The Next Step in Police Accountability: A Look at RPD’s Expiring Contract
By Reimagine Richmond
Any time one sector of municipal government workers get a raise, police officers get a raise. If city workers get a raise, police get a raise. If city management gets a raise, police get a raise. If police management gets a raise, police officers get a raise. If firefighters get a raise, police get a raise.
It’s no secret that the City of Richmond spends an enormous amount of its annual budget on policing. But despite this huge monetary investment, the police in many ways lack accountability to Richmond residents.
A major challenge to local police reform is the agreement between the City and the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA), which is the police officers’ union. This agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”), outlines police wages, benefits, raises, and other processes for compensation. It also dictates how police can be held accountable for misconduct by the City.
The police union’s current contract just expired at the end of June, offering the City a chance to renegotiate the agreement and craft a more accountable and financially sustainable vision of public safety. There are several important areas within the MOU that can have a large impact on the amount spent on policing, the way police are held accountable, and the role that police play in the community.
Exorbitant costs of overpaid police officers
The Richmond police budget this past year was $71.6 million, which is the largest expense in the city’s budget and takes up more than one third of the total funding. Even when accounting for inflation, Richmond’s General Fund spending on police has increased by 278% since 1980.
Source: Transparent Richmond
The biggest part of this exorbitant police budget are police salaries and wages, which are largely dictated by the MOU. RPD compensation tower above those of other city workers and other police in the region. Including employer paid benefits, there are more than 80 RPD employees whose total compensation was more than $300,000 in Fiscal Year 2021. Given the call for “more police,” we need to be mindful of the strain these particular positions put on our General Fund.
‘Me too’ clause puts Richmond police above all other city workers
One of the reasons why Richmond police make high salaries relative to other unionized workers is the ‘me-too’ clause written in the MOU. The ‘me too’ clause says that any time city workers in another union get a raise, the police get the same raise. It sounds fair at first: when one group of workers gets a raise, the other workers should too. But the Richmond Police Association is currently claiming they should get four raises: one raise for each of the city employee unions that got their workers a raise last year.
Would you like it if any time anyone at your work got a raise, the raise automatically was also given to a group of workers already earning the highest salaries? This is how the ‘me-too’ clause of the Richmond police MOU works. This me-too clause guarantees that the inequality that already exists between workers will be permanent and only get worse.
This clause is somewhat unusual. For instance, police contracts in nearby cities, such as Fremont and Hayward, have no comparable clause. Other professions such as public school teachers (represented by United Teachers of Richmond) and city workers (represented by SEIU1021) also don’t automatically receive raises when other workers get raises.
The harm of over-reliance on police
Another problem with Richmond's overspending on police is that it doesn't leave room in the budget for other important priorities, such as programming for youth and addressing mental health crises and homelessness. These municipal investments prevent crime by addressing the root causes of poverty, violence, and theft.
With such a huge portion of public funds going to policing, and not enough towards prevention and healing, the city has to over-rely on sending police to high-conflict situations. In many types of emergencies, police are less equipped to respond than other types of professionals, and the data is clear that law enforcement presence in and of itself risks further escalating a situation or traumatizing community members.
Source: Transparent Richmond
The overreliance on police within the community contributes to the sense of impunity among police officers, who then think of themselves as the sole purveyors of safety. This translates into various abuses of power, many of which have recently been reported. The recent revelations about Richmond police abusive use of police dogs, and cases of police misconduct by officers who have a history of previous incidents, highlight the need for stronger accountability for abusive police. The MOU can set standards for acceptable conduct, but the current MOU is silent on this.
The MOU stipulates that cases involving decisions to terminate or suspend employees for more than 80 hours can be reversed through binding arbitration processes. In other words, the decision to terminate is not up to the Police Chief and the courts. Instead, it must be turned over to an arbitrator. Unfortunately, arbitrators have their own definition of ‘just cause’ for violence against civilians, and about half the police terminated for misconduct nationally are put back on the police force by arbitrators.
Conclusion: What makes our community safe?
Over-reliance on police as the go-to response for mental health crises, homelessness, drug abuse, and other community problems is a national pattern, and it’s certainly true in Richmond. Richmond has set out to reimagine public safety and build out new services, including the Community Crisis Response Program. In this context, what is the scope of work for the Richmond police? When are police necessary, and how should they be deployed?
The MOU between the City of Richmond and the Richmond Police Officers Association has contributed to overspending on police and lack of accountability for police misconduct. The negotiations of a new MOU should lead to an agreement that ensures:
- -Pay equity for workers across the city.
- -Effective mechanisms for holding police officers accountable for misconduct and supporting officers who do not engage in misconduct.
- -A focused role for police, only using them when necessary and appropriate.
The City Council and the RPOA are currently in negotiations for the next MOU. The community should articulate goals for the MOU negotiations.