Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Police Discipline in Chicago: Arbitration or Arbitrary?

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Police Discipline in Chicago: Arbitration or Arbitrary?

Article excerpt


In many jurisdictions in the United States, the final word in disciplinary actions involving police officers is not had by the chief of police, the mayor, or a civilian review board, but by an arbitrator. Using binding arbitration as a means of resolving disputes over attempts to fire or suspend sworn officers is very common, especially in many larger departments. There may be great differences among departments in terms of arbitrators' involvement, for example, which actions are, or are not cognizable before an arbitrator, at what stage in the process does the arbitrator enter the scene, etc. However, a key shared feature is the commitment by both management and the officers, through their unions or associations, to the principle of binding arbitration. Both parties agree to abide by the arbitrators' decisions. The losing party generally has only very narrow grounds to challenge an arbitration decision through a civil suit.(1)

Therefore, in a very real sense, to get a feel for how a police department takes disciplinary action, one must look at the final outcomes of the process. What a police chief or review board may order and what an arbitrator may ultimately decide can be very different.

The objective of this article is to present an empirical evaluation of how a police executive's disciplinary actions against a large pool of officers have been affected by arbitrators' decisions. This study focuses on the Chicago Police Department and covers the years 1990-1993. A total of 328 disciplinary actions were decided by binding arbitration during that period. In addition, under a new process started in July 1993, 205 disciplinary actions have been reviewed by arbitrators for nonbinding advisory opinions as of July 1995. These two distinct data sets demonstrate remarkably similar patterns of outcomes; collectively, the discipline imposed upon Chicago police officers is routinely cut in half by arbitrators. This pattern recurs despite an elaborate, lengthy review process and close scrutiny before the suspension of an officer is ordered.

This extraordinary even-handedness of outcomes raises serious, basic questions about the propriety of the arbitration process. Most studies of arbitration focus on precedential decisions. Although it is rare to have empirical analysis of a universe of decisions from one setting, this study closely scrutinizes one such pool of decisions. This study has particular significance because the underlying cases involve allegations of police misconduct that often arise from the highly charged, high-profile area of excessive force allegations.


Across the United States, the issue of police discipline has been interwoven with the question of civilian review. For years, in many cities, citizens and community groups have pressured municipal authorities to establish civilian review boards. Some of the many jurisdictions which have gone through this debate include Denver,(2) Houston,(3) San Jose,(4) and Boston.(5) The stated rationale is often the same from city to city: citizens' complaints of police misconduct, when investigated by police internal affairs officers, are not handled properly. In calling for civilian review boards in New Orleans and in other Louisiana jurisdictions, the chair of the Coalition of Concerned Black Ministers called the existing police investigative process "a joke. It's a case of the fox guarding the henhouse."(6) A common perception is that the police cannot be trusted to investigate themselves,(7) especially when the allegation is use of excessive force. For exampie., police shootings of several car-theft suspects in Newark, New Jersey led community activists to call for a civilian complaint review board. The activists claimed that the city's Police Director allowed his officers to operate "with impunity."(8) It is argued that only through civilian review, with a panel of citizens responding to public complaints, can the police be held accountable for their actions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.