Wichita police union contract for renewal, some seek reform

Bizar Male


File photo

In August 2019, a Wichita police officer stopped a man for not signaling a turn into his driveway, according to a complaint the man filed. When he didn’t get back inside his car as asked by police, he said the officers kicked and hit him and took him into custody.

Members of the Wichita Citizen’s Review Board discussed this and other complaints about police in closed session meetings. Officer disciplinary records are confidential and not open to the public, as specified in the union contract between the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and the City of Wichita.

Review board agendas, which summarize complaints, provide one of the few public windows into what type of allegations citizens make against police in Wichita.

Outside the officer facing an allegation about them and a handful of staff in the WPD and the city, FOP representatives are the only people who can inspect copies of the disciplinary records.

The city of Wichita and FOP Lodge 5 are slated to begin negotiations in late spring or early summer for a new union contract. Police administration met with HR last week. The current contract, in place since the end of 2018, expires in late December.

As the city goes to the bargaining table with the union, police transparency advocates in Wichita are calling for changes to the collective bargaining agreement’s handling of officer discipline.

“It kind of hand ties the chief of police, the HR department and the city manager,” said Walt Chappell, vice chair of the Racial Profiling Advisory Board of Wichita.

“Having the union involved in the discipline process is concerning,” he said.

Chappell wants to see Articles 13 and 14 of the Wichita FOP contract — which lay out rules for discipline and grievances and affirm disciplinary files are confidential — eliminated completely. Others want to see the articles revised.

Like other police reform advocates, Chappell argues the contract makes it more difficult to discipline or terminate an officer who’s accused of egregious wrongdoing, damaging trust between police and the community.

The FOP counters that keeping disciplinary records confidential protects employees’ rights and aligns the WPD with standard human resources procedures on personnel files. Union representatives are involved to ensure officers are treated fairly and receive due process, according to the FOP.

Cities across the country have faced increasing public pressure to reform police union contracts, which commonly include provisions that shield disciplinary records, since last summer. National protests called for police reform after George Floyd, a Black man, died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck in Minneapolis. Experts told the Associated Press that contract provisions provide extra protections that interfere with accountability.

Protestors kneel down in front of some Wichita Police vehicles at the 21st and Waco in June 2020. People gathered in the area were cleared by law enforcement with tear gas several hours later. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

Due process

In Wichita, some community leaders point to two main ways they say the contract hinders accountability: keeping disciplinary records confidential and involving the FOP in nearly every step of the discipline process.

Wichita FOP President David Inkelaar declined a request for a phone interview with The Eagle, but agreed to answer written questions via email.

Inkelaar said he has not seen any evidence that the FOP’s involvement in the process makes it difficult to discipline an officer. Articles 13 and 14 in the contract “codify labor law and the principle of just cause,” he said, adding that the articles are an integral part of due process.

For that reason, Wichita’s police union is not open to eliminating Articles 13 and 14 of its contract, “nor eliminating due process,” he said.

“To successfully hire and retain the best and brightest in policing — or any profession — good employee relations is critical,” Police Chief Gordon Ramsay wrote in an email through a city spokesperson, in response to questions. “The role of organized labor helps keep positive relationships and helps retain high-quality officers.”

The FOP contract represents more than 600 Wichita Police staff, Inkelaar said. Not all officers are eligible to join — non-commissioned employees and lieutenants are represented by the Service Employees International Union, rather than the FOP. About 85% of eligible employees are members of the FOP in Wichita.

After the opening meeting last Tuesday, the city and union representatives will meet roughly every two weeks through the end of the year. A contract typically lasts three years.

When the two groups have agreed on a proposed union contract, the Wichita City Council will review and must approve it before it is finalized. Approved contracts are published on the city’s website.

Maurice Evans, known as Pastor Moe, is senior pastor at Pure Heart Worship Center in Wichita and leader with a new nonprofit, the Community Empowerment & Resilience Coalition. Like Chappell, he pointed to Articles 13 and 14 of the union contract as problematic.

“It makes it so that the union is actively involved in all disciplinary measures,” he said.

Around 200 people attended the “Back our Blue” rally on Kennedy Plaza in front of Century II to show their support for police officers.(August 11, 2020) Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

How discipline works

There are multiple steps in the investigation process after a citizen makes a complaint to the Professional Standards Bureau, the Police Department agency tasked with taking and investigating internal and external complaints.

Staff might forward an investigation to the police chief if it’s considered serious. After the PSB makes a finding, the officer is notified and the police chief can decide if disciplinary action is warranted.

