Just as teachers unions make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers, police unions make it nearly impossible to fire bad cops. One recent study in the Duke Law Journal examined 178 police union contracts and found that "a substantial number … unreasonably interfere with or otherwise limit the effectiveness of mechanisms designed to hold police officers accountable for their actions.” The contracts often “limit officer interrogations after alleged misconduct, mandate the destruction of disciplinary records, ban civilian oversight, prevent anonymous civilian complaints, indemnify officers in the event of civil suits, and limit the length of internal investigations.” Another study found that “collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents of misconduct.”
If we want to eliminate violent police misconduct, then we need to eliminate collective-bargaining protections that shield bad cops. And there is a model for doing so. In 2012, then-Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) passed Act 10, a law that reformed collective bargaining for teachers unions and other public worker unions in his state. (Disclosure: I co-authored a book with Walker on his collective-bargaining reforms.) Like police unions, the Wisconsin teachers unions had negotiated agreements that tied the hands of supervisors in disciplining chronically bad performers. Instead of being removed, bad teachers were moved around from school to school. Act 10 allowed school officials to hire and fire based on merit and pay based on performance. Good teachers got rewarded while bad teachers got the boot.
Walker exempted police unions from Act 10 because he could not afford the risk of a police strike during the fight over the bill (which turned out to be prescient when 100,000 protesters occupied the state capitol). But he says the time has come to reform collective bargaining for police as well: "I’ve got to believe that in law enforcement, it’s similar to what we found in education. Just about everybody knows who the bad actors are, but because of union rules, they were constantly protected and reassigned.”
He says good cops have an interest in eliminating the provisions that protect bad ones. “The overwhelming majority of people in law enforcement are exceptional,” he says. “But I also believe that bad actors are a threat to them. As we see [in the case of George Floyd], they get tarnished by the bad actions of a very small percentage of people in the profession, and it makes their already dangerous jobs that much more dangerous.”
Walker notes that there are other ways to protect good officers from false accusations of misconduct. “In Wisconsin, I signed a law that says, if there’s an officer-related death, that an independent review has to be done. It can’t be done by the sheriff’s department or the district attorney, it’s got to be an independent review.” But, he says, the “union’s interest is not necessarily a fair process, it’s in protecting their members.”
That has proved true in Minneapolis, where the head of the local police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, has defended the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd. In a letter to union members, he said Floyd had a “violent criminal history,” complained the officers were “terminated without due process” and promised the union was working “to fight for their jobs.” But anyone who watched the video of Floyd’s gruesome death knows that the officers involved should be in prison. Derek Chauvin, the officer seen with his knee pressed down on Floyd’s neck, had at least 15 complaints against him, most of which were closed without discipline. Had it not been for collective-bargaining protections, perhaps he might have been taken off the streets long ago, and Floyd might still be alive today.
If we want to stop police misconduct, the answer is not to defund the police. We need more good cops, not fewer. But for the left, it is much easier to go after the police as an institution — or the president, who has no role in setting local police policies — than the local Democratic political leaders and union officials who enter into collective-bargaining agreements that shelter bad cops.
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