Just days after striking a contract deal with the city’s largest police union, Mayor Brandon Johnson urged City Council members late Monday to reject an arbitrator’s ruling allowing cops to have the most serious disciplinary cases heard out of public view.
Officers facing dismissal or suspensions of more than a year could take their cases to arbitration under a final opinion issued last week by independent arbitrator Edwin Benn that would allow members of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police to bypass public proceedings before the Chicago Police Board.
Benn issued similar decisions in June and August and signaled Thursday he would come to the same conclusion if alderpersons reject the ruling and send it back to him. If three-fifths of the City Council votes against the ruling, it would be sent back to Benn to reconsider. If he stands firm, as he has suggested he will, 30 alderpersons would then have to vote against it. If that happens, the Fraternal Order of Police could take legal action.
Johnson said he was “disappointed” by the arbitrator’s decision, which he noted was made in the face of “strong dissent” from his administration. A mayoral spokesperson said a vote on Benn’s ruling will be held separate from a vote on the police contract.
“While we recognize police officers’ right to arbitration, it is crucial that disciplinary cases be handled in a manner that allows for public transparency and true accountability,” Johnson said in a statement. “Since this is a matter that will require City Council action, I am asking the body to reject this measure when it comes up in the coming weeks.”
FOP President John Catanzara said he simply wants parity with other unions’ contracts, and he threatened legal action if there’s a protracted battle with the City Council over ratifying the ruling.
“If they’re even going to try to reject this proposal, we will certainly be taking a scorecard of who is anti-union,” Catanzara said. “And there’s no other way to describe it: It’s anti-union to say that that is not afforded to our membership, like every other collective bargaining agreement in the city.”
Critics of Benn’s decisions include some alderpersons, police board officials and the president of a new civilian-led police oversight panel. They have warned that determining the most egregious police misconduct cases in closed-door proceedings could erode community trust.
Benn said he handed down his most recent ruling because of public reaction to his prior opinions, which he said “showed a misunderstanding of the arbitration process or a desire to dismantle that process.”
The argument that proceedings shouldn’t be held “behind closed doors” relies on an insidious “catch phrase,” Benn said, suggesting it could be a public relations ploy “designed to defeat arbitration as a dispute resolution process.”
The phrase has “added meaning” to Chicagoans, Benn wrote, invoking “the image of smoke-filled closed rooms of the past with politicians, criminals and the powerful cutting deals to line their own pockets without regard to rights of ordinary citizens.”
But “there is a more powerful and accurate ‘truth’ in a phrase that is the bedrock of our democracy, which washes away that simplistic ‘behind closed doors’ expression, along with its images of shady and secretive deal-making in smoke-filled rooms,” he wrote. “And that phrase is the most relevant (especially these days) — The Rule of Law.”
He said the FOP’s request to extend the arbitration provisions in the union’s most recent contract must be honored under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, and he cited other aspects of the law and legal precedents to back up his ruling.
The City Council must now consider Benn’s ruling, but it could send it back with objections. If that happens, Benn wrote, “the parties can rationally assess the outcome of this Board having to reconsider its prior rulings — but we will listen to and consider those objections.”
If alderpersons vote to ratify the decision, a labor dispute that has stretched six years would finally be over, Benn said, though he acknowledged it could also face legal challenges.
“For what it’s worth,” he added, “this remarkably complex process with the final outcome resolving an extraordinarily long labor dispute occurred with the parties acting in complete good faith ‘behind closed doors.’”
Benn’s ruling came as Johnson and the union reached a tentative deal to sweeten the last two years of the FOP contract signed by his predecessor, doubling the annual pay raise rank-and-file cops were scheduled to receive in 2024 and 2025.
While Johnson is calling on alderpersons to approve that deal, he remained steadfast in his opposition to the vote on the arbitration decision.
“We will not allow this to undermine our efforts to advance reform, increase transparency and implement our vision for improved public safety and policing to make our city better, stronger and safer,” Johnson said.
But Catanzara warned the union will “literally sue the s— out of the city if they’re going to subject us to some drawn-out process, because it is beyond unfair and it needs to stop.
“We’re all sick and damn tired of the low-hanging fruit of attacking police officers for their union-protected rights that everybody else is afforded with no questions asked,” he said.