An officer can appeal discipline by filing a grievance, and then three people on the grievance board make a recommendation. The board consists of one person appointed by the FOP, one by the city and a third person meant to be a neutral arbitrator.

The city manager makes final decisions based on those recommendations, and generally has final say in disciplinary measures.

Over the past year, three disciplinary actions were appealed to the grievance board, said City Manager Robert Layton. Two of the three last year were upheld and the third is pending.

“We have a low rate of arbitration following disciplinary actions because of the rigorous processes regarding Wichita Police employment and investigation that the FOP supports,” Layton said in an emailed response to questions, through a city spokesperson.

No grievances have been filed since Inkelaar was elected FOP president, the WPD told the review board in September.

The FOP is not involved in discipline decisions, Inkelaar said.

“We only advise and stress management that discipline must be for just cause,” he said. “If discipline was issued without just cause, then it is right and proper to file a grievance using the grievance process.”

053020 Protest
People gather outside of the police substation on East 21st Street for a demonstration titled “Justice for Floyd.” It included speeches by Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay and City Council member Brandon Johnson. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

What’s in the contract

Last summer, Chappell held a community meeting to discuss what police reform actions residents wanted to see in Wichita. Renegotiating the FOP contract was one of the top three priorities.

Chappell said he’s been trying since July to get together with the city manager, the police chief, the FOP president and others to work through those 23 racial justice reforms, including changing the FOP contract.

“You have to start a conversation” about the union contract, Chappell said. “We’ve been knocking at the door, but someone has to open it up.”

The contract makes it difficult for the police chief to change what Chappell called a past “era of secrecy” at the Wichita Police Department. Transparency and community relations have improved under Ramsay, Chappell said, but it’s difficult to change longstanding attitudes in the department.

The police department gave a presentation about the FOP contract to members of the Wichita Citizen’s Review Board last September. Timothy Sims, former vice chair of the review board and a pastor at Planeview Church of God In Christ, said he began to look at Wichita’s contract more closely after Floyd’s death and ensuing protests.

The review board didn’t make any recommendations regarding the contract, Sims said. If it had, however, suggestions are advisory and not binding.

But if members of the board had looked at the contract more closely, he thinks they might have made recommendations to change it.

“It seems like the FOP makes it difficult to achieve the goals of accountability and transparency, and even the discipline,” Sims said. “Is the officer an employee of the city, or the FOP? Why is an FOP representative involved in every stage?”

In particular, Sims and Evans both want to see Section 6 of Article 13 in the FOP contract changed. It allows an employee receiving discipline to give up paid vacation days in lieu of an unpaid suspension.

“They’re still getting paid, they’re in the same position, nothing changes for them,” Evans said.

Inkelaar, the FOP president, said that provision has been in the contract for a very long time.

“Discipline at its core is to be corrective,” he said. “Since corporal punishment is not allowed in the workforce, discipline needs to be in the form of something forfeited by the employee.”

In negotiations, the Wichita FOP generally looks to increase compensation, create a fair and positive work environment and boost skills for members, Inkelaar said. That helps the WPD to be competitive in recruitment.

“It can be argued that the rank-and-file employees of the Wichita Police Department have greater concern than management when it comes to incompetent and/or problem employees, because such members have an impact on the other employees’ daily work life,” Inkelaar said.

Since the current contract took effect in December 2018, the city has terminated eight officers outside of the probationary period, as a result of internal or external complaints. The figure doesn’t include those who resigned before termination.

There haven’t been any sweeping changes to the contract over the past few bargaining agreements, he said.

Others pushing to reform the contract, like LaWanda DeShazer, want to see Articles 13 and 14 changed but not completely removed.

DeShazer, a member of the Racial Profiling Advisory Board and an advisor for the youth council with the NAACP in Wichita, also joined a subcommittee of the advisory board that is looking at making recommendations about the contract and the two articles.

Articles 13 and 14 are “All about discipline, so we want action taken when it’s warranted,” she said. “But we want those actions to really mean something.”

DeShazer pointed to Section 2(b) in Article 13 as a concern. It allows a representative from the FOP to review all complaint records and interviews. Also, the officer who is the subject of the complaint is the last person interviewed.

“That means they have an opportunity to maybe tweak their side of the story,” DeShazer said. “Officers should be interviewed at the onset.”

Police in riot gear prepare to remove protestors from an area around 21st and Maize in early June 2020. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

Delaying investigations

National activists agree.

