The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tired of bad cops? First, look at their labor unions.

Demonstrators attend a protest Tuesday in Boston organized in response to the death of George Floyd. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Daniel DiSalvo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY.

After every police brutality case like the one involving George Floyd, there are loud calls — this time backed by nationwide protests — for police departments to reform. Frustratingly, nothing seems to change. Among the many reasons for this bureaucratic sclerosis, one often gets overlooked: the power of police labor unions.

The purpose of policing is to promote public safety and uphold the rule of law so that individuals and communities can thrive. The purpose of police unions, however, is to win members better salaries and benefits and to protect their job security — specifically by pushing for safeguards against investigation, discipline and dismissal. These protections can make it difficult for police chiefs to manage their forces effectively and can allow a few bad officers to act with impunity, poisoning an entire organizational culture in the process.

The most notorious example of this problem emerged from Chicago after the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by officer Jason Van Dyke. Before that fatal incident, Van Dyke had been the subject of 20 civilian complaints, 10 of which alleged excessive use of force. But under the union rules then in place, the complaints proved toothless. As a task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the wake of the shooting reported, “The collective bargaining agreements between the police unions and the City [had] essentially turned the code of silence into official policy.”

To be sure, many of the protections demanded by police unions reflect the unique challenges of policing. Because of the nature of their work, law enforcement officers tend to have adversarial relationships with the citizens and communities they serve. False or exaggerated complaints are inevitable, and it is understandable that labor representatives would want to protect their members against these threats.

Problems arise when these provisions are exploited to help cover for bad policing. In many American cities, police union contracts limit the amount of time an officer accused of misconduct can be interviewed, who can interview him and when an interview can occur. Houston and Louisville, for example, allow for delays of up to 48 hours before an interview with an officer accused of wrongdoing. On one hand, these rules protect officers who, because they must make statements on the record, surrender as a condition of their jobs their constitutional right to remain silent. On the other hand, this grace period can be used as time for officers to “get their story straight.”

In Baltimore and other cities, labor contracts allow — or even require — expunging officers’ records of past disciplinary actions or accusations of misconduct. In Cleveland, a Justice Department investigation into the police department was stymied because the union contract required the deletion of disciplinary records every two years. At their most benign, these policies deprive supervisors of accurate personnel files, making effective management — and organizational change — impossible. In more troubling circumstances, they allow cops who have violated the public trust to take police jobs in new cities without any record of their past infractions.

Grievance and arbitration proceedings are another obstacle to accountability. These provisions are often the largest part of any contract and are discussed in mind-numbing detail. In New York City, for example, they make up nearly five pages of the police officers’ 29-page contract. They allow both unions and individual officers to challenge personnel actions by superiors. If a sergeant disciplines an officer, the officer or his union representative can appeal to a lieutenant, and so on up the chain of command. If the matter remains unsettled, it can be appealed to binding arbitration. The hassle involved in dealing with grievances can deter supervisors against weeding out poor performers — or even force them to rehire known troublemakers, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Beyond erecting structural obstacles to reform, unions also informally perpetuate some of the most problematic aspects of police culture. Labor leaders have considerable influence over rank-and-file officers, and they don’t always use that influence constructively. As a case in point, the leader of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, Bob Kroll, has called the protests convulsing the city a “terrorist movement”; told officers that “the politicians are to blame” for the rioting and the police “are the scapegoats”; and described Floyd as a “violent criminal.” He has also fostered political division in the largely Democratic city; at one point, the union sold “Cops for Trump” T-shirts to raise money for charity.

As tragic as Floyd’s death is, it might finally prompt union leaders to reconsider some of these practices — and to put the mission of the police above job security for officers. In the past several days, many police unions have broken with their usual wagon-circling and openly denounced the actions of the Minneapolis officers involved in Floyd’s death.

Perhaps these labor leaders — and the elected officials on the other side of the bargaining table — will recognize that the rage we see in burning cities indicates a spectacular breakdown in trust between communities and the police. That trust cannot be rebuilt unless police unions are reined in and departments have the freedom to reform.

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