“This terrorist movement that is currently occurring was a long time build up which dates back years. Starting with minimizing the size of our police force and diverting funds to community activist with anti-police agenda.” “”I’ve noted in press conference from our mayor, our governor and beyond how they refuse to acknowledge the work of MPD and continually shift blame to it. It is despicable behavior. How our command staff can tolerate it and live with themselves, I do not know.” These are the words of the Minneapolis Police Union president Bob Kroll, immediately following the start of the peaceful protests after George Floyd’s barbaric death’s video circulated across the internet. As police brutality in America begins to reach high enough levels for the media circles to take note, many are asking why officers rarely get disciplined for their actions. The answer lies within two words: police unions.
Police unions, on the surface, are similar to other unions: members pay dues to join and collectively bargain for various worker rights. On the contrary, the phrase workers’ union traditionally brings to mind images of electricians, construction workers, Jimmy Hoffa, and culinary workers, rather than a group of specialised professionals with the authority to apply force at self judgment. Incidentally, unions are meant to strengthen otherwise under-respected vocations, to vanguard the dignity of all work. Certainly, folks can agree that sanitation workers would be some of the first to lose their benefits & wages if a company wanted to better their margins, among other low-income fields suffering from rampant discrimination. Hence, the need for unions to protect millions of workers. I believe these same protections are not necessary for cops, so why do we have police unions?
Unions have many duties, with job security being one of them. Police unions hold this as one of their cornerstones, although this may be a morally bankrupt practice at heart. Public jobs, like policing, in general are safer than most private/independent union jobs. Of course people get fired for certain crimes at their job, regardless of their union status. If a teamster was drunk or an electrician intentionally short-circuited a house to cause arson, the union would understand severed ties between the employer and the employee. These example employees would not only be breaking their job description, but they would be harming others unreasonably and shaming their whole profession.
However, policemen have gotten special treatment for gross negligience in their profession historically. Earlier this month, FiveThirtyEight published their research on how many police officers have been charged for murder since 2005, and it turns out that 98.8% of officers have gotten away with murder. The strength of their union is attributed for their ability to retain employment. Sure, there have been some officers who have gone to court for murdering fellow civilians, among other crimes. They receive lighter, or dropped charges from prosecutors, since prosecutors need to have good relationships with police unions. Prosecutors need evidence, depositions, and other material from these policement in their other criminal & civil cases, and having a rocky relationship with cops will make their job tougher. Police contracts are a larger piece of the puzzle albeit.
The contracts that police unions sign create even more problems. For example, arbitration clauses are built in to allow some policemen to return to their job after being fired. In Philadelphia, for example, more than 60% of cops have returned to their job after being fired from it. These contracts are tainted from the start, as many police chiefs will say. Police chiefs have admitted that these contracts make accountability much harder. They also create a qualified immunity clause, which shields individual officers from liability for constitutional violations, as long as “clearly established” laws are not violated. The wiggle room created here has created countless flaws in the law enforcement arena, and police unions will be the very last ones to even touch this issue. Police chiefs have issues balancing the power of police unions with their own reform efforts. Chiefs see systemic issues in their departments, and want to bring change, but the union’s power limits their abilities.The meticulous nature of police contracts & ingrained power of police unions make real justice & police reform incredibly arduous, but change is still possible.
The first part of the solution is the validity of a police union. Should such groups exist for a profession that is already largely popular (i.e. “blue lives matter”) and pays decently? While most unions fight for a living wage, policemen already have cushy jobs, wonderful benefits, and police academy applications have shown no signs of decline. Reviewing police contracts is a more feasible step. Creating a type of citizen’s board and adding a member to these negotiations may prove to be feasible. Giving prosecutors more authority, that which supercedes the necesity of police officers could also shake up police union powers. A legal challenge to the qualified immunity doctrine would also curtail policing issues. There are various ways to go about police reform, and these are only a few. Congress has already taken steps to create a federal database of police complaints and is legislating changes in police tactics, which is great to hear; however I see these as a few band-aids on larger systemic issues which need change, including police training and the power of police unions.
Police policy is something I am novel at learning about. Frankly, I have known it is an issue for a while but it is not an issue I can pretend to be an expert on. As a person of color, I have been discriminated and profiled by law enforcement, but surely not comparable to the plights of my Latinx and Black brothers & sisters. Its an issue which I am glad has brought the country together and shaken up the system; many of us believed it was a reality we would have to live with until the end of our days and change was impossible. Its thrilling to see a multicultural coalition of all ages & genders coming together for this movement, and I’m glad to be here with it. There are so many angles to go with on this issue, but I picked this one since it seems to be underreported in the media, yet I would recommend reading all sides of this argument.
All of my citations are hyperlinked and feel free to contact me with any complaints, comments, or recommended additional readings. Search my name on LinkedIn, @TheAliMahdi on Twitter or email me at email@example.com. This is the subject I knew least about coming into it, so I am sure I have some inaccuracies and/or shortcomings.