DeRay Mckesson is the co-founder of Campaign Zero, a national organization that analyzes policing practices and seeks solutions to end police violence. Campaign Zero reviewed police union contracts in nearly 600 cities across the country, including Wichita, to make suggestions for fair police contracts.

Mckesson discovered ways in which the agreements dictate how and when an officer can be interviewed about a complaint.

He said there’s a difference in how police interrogate a citizen accused of a crime, compared to how a department internally investigates an officer accused of misconduct.

“We don’t negotiate interrogation times for anyone else who’s accused of wrongdoing in society,” Mckesson said.

Nix the 6 is an initiative of Campaign Zero. In its review of contracts, it points to six general provisions across the country that it says stand in the way of accountability.

Wichita’s contract has four of the six concerning provisions, according to a Nix the 6 analysis: it “erases misconduct records, restricts or delays interrogations, gives officers unfair access to information and limits oversight or discipline.” The categories “disqualifies complaints” and “requires city pay for misconduct” are not in Wichita’s contract, according to the analysis.

Mckesson pointed to what he called procedural hurdles in the complaint investigation process detailed in Wichita’s FOP contract.

According to Section 2(a) in Article 13, an officer charged with misconduct must be notified in writing within 96 hours, or four days, after the Professional Standards Bureau processes the complaint. That makes it more difficult to investigate a complaint in the first place, Mckesson said.

“How often are WPD not able to meet the 96 hours? They can just take five days,” he said. “Police can essentially choose to not have a complaint move forward by going beyond 96 hours.”

DeShazer, in Wichita, wants the city and the FOP to bargain over Articles 13 and 14 of the contract in public, rather than in private meetings as is typical.

“When we heard the contract was up for renewal, now’s the time for citizen input,” she said.

The city’s human resources department leads negotiations with the FOP, said Ramsay.

“These negotiations can be very lengthy, sometimes lasting days, weeks or months,” Ramsay said. “Successful contract negotiations happen when they are discussed in good faith and not through the media.”

Around 200 people attended the “Back our Blue” rally on Kennedy Plaza in front of Century II to show their support for police officers. This man posed for a photo with Wichita police officers. (August 11, 2020) Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

Police complaint data

In 2020, citizens initiated 265 complaints about Wichita police with the Professional Standards Bureau.

Of those complaints, only four — 1.5% — were found to be sustained, meaning the allegation was supported by sufficient evidence.

The majority of the 2020 complaints ended in a finding of unfounded, meaning the PSB found the allegation to be false. In all, 135 complaints last year were labeled as unfounded, or just over 50% of complaints filed. Generally, the agency said 100 complaints were cleared by body cameras.

The PSB found five external complaints to be not sustained (insufficient evidence) and 27 to be exonerated (the incident occurred, but it was lawful and proper). A total of 43 complaints, or 16%, resulted in education-based training for officers.

Some 2020 complaints could still be under investigation, without a finding listed from the PSB.

“Either we have a super upstanding police department and a crazy community that is constantly falsely accusing them,” Evans said, “Or there is something wrong with the process of investigation, that says out of 99 complaints externally, only one was determined just cause.”

The Wichita Eagle sent a Kansas Open Records Act request for 2020 complaint data to the Wichita Police Department, seeking copies of online complaint forms. A spokesperson for the department said information that identified the officer and the person who made the complaint would be redacted from any released data, citing an exemption for personnel records under KORA.

Walt Chappell, vice chairman of the Wichita Racial Profiling Advisory Board, speaks before the Wichita City Council in December 2019. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

The FOP contract, however, ensures that complaint documents remain private. The investigation records are still closed to the person who filed the complaint, said Chappell.

“The point is, they never saw what was investigated, the person who filed a complaint has no idea because the complaint is confidential,” Chappell said. “If they took it to court, it would all be in public record.”

Ramsay said WPD works to be transparent with people who filed complaints by allowing them to view police body camera footage.

“Often that determines the fate of the complaint,” Ramsay said. “That’s new. The needle is moving.”

The FOP believes disciplinary actions should remain confidential as personnel records, said Inkelaar.

“We can’t lose sight of the officers’ status as employees, and the FOP’s status as the representative of those employees,” he said.

“Confidentiality of personnel and disciplinary records is a well-established principle in labor management relations. We don’t believe it is appropriate to deprive police officers of that employment right.”

ramsay wed crop.png
Screenshot from Facebook video of Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is talking about protests. (June 3, 2020) Wichita Police Department/Facebook

Recommended solutions

Amid protests over police brutality last summer, Gov. Laura Kelly created the Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. Members began their ongoing examination of racial equity in Kansas by focusing on law enforcement and community relations.

