The Norman City Council examined police transparency policy and union contract law Tuesday after a local group suggested the topic for discussion.
An email obtained by The Transcript through an Open Records Request shows the Norman Citizens for Racial Justice submitted the topic on June 30. The Human Rights Commission forwarded the request to the city council.
The topic was, “legal, structural, and cultural barriers” that have prevented staff from disciplining officers. Critics nationwide have decried the undue influence that police unions have to deter cities from disciplining or terminating officers for misconduct.
Questions raised during the discussion included whether to name officers in complaints and to establish a complaint system independent of the Norman Police Department.
While police and fire unions cannot strike according to state law, they are given the right to negotiate collaborative bargaining agreements with cities, assistant city attorney Rick Knighton said.
The agreements allow the police union to bargain for “wages, hours, and other conditions of employment”, including a grievance process and subsequent arbitration. The arbitrator decides the final outcome after hearing evidence and testimony, similar to a trial, Knighton said.
Arbitration is expensive for cities, Oklahoma City attorney Kathryn Terry told the council. She is contracted by the City of Norman in labor arbitration cases and works for the cities of Edmond, Midwest City and Moore.
Ward 3 Alison Petrone then asked Terry how the city could get rid of ‘bad apples.’
“It is difficult,” Terry said. “And one of the things that Rick was addressing is the collective bargaining agreement that there is a union contract in place—an impediment to discipline—but in my experience I don’t believe it’s an impediment to the fact of discipline.”
Terry said union contracts can make it less likely that a city will discipline as “severely as they would have liked to.”
“If I terminate this employee, there are definitely agreements and they’re going to go all the way to arbitration,” Terry said. “The employee will have nothing to lose, the employee will challenge to get their job back, but if I suspend for two days and probation for six months, maybe that employee will not grieve.”
It’s an expense Norman has taken on before.
“There have been occasions when discipline imposed by the police chief and fire chief has been amended or vacated by the arbitrator and we haven’t necessarily been happy with the alternative decision,” Knighton said.
From complaint to arbitration, Terry said Norman’s procedures are top notch compared to other cities.
“Norman’s procedures are more detailed and their document management system is quite good,” she said. “It varies across the departments I work with and one in particular is comparable to Norman, but the others struggle a little bit in that area. The way Norman documents its interviews, the way it documents its records, the way it uses summaries and tracks the incidents is very effective and when we get to arbitrations that are the result of an internal affairs investigation, we do not find ourselves missing documentation as it relates to the police department.”
Terry did not provide specific suggestions as to policy changes or contract changes to remove union employees.
Impediments to naming officers
While complaints against the police officers and determinations of those complaints are found on the NPD data portal, critics say it does not name the officer and therefore is less transparent.
Officers are only named in accordance with the Oklahoma Open Records Act, Knighton said. The act states that cities are not required to release an officer’s name unless there is final disciplinary action resulting in loss of pay, suspension, demotion or termination.
Violation of the law would leave the city liable to the officer filing a lawsuit, Knighton said.
While the Citizens Advisory Committee recommends policy changes to the NPD, the citizen-led group is subject to follow the act as well, Knighton and Terry said. The committee reviews completed internal affairs investigations to provide feedback to the department.
The NPD uses an internal affairs reporting system, which tracks complaints against officers. If an officer is getting “an excessively high number of complaints during a specific time period, that software system will send IA Lieutenant an alert,” Knighton said.
The department can review the complaints, identify patterns of behavior and recommend training or corrective action, Knighton said. Patrol officers receive annual performance evaluations but also meet quarterly “to go over any issues that may have come up during that quarter,” Knighton said. Supervisors also audit “random” body cam video as part of the evaluations.
If an officer disputes disciplinary action or termination, the city manager or designee submits a written answer to the chief of police and the officer within 10 days, the FOP agreement states. If there is no agreement on the terms, the FOP notifies the city attorney’s office in writing within 20 days of the city manager’s response.
Complaints are accepted in writing, by phone, email and can be submitted by a third-party or provided anonymously, according to the NPD open data portal.