On January 11th, 2021, Workers Center for Racial Justice executive director DeAngelo Bester was called by the Illinois House Judiciary Committee to provide expert witness testimony in a subject matter hearing on the Illinois Black Caucus (ILBC) omnibus bill on criminal justice reform.
DeAngelo's testimony addressed the issue of police impunity provisions in collective bargaining agreements and state law:
"My name is DeAngelo Bester and I work for an organization called the Workers Center For Racial Justice. We are an independent Black political organization that focuses on organizing unemployed, low-wage and formerly incarcerated Black workers around issues of racial, economic and gender justice. I have been an organizer for nearly twenty years, including several years working as a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Wisconsin and the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) here in Illinois. My organization and I are dedicated to fighting for and protecting the rights of marginalized workers.
There is an old phrase that Black people use to say and that is, 'The Cops and Klan go hand in hand!' There was a time in this country when terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and other White mobs and vigilantes were able to kill Black people with impunity, for doing nothing. Famously, Emmitt Till was killed for whistling at a White woman, and his murderers got away with it. As racial politics improved in this country, it became unacceptable to lynch and kill Black people for doing nothing, unless you were a police officer. Unfortunately, many of the same attitudes, behaviors and actions towards Black people that existed during America’s Apartheid period known as Jim Crow, are prevalent in many of our public safety institutions. Some of the same conditions and policies that allowed for Emmitt Till’s murderers to escape accountability, are present in modern day police union contracts.
Which brings me to the issue of police impunity in municipal contracts and state law. Throughout Illinois, powerful union contracts shield police officers from investigations of alleged misconduct and abuse. Local police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), have negotiated municipal agreements that are designed to obstruct nearly any effort to reform departments or hold individual officers accountable for criminal acts. The FOP’s current collective bargaining agreement contains a litany of unjust shields against officer accountability, which fall far outside of the scope of labor rights. This includes: mandatory destruction of misconduct records, narrow statutes of limitations on police complaints, and protocol to allow officers to postpone statements after a police shooting, and to amend prior testimony after reviewing case evidence.
Many of these dangerous impunity provisions are also mirrored in state law, under the Uniform Peace Officers' Disciplinary Act.
Not only are these measures unjust, they are also deadly to Black and Brown communities. Armored by unjust protections, officers are often emboldened to exceed the limits of their powers, with the assurance of virtual immunity.
A recent University of Oxford investigation of the nation's one hundred most populous cities found that impunity provisions in police contracts are correlated with increased officer violence. In this study, Chicago ranks the highest, both in terms of contract shields against accountability, as well as rates of police brutality.
Now let me be clear, I have spent my professional career fighting on the side of workers’ rights, and I am not here today to advocate for the diminishment of workers’ legitimate rights to negotiate fair and just employment conditions.
I am here to call upon the Illinois Legislature to take reasonable steps to strengthen our state’s labor laws so that they no longer offer refuge for anti-Black systems of police brutality, abuse, and corruption.
Workers’ rights to collectively bargain are a vital mechanism for ensuring equity and justice in our labor market – and by extension throughout our society as a whole. And yet for nearly half a century, unions like the FOP have worked in bad faith to undermine the rightful intentions behind these powers. In cities across the state, police unions abuse and weaponize bargaining rights as a means to evade accountability for officer wrongdoing, and perpetuate systems of racialized police brutality, harassment and corruption.
Please do not be fooled by the rhetoric coming from the other side. What this bill does is quite simple, and in our opinion very reasonable. If passed, this bill will do the following:
Would outlaw police contract measures that obstruct open investigation of alleged officer misconduct and thwart efforts to enact meaningful police reform
The bill would restore the intended purpose of collective bargaining rights, by limiting police union agreements exclusively to matters of compensation, hours and benefits.
The bill would also repeal sections of Illinois law that echo police contract impunity provisions - specifically the so-called officer bill of rights - or the Uniform Peace Officers' Disciplinary Act.
I want to end by saying that this bill should in no way, shape or form, ever lead to the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees or be applied to any workers outside of sworn peace officers. And to be honest, this really isn’t even about labor rights at all. This is about stopping the continued harassment, brutalization and killing of Black and Brown people at the hands of police, without any real accountability. There is a very clear choice we have before us. We can either be on the side of the FOP and their White Nationalist, White Supremacist, anti-democratic allies like the Proud Boys and American Identity Movement, or we can be on the side of equity and justice. I know which side I’m on! Thank you for allowing me to speak!"