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OPINION

Police unions must police their members

Police officers know when a fellow officer is out of control.

A Boston Police officer fist-bumps a protestor on Tremont Street after a gathering Tuesday on Boston Common to honor the life of George Floyd and other Black lives taken at the hands of police.
A Boston Police officer fist-bumps a protestor on Tremont Street after a gathering Tuesday on Boston Common to honor the life of George Floyd and other Black lives taken at the hands of police.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Again, and again, progress in policing in America has been thwarted by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by police unions and signed by elected officials. The Globe, in October 2015, probed the inability of police chiefs to impose discipline on troublesome officers because disciplinary investigations can often take years to resolve.

It is time to raise the issue again. The cost of not addressing it, not fixing it, is far too high.

The recent situation in Minneapolis featured an officer whose behavior resulted in the death of George Floyd. The officer, Derek Chauvin, had 18 previous complaints. Yet the chief was hampered, due to a history of overturned discipline cases, from imposing serious discipline on the officer despite Chauvin’s pattern of re-offending.

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Police work can be difficult and dangerous. It is understandable that officers want fair treatment in discipline matters, someone on their side. They should not be the victims of unfounded accusations. But repetitive bad conduct is not acceptable; it must be stopped. There have been too many gross violations of residents’ rights, even to the point of death.

Some time ago, the Rochester, N.Y., teachers union, under the leadership of Adam Urbanski, negotiated a radical contract with the school district. There were many concessions on both sides, with a view of producing better education for the Rochester students. The district granted many wishes of the teachers; the teachers agreed to many demands of the district. Most intriguing was the agreement that the union would take responsibility for poor teachers. They would be “counseled out of teaching” by the union. A peer review and intervention process was initiated. The teachers saw themselves as caring professionals who were embarrassed by incompetent teachers.

Police officers know when a fellow officer is out of control. They are wary of such officers. It is difficult to stand up to such bad behavior. When, as invariably happens, a resident is harmed and an accusation becomes formalized, the union steps in. The blue wall is raised around the officer. The union will not acknowledge bad behavior, and almost never accepts discipline on a brother or sister officer no matter how outrageous the behavior. This, despite the fact that each offending officer has placed the whole profession in disrepute.

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Three sets of partners could address this and move us forward to better, fairer to all, policing:

1. Officers must accept the real dangers these problem officers present. They must demand that union leaders rehabilitate such officers or separate them from police service.

2. Union leaders must lead measurably effective efforts to rid departments of badly performing officers at the same time they protect good officers. They must lead the work that says the status quo of shielding problem officers is not acceptable.

3. State legislators must get serious, at the next possible opportunity, about fixing prior legislative deals that overly protect police officers from appropriate oversight.

Last year, during a training provided to police officers at the national level, one of us was asked a question by an officer from the Southwest: “How do I live with the public attention to notorious incidents when I am blamed along with the bad officer, and I am smeared and labeled a thug, when I and the vast majority of my fellow officers are good, caring, competent cops?”

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A fundamental part of an honest response to that issue is addressing the issue of intransigent police unions. It would help to prevent bad police behavior. It would improve policing in the community, on the street with real people. It would take away the impenetrable wall that surrounds and handcuffs too much of policing.

Unions can do this. Unions must do this. It will take courageous leadership on the part of officers, of union leaders, of police chiefs, and of our legislative partners. Now, more than at any other point in our generation, we need to see that courage. We need to see that leadership. The communities we serve should expect — and demand — nothing less.

Edward Davis is the president and CEO of The Edward Davis Company and the former police commissioner of the Boston Police Department. Frank Hartmann is adjunct lecturer in public policy and a senior research fellow of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.