Panel hopes to lift the veil on FOP contract

Joel Oliphint
joliphint@columbusalive.com

Over the spring and summer, in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, local activists called for police reform during protests that kick-started a refreshed Black lives matter movement. Some community members have demanded that city leaders defund the Columbus Division of Police. Others want the police abolished.

Those calls for reform have grown louder in recent weeks, sparked by the deaths of Casey Goodson and Andre Hill, two Black men killed by Columbus police last month. Meanwhile, as community members have demanded justice and accountability in the shootings, the contract between the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9 (FOP) and the city expired. Negotiations for a new contract are ongoing.

Even before the deaths of Goodson and Hill, the Columbus chapter of New Leaders Council (NLC), a progressive leadership development organization, had planned a virtual panel discussion to talk about the FOP contract in hopes of educating NLC members and the community about the ins and outs of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the FOP.

“This is an opportunity to shed some light,” said Chris Wyche, co-director of NLC’s Columbus chapter and moderator of “What You Need to Know about the Fraternal Order of Police Contract,” which takes place at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 5, via Facebook Live. “What’s the contract? What currently exists? What does it cover? And why does that matter? These different things that are in the contract — how does that affect the day-to-day policing that we see out on the streets? … And if there is going to be change, where does that change take place? Is it at the local level? Is it at the state level?”

Wyche will moderate a panel that includes attorney Sean Walton, who is representing Casey Goodson’s family; Dr. Chenelle Jones, Assistant Dean and Community Engagement Chair of Franklin University Public Safety Programs; State Rep. Erica Crawley; and Columbus City Councilman Rob Dorans, who, in a recent phone call with Alive, explained that while the previous FOP contract expired in December, the terms and conditions of the previous contract remain in effect while negotiations are underway.

How long those negotiations last is anyone’s guess, but Dorans said it could take months, not weeks. The contract must be agreed upon by both parties, and then it goes up for a vote among FOP members. Council then may accept the contract, reject it or take no action. Mayor Andy Ginther would then decide whether or not to implement the contract. If the parties can't come to an agreement, the negotiation becomes even lengthier through a state-mandated fact-finding process.

The current version of the contract, though, is no secret. It’s a public document. “It’s [174] pages, so it’s a bit dense,” Dorans said. “But I want to make sure folks understand that they can go look at it. They can go see what it requires of the city, what it requires of the FOP themselves and what kind of expectations it sets up for both parties.”

Dorans stressed that the negotiation of a new contract is exactly that — a back-and-forth, rather than one side dictating the terms and conditions. “The city can't walk into a bargaining table and demand X, Y and Z, and then we're going to absolutely get 100 percent of what we want. That's not how contract negotiations work. Both sides need to come to a table in good faith. That's the whole point of collective bargaining,” Dorans said. “People in the community — rightfully so — want to see drastic changes, and they want to see those drastic changes happen immediately. … [But] that contract sets up a process, and we’re contractually obligated to follow that process, and there are times in which that doesn't feel very quick."

The acrimony between the mayor’s office and the FOP in recent years raises further questions about the negotiation process. In 2017, for example, the FOP held a no-confidence vote in Mayor Ginther, then-Council President Zach Klein and Public Safety Director Ned Pettus. Can one side come to a bargaining table in good faith after stating it has no confidence in the people at the other end of the table?

“There's going to be rhetoric on both sides heading into a bargaining session, and that is not unusual,” Dorans said. “My hope would be that even if one party feels very, very strong about where we are as a city and how that relates to what they do for a living, that they would not let emotions get the best of them at the bargaining table. … I tend to believe in the process.”

These negotiations aren’t happening in a vacuum, either. A high-profile incident with police, like the shootings of Goodson and Hill, “underlines and emphasizes the need for the right kind of processes to be in place to make sure that the right people are policing in our community,” Dorans said.

Dorans pointed to the most recent election as one sign of progress in the oversight of police. In November, Columbus voters overwhelmingly passed Issue 2, a city charter amendment that creates a new Civilian Review Board to investigate allegations of police misconduct, as well as the new role of Inspector General. “That is something that a lot of folks in the community have been demanding for decades, and we did that in a matter of weeks,” Dorans said.

The review board and the inspector general, though, are subject to the FOP contract, meaning any of their recommendations would be advisory, pending changes to the contract. But Dorans, who helped author some of the language for the charter amendment, said the current limits on the power of the newly created entities was purposeful, arguing that a charter amendment that directly contradicted the current FOP contract would likely mire the city in a protracted legal battle.

“The Civilian Review Board and the Inspector General itself, we believe it can be implemented, and is going to be implemented, regardless of what the FOP contract says,” Dorans said. “While the review board's recommendations may not be binding until that is allowed under an FOP contract, I certainly do think it sets up the expectation that the committee is going to have more of an insight on what's happening. … If the Civilian Review Board investigates and recommends X discipline, and the chief recommends Y, the chief is going to have to explain why his recommendation is different than the Civilian Review Board.“

City Council has been holding public hearings with the aim of “Reimagining Public Safety,” which Dorans said involves more than just police. (“Not every call for help needs to have someone with a gun and a badge there,” he said.) And while the reimagining does involve police accountability, it also involves community violence; Columbus just had its deadliest year on record, with 174 homicides.

“It's very easy for some of these discussions to be an either/or: It's either, ‘We're going to defund the police tomorrow,’ or it’s, ‘We need to add more and more recruit classes every single year so we've got a cop on every corner at all times.’ The answer to what we're dealing with is not that simple on either side,” he said.

In the midst of these hearings, though, Council has drawn criticism from some who say the city has focused more on forums and panels than it has on concrete action. “I get that there are going to be people in the community that say, ‘We want more, and we want it done as soon as possible.’ And my message to them is, I hear you,” he said. “It's the community's job to hold elected officials responsible and to make sure that it's not empty rhetoric. And I don't think it has been. … But folks that aren't involved in city budgets and municipal governments want things to happen tomorrow. Unfortunately ... big ships take wide turns.”

Dorans pointed to the Civilian Review Board and Council’s legislation regarding no-knock warrants as examples of quicker progress, while also noting that police reform will be a years-long process. “We are in a time and a place in which we need to examine everything that we are doing, and if it's not working, we need to think about why and what are the fixes. And it's my hope that this [FOP] contract will provide some of that. But we also need to understand that one contract doesn't fix everything that is wrong with policing,” he said. “It's going to be a generational shift in order to make this kind of change that frankly has to happen. … We can't have more of these cases. We just can't.”

Despite the conflicting opinions on the FOP contract and what policing should look like in the Columbus, not to mention the recent killings of Goodson and Hill by police, NLC’s Wyche believes civil discourse is still possible, and he hopes Tuesday’s panel discussion can be an example of that.

“We want people from all sides of the spectrum to be able to come in and have a civil discourse to understand what is best for us as a city,” Wyche said. “We want to encourage people to invite their friends and family — those who they may disagree with on this topic. This would be a great opportunity to hear directly from community leaders who are in the know and to get a sense of how we can move forward together.”

Digital poster for Tuesday's virtual panel discussion.