In December, the commission released an initial report on policing. Members decided the state Legislature should “adopt policies that improve transparency around contract negotiations.”

The commission discussed concerns about transparency in contract negotiations in one learning session focused on Topeka. “In some cases, FOP contracts give individual officers the ability to request items be removed from their files,” according to the report.

Shannon Portillo, a professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas, is co-chair of the statewide commission. Her research has focused on local government and social equity.

Residents across Kansas brought questions about police union contracts to the commission’s attention, Portillo said. The public’s concern about contracts generally centers on discipline and transparency.

“It has to do with the process of discipline and how contracts can delay investigations or limit how information can be shared for personnel decisions,” Portillo said.

“The focus has really been on how these contracts sometimes prevent local governments from holding these officers accountable.”

Ultimately, commission members decided they want more information about how police contract negotiations work.

“Since policing is a local government issue, there are a wide variety of ways a union is involved in negotiations and how collective bargaining functions,” Portillo said. “We thought it would be great for the Legislature to provide some more oversight.”

If the state had a clear set of standards for municipalities to follow during negotiations, the public would better know what to expect, she said.

That’s why DeShazer wants the city and the FOP to bargain in public on Articles 13 and 14.

That runs contrary to how unions typically bargain, which is almost always in private, said John Nave. Nave, also a member of the governor’s commission, is the executive vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO. (FOP lodges are not part of the AFL-CIO in Kansas.)

He compared an officer’s discipline record to most other human resources personnel records.

“In a workplace setting, that information is confidential,” he said. “You can’t call in and ask about someone’s record.”

While that’s understandable in most situations, the community also wants to know what happened if there’s an incident with the police, he said.

Nave wants to see a statewide position created for someone with an outside perspective to review high-profile complaints. What he doesn’t want to do is step into the FOP’s arena.

“It all comes down to due process at every level,” Nave said. “That an officer has a fair and unbiased hearing. As a union we want to make sure they have their voices heard.”

Others said a police union shouldn’t offer the same protections as a private sector union because of the power officers have on the job and the role they play in public safety.

“We’re talking about public servants,” Evans said. “They work for us, so it should be different for the police.

“They have power that other employees don’t. If you have a higher level of power, then you have a higher level of accountability.”

Nave said police unions should ensure officers can build good careers, but also hold them to a high standard.

“People want a very safe community and they depend on law enforcement all across Kansas,” Nave said. “Our men in blue do put their lives on the line.

“It is up to the citizens to elect people to put forth good faith negotiations,” Nave said.

Wichita City council member Brandon Johnson talks to Melissa Tovar-Ohlson during a rally at Wichita City Hall on June 4, 2020. Johnson answered her question about body cameras on Wichita Police officers function. Council member Brandon Johnson will co-chair the mayor’s special committee to address racial and police-brutality issues raised by the protests. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

Community response

Ramsay said the WPD publicly shares “more information on internal investigations than ever before” because of the development of the Citizen’s Review Board.

“As Chief, I believe it is important to share information with the community,” Ramsay said.

It’s through the review board the department gives updates on complaints, including a summary.

“Organized labor works with leadership to build strong employee relations, reduce use-of-force incidents (and) implement policies that exceed national best practices,” Ramsay said.

Chappell has confidence that if enough people are concerned and speak up about it, certain provisions could be removed from Wichita’s FOP contract.

Others aren’t so sure.

Sims doesn’t believe there will be major changes to the bargaining agreement this year unless citizens pay more attention to the negotiations and bring the conversation to the forefront.

“They say the squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

Portillo said the likelihood for change at any level comes down to residents asking their elected officials to take action.

“When communities speak out and really ask their elected officials to make change, I think they have incredible power,” she said.

Evans plans to attend City Council meetings when a new FOP contract comes up for approval. He said he’s also spoken with elected officials and WPD staff about the contract.

“I encourage people all the time that they need to become aware of this,” Evans said. “They need to show up at City Hall, they need to address these things.”

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Megan Stringer reports for The Wichita Eagle, where she focuses on issues facing the working class, labor and employment. She joined The Eagle in June 2020 as a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Previously, Stringer covered business and economic development for the USA Today Network-Wisconsin, where her stories touched on everything from retail to manufacturing and health care.

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