Policing, therefore, exemplifies how a governmental function can be “captured” by a special interest group — in this case, the agency’s employees themselves.
And it was right-of-center economists — Mancur Olson of the University of Maryland and George Stigler of the University of Chicago, to name two — who elaborated theories of special interest groups and government-agency capture in the 1960s and 1970s.
To be sure, Stigler focused on the ways corporations captured economic regulators who were supposed to control them; Olson’s main concern was how the internal dynamics of special interest groups affect their political efficacy.
Nevertheless, these economists’ insights retain relevance to the bureaucratic politics of modern police departments. Like the businesses Stigler analyzed, police officers have, on average, a far higher stake in the outcome of regulatory processes — civilian reviews, arbitration and disciplinary hearings — than individual citizens, and, therefore, much greater incentive to spend time and resources co-opting them.
Olson showed that the ability of any interest group to get its way in public policy varies according to size, with large, diverse groups counterintuitively less capable than small, narrowly defined groups. In the latter, the tangible benefits of collective action to an average group member are more likely to outweigh the costs in money, time and effort.
That incentive structure is especially strong in groups where a common purpose — either in the positive sense of a noble mission or the negative sense of defense against outsiders — reinforces economic interests.
Police and their unions illustrate Olson’s arguments on all counts. Neither he nor Stigler would be surprised by research showing an inverse relationship between accountability for police misconduct and the rise of police collective bargaining in the past 50-plus years. (Thirty-two states now have it.)
Undoubtedly, police have legitimate concerns and interests, and a right to representation in appropriate forums, political and bureaucratic — just as corporations have a right to a fair hearing before regulators.
Yet the Wall Street Journal’s finding that half of all Minneapolis officers who faced criminal charges in the past 15 years are still on the job suggests they are getting something more than neutral due process.
Defunding police doesn’t necessarily address these structural dynamics, though it would be at least a temporary political defeat for police unions and lobbies.
More consequential changes would be to eliminate collective bargaining, at least over disciplinary procedures, and to eliminate legislation that limits investigations of police brutality or abuse, such as the “law enforcement bill of rights” on the books in 14 states.
The forest of pro-police contractual and statutory law grew in part because of the competition between Democratic and Republican politicians for the favor of law enforcement unions — a high-reward, low-risk exercise for the parties given the public’s strong support for police in opinion polls, at least before this year.
In 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and a Republican legislature curbed public-employee collective bargaining, probably the most dramatic real-world application of conservative doctrine to fight union public service capture.
For political reasons, however, Walker hypocritically exempted police unions, though in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, the now-former governor has reconsidered.
Meanwhile, Democrats receive millions of dollars from public-sector unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), whose 1.4 million members include 90,000 unionized police and corrections officers.
This is a sensitive issue for AFSCME and its Democratic allies, because criticism of undue police union power could lead to wider questioning of organized labor’s heavy influence over other public services, such as education.
AFSCME President Lee Saunders denied in a recent USA Today op-ed that police-union contracts provide “a shield for misconduct or criminal behavior.” He portrayed the non-AFSCME Minneapolis police union and its militantly pro-Trump president as exceptions to a more enlightened rule.
Invoking striking African American sanitation workers with whom the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Memphis, Saunders wrote: “Just as it was wrong when racists went out of their way to exclude black people from unions, it is wrong to deny this freedom to police officers today.”
Black Lives Matter and its allies have the initiative, but, as Mancur Olson would note, the sheer size and diversity of their movement could mutate from a strength to a weakness. Police have a high degree of solidarity; the movement will have to match it to overcome it.