Tag Archives: police unions

There Are Unions…And Then There Are Unions…

Yesterday, I explained how my opinion of labor unions had, shall we say, “matured” over the years.  Like many others, I came to see what happens when power becomes wildly disproportionate–when the parties to “bargaining” are so unequal that actual bargaining is impossible.

My belated support for unions recognizes the importance of genuine collective bargaining.

That support doesn’t extend to today’s iteration of police unions, which tend to be powerful protectors of the worst elements of law enforcement.

Public-sector unions are all in a somewhat different situation than those in the private sector. The ability to interrupt a public service gives them additional clout, and they have consequently fared somewhat better than their private-sector counterparts. To the best of my knowledge, most–but certainly not all– have behaved responsibly.

Then there are police unions, which definitely have not. As an article last year in the New York Times put it,

Over the past five years, as demands for reform have mounted in the aftermath of police violence in cities like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and now Minneapolis, police unions have emerged as one of the most significant roadblocks to change. The greater the political pressure for reform, the more defiant the unions often are in resisting it — with few city officials, including liberal leaders, able to overcome their opposition.

They aggressively protect the rights of members accused of misconduct, often in arbitration hearings that they have battled to keep behind closed doors. And they have also been remarkably effective at fending off broader change, using their political clout and influence to derail efforts to increase accountability.

That political clout is significant. Candidates for local offices seek to benefit not just from police union endorsements but from contributions: according to the Times, a single New York City police union had donated over $1 million to state and local races between 2014-2020.

The knee-jerk resistance to reform and the “aggressive” protection of their members are troubling, but understandable, “tribal” behaviors. Less understandable–actually, in my view, incomprehensible–is the current anti-vaccine stance being taken by several police unions.

Police departments around the U.S. that are requiring officers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are running up against pockets of resistance that some fear could leave law enforcement shorthanded and undermine public safety.

Police unions and officers are pushing back by filing lawsuits to block the mandates. In Chicago, the head of the police union called on members to defy the city’s Friday deadline for reporting their COVID-19 vaccination status.

It’s not just Chicago. The Sheriff of Los Angeles County has said he won’t force his 18,000 employees to be vaccinated despite a county mandate. Hundreds of police officers in San Diego say they would consider quitting instead of complying with a vaccination mandate.

Resistance is bubbling up even though first responders have been hit hard by COVID-19. More than 460 law enforcement officers have died from the virus, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks deaths in the line of duty.

On the news a few mornings ago, the head of the Chicago union pontificated that being vaccinated was a “personal choice” that government had no right to over-rule. That is especially ironic coming from someone who has been deputized by the government to enforce rules against the “personal choices” of, say, marijuana smokers, seat-belt resisters and gamblers.

It’s bad enough that ordinary Americans don’t understand the difference between personal liberty and their obligations to their fellow-citizens. (As a recent Facebook meme parodied that declaration, if I’m on a ship and I saw through the floor of my cabin to the water below, it’s my personal decision…). But these are people sworn to protect  and serve their communities–people who presumably became police officers in order to keep others safe. A “choice” to remain unvaccinated doesn’t simply expose the individual officer to a potentially deadly disease; it endangers anyone in the public with whom that officer interacts.

The research is unequivocal: police unions have a negative effect on innovation, accountability, and police — community relations. “Unionized officers draw more excessive-force complaints and are more likely to kill civilians, particularly nonwhite ones.”

The reason I changed my mind about unionization in general was my recognition that disproportionate power exercised by either unions or management leads to negative outcomes. In the private sector, sapping the ability of workers to bargain effectively has driven the widening gap between the rich and the rest.

In the public sector, the ability of police unions to shield bad cops from accountability–to allow them to defy the very rules they are supposed to uphold– endangers us all.

 

 

 

 

 

It Isn’t Just A Few ‘Bad Apples’

Will cellphone cameras do what years of eyewitness testimony couldn’t? 

As protests have swelled across the country, those who the late, great Molly Ivins memorably called “the chattering classes” have been debating similarities and differences between today’s demonstrations and those of the 60s. One of the clearest differences is the ubiquity of cellphone cameras–and the number of videos that have emerged capturing police–many in riot gear– brutalizing peaceful protestors.

As an article in The Guardian noted,

The nationwide anti-police brutality protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US have been marked by widespread incidents of police violence, including punching, kicking, gassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters in states across the country.

Many assaults were captured on video. Had the murder of George Floyd not been similarly captured, no doubt it would have been “explained” in a way that absolved the officers involved of blame–much as the Buffalo Police Department tried to evade responsibility for shoving and injuring an elderly man by issuing a press release that said he “tripped and fell.”

For more years than I can count, Americans have given police the benefit of the doubt when the facts were even slightly at issue. When facts haven’t been malleable, when the officer’s behavior was too clearly out of line to claim otherwise, the standard line has been “every profession has some bad apples.”  (We’re supposed to ignore the fact that police unions vigorously defend those “bad apples”and deploy their considerable resources to defeat mayors and prosecutors who try to hold police accountable.)

Are there lots of “good cops”? Sure. But in far too many police departments, the organizational culture works to silence them, and to incentivize a defensive “us versus them” mentality. A vivid example: when the evidence was too graphic to ignore, and the officers who shoved the elderly protestor were charged with battery, 57 members of the police force quit the unit to protest their suspension–and actually applauded them as they left the courthouse after being charged.

A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review had an article explaining organizational culture as “consistent, observable patterns of behavior” and quoted Aristotle for the observation, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

The culture of an organization is powerfully shaped by incentives — money, of course, but to an under-appreciated extent, intangible rewards such as status, recognition and approval, and sanctions.(It is not inconsequential that officers who connect with their community are far less likely to be recognized and applauded than those who make many arrests, especially ones involving force.) 

Ultimately, organizational culture is the “sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”

People who study policing concede that the culture of many American police departments is toxic. Last November, The Brookings Institution convened a panel discussion focusing on the challenge of changing the “values and rituals” that–according to one panelist, formerly a police captain– too often pit police against the people they are supposed to be protecting.

Another panelist noted that training often encouraged a “warrior mentality” that is attractive to a subset of individuals who “may not always be the best fit” for police work. Panelists also noted a lack of transparency and accountability–and the frequent use of internal cover-ups to protect officers who habitually use excessive force.

When bad behavior isn’t punished, it breeds impunity.

Five Thirty Eight recently posted an article about that impunity, and the reasons police officers are so rarely held criminally accountable. 

Many major cities continue to pay out millions of dollars each year to settle lawsuits against police officers, too often without firing officers who have been repeatedly sued. So even though police misconduct has drawn greater national attention, it’s still really difficult to hold police officers legally accountable for any kind of misconduct — including fatal violence.

According to the article, only 110 law enforcement officers nationwide have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting — despite the fact that around 1,000 people are fatally shot by police annually. Of that 110, only 42 were convicted. (Fifty were not and 18 cases are still pending.) Many of the convictions ended up being for a lesser offense. Only five were convicted of murder and failed to have that conviction overturned.

Part of the problem is understandable. Judges and juries are inclined to believe law enforcement officers.

But.

When I worked in City Hall, I became convinced that, other than the police union, the most significant barrier to accountability was prosecutors’ reliance on, and close working relationship with, local police. At the time, I lobbied–unsuccessfully–for a law requiring appointment of special prosecutors in such cases, to eliminate the unavoidable conflict of interest. 

Policing is a difficult job. It often requires split-second decision-making. We can be cognizant of that fact without giving bad cops permission to act like animals. Cellphone cameras can help.