“I don’t understand how she [Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake] can continually say they’re not cooperating,” Michael E. Davey, an attorney for the police union, told The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday. “They are. They did. And they’re lucky they got those statements before I got involved.”
They’re lucky they got those statements before I got involved. That’s a little window into the adversarial relationship between the union representing six Baltimore officers under investigation and city officials charged with determining whether Freddie Gray’s fatal injuries in police custody might have been caused by foul play such as an unbelted “rough ride” in the back of a police van.
Newsweek, and before that the Foundation for Economic Education, have now reprinted a short Cato at Liberty piece in which I describe the operation of Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights (LEOBR or LEOBoR) laws, of which Maryland passed the first in the early 1970s, and which have spread to more than a dozen states; in many other localities union contract provisions accomplish some of the same goals. These laws sharply restrain how police forces can pursue misconduct investigations against suspected officers, and officials in Baltimore and elsewhere have repeatedly cited the law as an impediment to investigations of officer misconduct long predating the Freddie Gray incident, including the probe into the enormous scandal of employee misconduct at the state-run Baltimore jail. (I’ve got more at Free State Notes about the local Maryland angle, including the failure of efforts this year in the state legislature to reform the law.)
Radley Balko followed up with a post summarizing my argument and adding an important point, which is that these laws can provide a covert way for departments to sabotage investigations so as to help out fellow officers, by introducing seemingly inadvertent errors that ensure that charges will later have to be thrown out.
In my opinion, conservatives should no more defend LEOBRs than they should defend teacher tenure laws, and for much the same reasons. In response to rising criticism, which has intensified since Gray’s death in custody, police unions have begun a broad effort to shore up support for the laws. The version of my article at FEE, for example, drew a response from a Montgomery County Fraternal Order of Police official which you can read here together with my response.
One oft-heard claim that these laws merely give suspected cops the same rights as other suspected citizens. Don’t miss Ken White’s new post at Popehat blowing that argument to smithereens. Equally laughable is the suggestion from union brass that the laws merely put into effect Fifth Amendment or other constitutional rights. While a few cases from the Warren Court era did invent new constitutional constraints on public agencies’ handling of employee investigations, LEOBR laws go far beyond anything in those cases.
Further reading and listening: Ed Krayewski, Reason; Kojo Nnamdi show; New York Times “Room for Debate” roundtable with Prof. Paul Butler, my friend and former Manhattan Institute colleague Heather Mac Donald (the middle-of-the-roader, in this context) and FOP’s Chuck Canterbury. See also my coverage of correctional officers “bill of rights” laws in Maryland, Pennsylvania, etc. here, here, here, and here.