Louisville Police Reforms Hinge on Union Negotiations

As Americans protest a grand jury’s decision not to file murder charges against the Louisville, Kentucky, police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, the city is negotiating with its police union over a contract that will determine whether all the reforms promised in a settlement with her family can be implemented.

Some of the proposed changes that came as part of the agreement, which also provides a $12 million payment to Taylor’s family, the largest for police misconduct in the city’s history, will require a new union contract or approval from the Fraternal Order of Police. Those include annual random drug tests and expanding records maintained in officer personnel files, according to the city.

“I can tell you that the FOP and the city are at the bargaining table working back and forth,” Mayor Greg Fischer told reporters during a Thursday press conference after he was asked about the contract offer submitted by the union. “Until that’s complete, that information will not be released.”

Louisville’s talks with the FOP come as activists and residents are demanding an overhaul of the department practices in the wake of the police shooting of Taylor. A Kentucky grand jury declined to pursue murder charges against the officers who shot Taylor in her home during a raid in March. But just because city officials agree to reform doesn’t guarantee changes will go through.

Union collective bargaining agreements typically govern how municipalities investigate, discipline and fire officers. They have come under greater scrutiny since the police killings of Taylor in March and George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, as they’ve hamstrung some communities’ dealings with officers that brutalize or kill citizens.

Chicago is also in the middle of a heated negotiation with its police union over a contract that expired in June 2017. The city presented an offer this month to the union that included a 10% raise over a four-year period as well as some reforms, which the union rejected.

“We remain committed to working together towards a fair contract, but will never retreat from the reforms that are essential to restoring legitimacy and accountability,” Michael Frisch, a senior advisor and legal counsel to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, said in a letter to FOP President John Catanzara on Sept. 16. “It is clear that you are totally misreading this moment.”

The Lodge 7 union countered on Thursday with an offer that included a 17% raise for officers who are city residents and adding a lower raise structure for officers allowed to live outside the city, but without any reforms. Lightfoot’s office rejected that, saying in an emailed statement on Thursday that she’s been “emphatically clear” that any deal “must include the City’s accountability and reform proposals.”

Unions can be an obstacle to reform efforts, but cities can make the negotiations public and bring other stakeholders to the table to help the process along, said John Rappaport, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

“Some cities just are a little stuck,” Rappaport said of places that are still bound to old collective bargaining agreements. “There’s other cities where the contracts are expiring and we’re talking about how to negotiate the next one. Now we’re at the place where the cities need to figure out how to get a backbone.”

The officers who shot Taylor still face investigations and potential disciplinary action from Louisville, which will have to follow provisions in the current contract with the union, not any new reforms.

Louisville’s contract with the FOP expired in 2018, but the city has extended the old contract as the parties negotiate new terms. The most recent extension expires at the end of this year, according to the city’s website.

FOP President Ryan Nichols has told local news outlets he is open to a conversation about the reforms, but has maintained they would not have prevented the March shooting.

“As a collective bargaining process, anything within our contract is open for our negotiation,” Nichols said in an interview last week with local television station WLKY.

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