Last month, the City of Hartford launched a public relations campaign to try to manage the fallout from a video in which then-Sergeant Stephen Barone, a police department manager, threatened a group of young, mostly Black and brown people by saying he was “trigger happy.” As the Hartford Police Department and Mayor’s office announced that Barone had been demoted, they pulled from a familiar playbook by trying to portray him as a single bad apple gone rogue. Hartford’s new police chief, confronted by rightfully upset city residents, responded with a PowerPoint presentation to the city council. Yesterday, after public pressure and Rashawn Johnson's bravery in speaking out about Barone’s threats, the Hartford Police Department fired Barone.
The problem is, the City of Hartford signed a six-year contract, valid from 2010 through 2016,* which guaranteed a bad system, not just bad apples. As long as the City continues to bargain away its ability to create true police accountability, the kind of unacceptable behavior on display in the “trigger happy” video will be a feature of Hartford’s police department, not a bug.
Police unions, like other public sector employee unions, use the collective bargaining process to gain contractual agreements for workplace conditions: rather than negotiate terms of employment individually, the employees band together and negotiate one set of rules for the workplace. These agreements, called “collective bargaining agreements,” or “CBAs,” serve as a contract between the government and its employees in the police department. CBAs can be critical for protecting workers’ rights, but when it comes to police, they can undermine accountability. With this one document, towns can bargain away their abilities to hold their own police employees accountable – employees who, unlike public schoolteachers or service workers, use violence and deprive people of their rights through arrests.
In addition to addressing “workplace conditions” like pay, police CBAs almost always govern disciplinary procedures and whether and how the employer can review an employee’s job performance. Many police CBAs in Connecticut also decide who has ultimate authority over disciplining department employees (this can be a fellow town employee like the chief of police, an elected authority like a town council, or another person or agency). Many also prescribe how the police department handles discipline related to a complaint from a member of the public.
That’s how Hartford ended up promoting Sergeant Stephen Barone, the manager caught threatening youth on video, despite his history of disciplinary issues.
Only 39 percent of Connecticut police departments have collective bargaining agreements that mention performance reviews – meaning less than half of all police departments in Connecticut are contractually obligated to review how their employees are performing. On the plus side, the Hartford Police Department is one of those departments. The City of Hartford agreed to a CBA allowing the police department to conduct annual performance reviews, but that contract, unfortunately, prevents the City from using performance review results to affect an employee’s contractually scheduled pay rate within their job classification, pay range, or growth increment. In other words, Hartford police officers are guaranteed year over year raises regardless of their on the job conduct.
Yes, that’s right: a police employee in Hartford who receives a bad performance review will, by contract, stay on track for a pay raise. The City of Hartford negotiated away its rights to effectively hold individual police employees meaningfully accountable for their on the job performance.
Hartford’s CBA is also why Stephen Barone’s disciplinary history, as reported in the press, likely had no effect on Stephen Barone’s promotion to manager or his assignment to the department’s newly created “Community Response Unit.” In its CBA, the City agreed to allow certain police employee disciplinary records to play no role in future discipline, and, by extension, future promotions and assignments. In Hartford, records of a police employee’s oral discipline disappear after one year, written reprimands disappear after two years, and both kinds of discipline “will be disregarded in any future disciplinary action.” This is fairly common in police collective bargaining contracts in Connecticut. Under this system, an employee could routinely be disciplined for hurting or threatening people but have that discipline disappear within a year.
How does a City almost guarantee that employees are subject to a low risk of public scrutiny and shielded from potential discipline? Simple: the City agrees to restrict investigations of complaints from the public to only complaints where people give a sworn statement, and it does not guarantee that anonymous complaints will be investigated. In its police CBA, the City of Hartford also agreed to that. Although Connecticut law requires all police agencies in the state to follow a complaint policy that requires departments to accept all complaints – including those submitted anonymously – some towns, like Hartford, have essentially bargained away their residents’ rights to have their concerns taken seriously.
On October 17, 2018, Hartford police chief David Rosado rightfully fired Stephen Barone. Let’s be clear, Chief Rosado’s decision is the direct result of Hartford residents demanding accountability from their police department and Rashawn Johnson’s bravery in speaking out about Barone’s threats. The city’s CBA provides Stephen Barone with a grievance procedure that will allow him to fight his termination if he chooses. The story is likely not over on Barone, rather, the final decision on his termination rests with Connecticut’s State Board of Mediation and Arbitration.
True police accountability requires a multi-pronged approach. Overhauling contracts in which cities bargain away their abilities to protect residents from abusive police employees is just one piece of the puzzle of police accountability, but it’s important. For too long, cities and towns, governed by city councilors and mayors elected by the people, have voluntarily frittered away the government’s right to hold police employees accountable, which has allowed problematic police officers to rise through the ranks.
Lack of police accountability is more than just a "bad apple" problem. It's a structural problem, and the City of Hartford, through the mayor’s office and some city councilmembers, put itself in that position.
*On December 12, 2017, the City of Hartford entered into a new six-year contract with the Hartford Police Union. The new contract is not available to the public; at press time, the city still lists the old contract on its website, along with a tentative agreement that addresses pay and benefits and prevents "random monitoring" of police body camera footage from being "used to initiate discipline." City residents and visitors are owed more transparency and respect from the people who are supposed to be serving them. The City must make the new Hartford Police Union contract accessible to city residents by posting it on the city’s website now.