After Black Lives Matter protesters flooded the streets to demand change, some police departments blamed their unions as the reason why so many bad cops remain on the job or are rehired.
Since the death of George Floyd in May, protesters have demanded changes to policing, asking for more transparent accountability for police officers, among other demands. But some police chiefs have blamed resistance from their unions as the reason why they cannot implement some of these reforms.
But union officials, police chiefs and professors say it’s a little more complicated than that.
"It's a two-sided argument, kind of a double-edged sword," said Portage County Sheriff David Doak.
Doak, who has spent 50 years in law enforcement, said he was represented by the police unions as a patrolman. But he said now, as a manager, the union has, "pushed us to the limit."
"The policies are in place to protect citizens and the officers and if I feel there’s a breach of conduct (in the department) I’m going to deal with it," Doak said. "If I go to an arbitrator and they tell me different, I’ll live with the consequences of that. But at the same time I’m not going to let bad behavior go on."
In March, the Portage County Sheriff’s Office fired two deputies who were texting one another and a third deputy about their bosses, drugs and drinking. In one text, one of the fired deputies appears to indicate he was on duty while drunk. The two deputies, Elizabeth Ittel and Ryan Schindler, appealed their firing, and the case is still under investigation.
One of the texts from Schindler sent Dec. 2, 2019 at 10:17 a.m. to Ittel and another fired deputy, Vince Lombardo, reads, "Not gonna lie I’m drunk as (expletive)."
According to the timesheet released by the sheriff’s office, Schindler was on duty between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2019. It’s not clear if he was actually drunk.
Lombardo was fired on Jan. 31 for allegedly having a relationship with a former inmate, a charge he denies. He was still a probationary officer when he was fired and not covered by the union.
Ittel’s attorney, John Myers, who is representing her in a civil lawsuit in Portage County Common Pleas Court accusing the sheriff’s office of employment discrimination, said the text messages were out of context and were obtained on false pretenses.
"They took the phone from another sheriff’s deputy, downloaded all those texts and used that as a basis to terminate my client," Myers said after the Record-Courier obtained the text messages from the Portage County Sheriff’s Office in March.
According to the civil lawsuit, Ittel was subjected to sex discrimination, retaliation and "intentional infliction of emotional distress." The civil lawsuit was filed against Portage County Chief Deputy Dale Kelly and is ongoing.
Brian Holb, an attorney for the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, one of the two unions representing Ohio police officers, said unions can protect workers from retaliation from employers. Unions, he said, can allow for the "due process" of employees facing termination. Otherwise, he said, it’s up to the employer who does what.
There is research correlating some police union protections with a lack of accountability for police officers. A Loyola University Chicago professor, Stephan Rushin, examined over 834 contracts, including ones from Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron and Cleveland. In one study, "Police Union Contracts," he, "demonstrates that police departments’ internal disciplinary procedures, often established through the collective bargaining process, can serve as barriers to officer accountability."
In some cases, police officers can demand in their contracts to have records in their personnel files over two years old removed and destroyed, which can make it more difficult to later investigate police misconduct.
In Aurora, Officer Joseph LaPerna had several discipline notes in his personnel file, which was reviewed by the Record-Courier, before he was fired for the second time. The notes included misusing sick leave, rude behavior toward residents and leaving his firearm unsecured, among other issues.
LaPerna was fired in August 2019 after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of improperly exhibiting a dangerous weapon, a first-degree misdemeanor, in Lee County, Florida.
LaPerna had previously been fired in 2006 for allegedly chasing a car back to an Aurora home while he was off-duty after the car allegedly crossed the double-yellow line. The chase reached speeds of up to 60 mph, according to a city investigation into the incident.
After the city fired him in 2006, LaPerna appealed and was reinstated.
The appeals process is known as arbitration, where a labor attorney or a former judge will make a legally-binding decision as to whether there is cause to fire the police officer. Arbitration is common in police contracts and it is in both Aurora’s current police union contract and the Portage County Sheriff’s Office’s current union contract.
"I think arbitration is a very good process because it gives both sides a chance to bring evidence and witnesses to bring a chance to both sides," said Bob Bruno, professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois.
Aurora Police have gone through arbitration several times, which Aurora Police Chief Byard says has generally worked out in the city’s favor.
"These are the rare cases in which we have to rely on arbitrators to back the decisions made by the employers, consequently providing accountability within the law-enforcement profession," Byard said.
What can be fixed?
There have been plenty of discussion about how Ohio law officers might be better held accountable following the recent Black Lives Matter protests. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has proposed solutions, including officers may be held accountable for their actions through a licensing board, suggesting the Ohio Legislature require police officers to take a basic training psychological exam, guidelines on use of force and body cameras and possibly more funding for training.
Holb said that police chiefs and sheriffs have some latitude to impose reforms for police officers within their organizations within the union contracts.
"There’s a lot that police departments could do and mayors could do that doesn’t require sitting down and negotiating," he said. "They can ban chokeholds, implement body cams, implement discipline."
But Holb said police chiefs and sheriffs may not want to do that, because it could be politically unpopular.
Byard said the firing of two Aurora police officers in the past few years shows the police department cares about having good cops. Both Byard and Doak said it has become more difficult to find qualified people to become police officers, which is also a problem in recruiting good officers.
Doak said he would like to see the current probation stage, where newly hired officers aren’t protected by unions, extended from about a year to 18 months. That would allow management to get a good sense of what the person is really like, Doak said.
But the protections unions give to employees may be harder to take away. Bruno said that police unions have been opposed to taking away many of the legal protections currently available to police officers.
"It’s a pretty clear black and white, us versus them," Bruno said. "It feels like they are being mistreated, that people don’t understand the nature of their job, and the job is too hard to do without these protections."
Contact reporter Eileen McClory at 330-298-1128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Eileen_McClory.