Police unions have more power than police chiefs and keep bad cops on the streets. This has to change.
America’s police forces are suffering from an image problem at the moment. Their public face is so battered that calls to defund or abolish the police are not fringe elements, they’re openly discussed by lawmakers. Law enforcement in the US is widely seen as violent and unaccountable, lawbreaking among law enforcers endemic and unpunished.
Regardless of how violent or racist American police are, that police who break the law are held to a wildly different standard than normal civilians is not a political position – it is a political fact. Cops get away with things that other people don’t and when they get caught and/or punished the punishment and process is legally different than for the average citizen.
And police unions are at the heart of it.
In cities and states all over the country, police officers are required to get special treatment. After Breonna Taylor was killed in a probably illegal Louisville police raid in March, Mayor Greg Fischer tried to mollify angry constituents demanding consequences for the police who killed her. “I want to acknowledge and realize that there is a conflict between the swift decisions that some people want versus the legal processes and due process that is in place.” The mayor said at a May 29 press conference, dejectedly explaining how the contract the city negotiated with the police union demands a very specific process. “I recognize the system is not a best practice for our community.”
It is common practice for many police unions to issue members extra membership cards which, without great hyperbole, function as literal “get-out-of-jail-free” cards for friends and family. These cards are treated as a perk of the job and when, reported the New York Post, these “courtesy cards” are limited by unions “All the cops I spoke to were . . . very disappointed they couldn’t hand them out as Christmas gifts.”
The police-union watchdog and advocacy group Campaign Zero lists six key ways that police unions, and the collective bargaining agreements they negotiate for their members, prevent meaningful police reform:
- Disqualifying misconduct complaints that are submitted too many days after an incident occurs or if an investigation takes too long to complete – as in Columbus, OH, where complainants have no more than sixty days to provide a written complaint;
- Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident or otherwise restricting how, when, or where they can be interrogated – such as in Louisiana where cops are allowed a full thirty days to refuse any questioning;
- Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get prior to being interrogated – the Florida police “bill of rights” specifically states that accused police get access to all available evidence “before the beginning of any investigative interview of that officer;”
- Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct including by giving officers paid leave while under investigation, paying legal fees, and/or the cost of settlements – this is the actual law in three states and at least forty cities have it written into police contracts;
- Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file – like in Cleveland, OH, where all information regarding disciplinary actions or penalties will be removed from an officers record just two years after the punishment;
- Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and/or the media to hold police accountable – the Portland police union contract stipulates that any punishments for police must be administered in the way “least likely to embarrass the officer.”
Labor unions exist to protect their members; to secure improvements in pay, benefits, working conditions, or social and political status of union members is the literal definition of a trade union. But these provisions go too far; in their face, little wonder then that many see a sense of entitlement among our police, that they think, as Cato’s Julian Sanchez says, that “officers of the law should expect to be able to break the law and not be punished for it.”
Police unions are also notable for particularly aggressive tactics in ‘lobbying’ lawmakers. The Orange County Register described the harassment and intimidation of city councilmembers by police unions with threats of arrest, dubious citations, and being followed in public.
Minneapolis city councilman Steve Fletcher tried to use some of the money for hiring new officers towards police violence prevention and, as reported by the New York Times, police responses to 911 calls placed from within his district suddenly slowed down. “It operates a little bit like a protection racket.” Said Mr. Fletcher.
Efforts to stop the ‘militarization’ of police through the transfer of military weapons, vehicles, and equipment to local police departments is consistently and vigorously opposed by police unions and their lobbyists in Washington. Who are already gearing up to resist proposed federal legislation to, among other things, end qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that protects cops from prosecution or lawsuits when they violate someone’s constitutional rights.
Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic explained in 2014 how, “all over the U.S., police unions help many of those cops to get their jobs back, often via secretive appeals geared to protect labor rights rather than public safety.” In other words, he wrote, “Cops deemed unqualified by their own bosses are put back on the streets.” In an encapsulating example, Friedersdorf summarizes the story of one Oakland cop who killed two unarmed men (requiring the city pay a $650,000 settlement), and was fired – he appealed through his police union, was reinstated, and even given back pay.
Police unions encourage the relocation of bad cops, fired for cause, to other precincts or agencies around the country, often getting significant raises and even running law enforcement for entire communities.
Early this month, 57 police officers quit a Buffalo special unit (in solidarity with two of their colleagues suspended for cracking open a 75-year old’s skull with a shove to the ground) and six Atlanta officers were charged, including four felonies, in the violent arrest of two students leaving a protest. The following weekend, a Florida chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police told the Atlanta and Buffalo police officers on Facebook that “we are hiring in Florida. Lower taxes, no spineless leadership, or dumb mayors rambling on at press conferences… Plus… we got your back! #lawandorderFlorida.” From Florida to Hawaii, law enforcement unions have been instrumental in keeping bad cops in uniform.
Evidence is mounting that no significant reform of America’s police is possible without addressing the influential intransigence of police unions.
The results of a 2018 paper from the University of Chicago suggest that “collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents of misconduct.” The researchers recorded a forty percent increase in violent misconduct among Florida sheriffs’ deputies after being allowed, and choosing, to unionize.
Lawmakers and enforcers across the nation are loudly saying what was previously barely whispered: that the power of police unions must be included in any conversation about police reform. The Attorney General of Minnesota Keith Ellison spoke to MSNBC last week about it and just a few days later Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told CNN that the unions “are on the wrong side of history.”
Over the past few years, pundits from across the political divide have increasingly come to a sort of consensus that the influence of police unions must be curtailed. The conservative National Review joins the New York Times in describing how the unions have become powerful opponents of reform. The conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, released a report in 2019 saying that police unions often “run counter to the best practices of professional law enforcement standards” and at points reads like something from the ACLU.
The last few generations of collective bargaining have stripped police chiefs of disciplinary authority and allowed the unions to control internal investigations. Municipalities and states need to change the way they negotiate to force a change in the culture of unaccountability at the heart of police misconduct.
The unions are doing what they’re supposed to: protecting their rank and file. Police think they can get away with almost anything because the evidence suggests they can. It is up to the lawmakers to reject contracts that cede too much power to the unions and to demand accountability from law enforcement and those that represent them.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance writer. He is the senior writer and manager of The Swamp and is featured in Grunge, Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, among others. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter.
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