The nationwide backlash against police abuses has already had one salutary effect: It has led to greater awareness of the role played by labor unions in protecting bad cops. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, calls to reform the powerful police unions have been expressed across the political spectrum.
But the only way to “reform” police unions is to abolish them altogether and end collective bargaining for public-safety employees.
Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, is a textbook illustration of how unionized police departments shelter cops known to be incompetent or dangerous. Chauvin had been the subject of at least 18 complaints of misconduct over the years, without ever facing any serious discipline. That was typical for Minneapolis; according to The Wall Street Journal, of 2,600 misconduct complaints filed since 2012 with the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review, only 12 have resulted in discipline.
In Minnesota as in most states, police officers are represented by unions with which municipalities are required to bargain collectively. The contracts they negotiate have long been notorious for their lavish pay, lucrative overtime rules, early retirement benefits, and outlandish disability provisions. But what millions of Americans are now realizing is that union contracts also make it so difficult to hold misbehaving cops answerable for their behavior that supervisors often don’t try.
These contracts frequently govern the internal procedures that police departments must follow when investigating officers accused of misconduct. They commonly mandate a lengthy waiting period before an officer can be questioned about a complaint. They may require that all records of an officer’s disciplinary history be destroyed. Some contracts specify that anonymous complaints of police abuse not be investigated. Others block civilian oversight of police officers.
Even when violent or dysfunctional cops are broomed off the force, union rules make it difficult to keep them off. Forbes reported in 2014, for example, that of 26 Philadelphia police officers fired for flagrant wrongdoing — their offenses included theft, excessive force, and being drunk on the job — 19 were subsequently ordered reinstated through the arbitration process.
These betrayals of the public interest are the inevitable result of allowing police to unionize.
It was once universally understood that collective bargaining in the public sector — especially for employees charged with public safety and law enforcement — was unthinkable. “A policeman has no more right to belong to a union than a soldier or a sailor,” editorialized The New York Times during the infamous 1919 Boston police strike, for “if he is faithful to his union, he may have to be unfaithful to the public.” President Franklin Roosevelt was equally adamant in 1937, when he declared categorically that “the process of collective bargaining … cannot be transplanted into the public service.” FDR recognized that empowering labor unions to negotiate with public officials must lead to abuse.
So it has. In the private sector, unions negotiate on behalf of workers for a larger share of the profits their labor helps produce, and both sides have a vested interest in the company’s welfare. In government employment, there are no profits to share and no bottom line to respect. There are only public funds to claim more of, and public safety concerns to disregard. Research confirms what common sense predicts: Police unions and collective bargaining produce higher pay for cops, no reduction in overall crime, and, over time, an increase in police misconduct.
Collective bargaining by police unions is antidemocratic. It strips from the voters any power to shape crucial public-safety policies they must live with, and transfers that power instead to those with a vested interest in the outcome: the police themselves. It rigs the system against ordinary citizens — never more so than when those citizens are menaced, hurt, or killed with impunity by abusive or reckless police.
Most police officers are not like Derek Chauvin. They are decent individuals who care about their communities and go to dangerous lengths to protect them. They deserve generous compensation, reasonable due process if accused of wrongdoing, and civil service insulation from political mistreatment.
But not unions.
FDR was right. Collective bargaining in government, which elevates the demands of union members above the interests of the public, has proved a prescription for disaster. How can Americans be protected from bad policing? Dismantling police unions would be a big step forward.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, go to bitly.com/Arguable.