Police union contract a big win for Baltimore

Mayor Catherine Pugh has been pushing for civilians on the trial boards that determine discipline for police accused of wrongdoing for years — dating back to her time as a state senator — and her persistence paid off in the city police union’s agreement this week to a contract that will make that happen. That she accomplished that at the same time that she has undone the asinine decision of a previous mayor and police commissioner to enshrine in the contract an unworkable officer shift schedule is nothing short of remarkable. We still need more information to calculate the costs of the raises she agreed to in the bargain and the precise details of the civilian involvement in trial boards. But the progress on two issues that have stymied negotiations between the city and union for years is a massive step forward that should help Baltimore address its interconnected problems of community mistrust in the police and runaway violent crime.

Tuesday night’s vote is also a testament to the new leadership of the city’s lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. The union had almost unanimously rejected a contract offer last year that would have fixed the disastrous four days on, three days off shift schedule but did not address the issue of civilians on trial boards. The contract that was approved this week appears somewhat more lucrative for officers but not radically so. Officers are getting double the signing bonus they would have received in the 2017 contract offer ($1,000 instead of $500) and better out-year salary increases (guaranteed 3 percent raises through fiscal 2021, rather than a 3 percent raise in one year and 2 percent the next).

Considering how much the city has spent on overtime during the last few years, in part because of the shift schedule, the math may well work out in the city’s favor. Another $1,000 bonus in the contract for an officer who works patrol for an entire year should help address chronic under-staffing in that division, and in general, it’s worth paying Baltimore police a bit more if it helps the city recruit and retain qualified officers. Being a cop in Baltimore City is a hard job, and we need to be at the least competitive financially with suburban departments to prevent the best officers from being poached.

More fundamentally, the cost is worth it to establish a precedent that civilians can and should play a role in officer discipline. Previously, the FOP leadership had rejected that proposition on principle, and their opposition had helped sink efforts to force the issue in the General Assembly.

This contract is laudable, but it doesn’t solve all of Baltimore’s problems with respect to the police department. The progress the contract brings in terms of transparency around police discipline is diminished by the ongoing dispute between the Pugh administration and the city Civilian Review Board over access to departmental records. The same issue came up again this week when City Solicitor Andre Davis said a state panel probing the Gun Trace Task Force could only obtain certain records under the condition of secrecy. In an appearance before the panel, Mr. Davis lamented state laws that shield such records; he and Mayor Pugh should make reforming those laws a top priority in the new General Assembly session. We certainly hope Gov. Larry Hogan, who has said much of late about his belief in the need for more accountability in the state’s school systems, would recognize the necessity of it in police departments, too.

The contract also doesn’t absolve the General Assembly of the need to deal with the issue of civilians on trial boards. Such a matter of vital public importance should not be subject to negotiations between the city (or any other jurisdiction) and the police union.

And finally, getting rid of the flawed shift schedule doesn’t solve all the management problems in the police department. It still suffers from lax oversight and approval procedures for overtime, and it has still failed to adequately staff patrol while managing to avoid excessive vacancies in other divisions.

But as we await the announcement of Mayor Pugh’s choice for a new police commissioner, the city-FOP agreement offers a welcome sign of progress. We hope that the next commissioner can build on it.

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