You make all the disciplinary decisions!

How to become a police chief

It’s hard for me to understand why so many people are happy to go after individual cops while they are seemingly happy to let police managers2 like Arradondo off the hook. I suspect it has a lot to do with culture, class, and the nature of urban politics.

The average police chief’s career looks something like this: They start off in patrol and work that job for three to five years. Then they take the civil service test, get promoted, and work as a middle manager for a while—usually as a sergeant or a lieutenant. Along the way, a future police chief will try very hard to avoid making any controversial decisions. You don’t want to be that guy everybody in the department hates, and you also don’t want to offend the city council or other politically important people.

Eventually, the future police chief will make their way to a public-facing job, like a position as public information officer or as commander of an important precinct. And this is where a police manager has a chance to ingratiate themselves with the city’s activists, businesspeople, and the media by taking their phone calls and holding community meetings. This is exactly what Arradondo did: activists in Minneapolis like him because he takes their phone calls and makes them feel important:

Moss said in an interview that the chief had always shown a willingness to consult with various groups before making major decisions. "We were working on the changes that had been necessary way before George Floyd died," he said.

It helps that police managers are usually much more white-collar than street cops. Many of them have a master’s degree. They wear suits instead of uniforms. They know how to operate in the elite circles that are so important in urban progressive politics without offending anybody. They’re just so much nicer than guys like Minneapolis Police union head Bob Kroll, who often went out of his way to offend the sensibilities of progressives. So when a guy like Arradondo takes your calls and makes you feel important—you support him, even if he gets nothing done.

What we end up with is a system that makes police chiefs out of people who are 1) good at urban politics/networking and 2) bad at making difficult decisions. Because the average police chief has spent twenty years getting ahead by measuring the political winds and avoiding controversy, they tend to avoid making tough but unpopular decisions. In practice, this means that when a complaint against an officer is high-profile and the public is enraged—as it was with Chauvin—a chief will act quickly to fire them3 or impose absurdly disproportionate discipline. But when nobody’s watching (and usually, nobody is) they just kind of go along with whatever they think will make them more popular amongst rank-and-file officers.4

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Incidentally, this kind of crappy leadership is also not conducive to a fair disciplinary process for front-line officers, who tend to notice that the same complaint might get them a verbal reprimand one day but a lengthy suspension if it hits the news and makes somebody angry. And it probably has a lot to do with why roughly half of cops in large police agencies say they are not supportive of their top leadership, and two-thirds believe the internal disciplinary process is unfair.

Systemic problems are leadership problems

I wish that more people in the media and police reform movement would spend less going after rank-and-file cops or making baseless claims about police “culture” and a lot more time looking at police leadership. Police managers—whatever they may claim—have a tremendous amount of power, and can make a police department much better or much worse. Yet they often escape the level of scrutiny that one would expect in such a position. Even when they do a bad job, they often just move to another city.

And talking about discipline doesn’t even get into all the other stuff police managers have control over. Who decides where to deploy officers during a riot, or when to issue a dispersal order? Police commanders. Who decides on hiring standards and designs the field training program for new cops? Commanders. Who decides what training front-line officers receive and how often they get it? Commanders. Who decides how much access officers have to mental health resources? Commanders.

If you think there are “systemic” or “structural” problems in a police department, then what you are actually saying is that there are problems with the leadership of that police department. And in that respect, I think most rank-and-file cops in big cities could not agree with you more.

1

“Exonerated” usually means the officer did do what they were accused of, but that the conduct complained of was permitted by law and policy. For example, an officer used force, but the force was not excessive.

2

They like to call themselves police “executives” which really just increases my level of contempt for them.

3

Chauvin’s firing was almost definitely illegal. At a minimum, there’s no chance he received a Loudermill hearing. But it probably won’t matter since he’s a convicted felon now.

4

It’s also not unheard of for certain officers to be treated better by the chief if they happen to have a good personal relationship with said chief.