Politics & Policy

It’s Time to Take On Police Unions

(Michael Nagle/Getty)
Recent events suggest Republicans have given them a pass for far too long.

Six and a half minutes.

That’s how much time elapsed between the instant that Akai Gurley was shot in a dark Brooklyn stairwell last month and the moment the officer responsible for Gurley’s death finally called it in.

What was NYPD officer Peter Liang doing in those six and a half minutes as his commanding officer and emergency operator tried desperately to reach him? So far as we know, he was not crouched on the floor, attempting to resuscitate Gurley, the man into whose chest Liang, gun drawn, claims he “accidentally discharged a bullet” during an unauthorized stairwell patrol, sending Gurley’s body tumbling down two flights of stairs.

No, as Akai Gurley, the 28-year-old father of a two-year-old daughter, was bleeding out on the floor, Officer Liang was texting his union rep. The Akai Gurley episode is a disturbing reflection on policing in America and of a law-enforcement culture that now prioritizes officers’ professional and personal liability concerns over the well-being of the citizens.

This is the reality we have wrought for ourselves, thanks to the far-reaching might enjoyed by America’s police unions.

The confusing events in Ferguson, the disturbing footage in the Eric Garner case, the aforementioned Brooklyn incident, and, most recently, a police officer’s shooting of a black father in Phoenix who was delivering his children Happy Meals when, during a brief chase and scuffle, the officer determined the man was armed, mistaking a bottle of painkillers in the now-dead man’s pocket for a gun — all of these incidents have provided rich content for television pundits on both sides of the aisle to stoke a polarizing dialogue about the complicated relationship between black Americans and law enforcement.

But there is another feature of these episodes that deserves our attention: The role unions representing America’s law-enforcement officers have played in the state of policing today.

Americans have long been sympathetic to public-sector unionization, even as some conservative thought leaders have gained some ground in pointing out their harmful influence on policy

Police unions, in particular, have come to command an enviable position, deploying lobbyists, endorsements, direct campaign-committee contributions, and independent expenditures and PAC spending — funded largely by union dues drawn from public paychecks — to great effect.

While some other classes of government-sector unions took a beating following the recession, police unions have mostly been insulated from reforms, securing carve-outs in legislation that would otherwise reduce union muscle.

America’s special reverence for law enforcement is understandable. Law enforcement is arguably government’s most core function, and effective policing requires the unflagging dedication of individuals who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect us.

But as police unions’ clout has grown, law-enforcement culture has tended to place the interests of unions and officers above those of the community. Police unions have lobbied against greater transparency in day-to-day policing and against internal-review policies or public-records laws that would shine light on complaints filed against officers, among other proposals.

Inevitably, the justification given in these cases is “safety of first responders” or the desire to “prevent community unrest.” But in reality, it’s an attempt to reduce the chance that officers, whether malevolent or simply negligent, will be held accountable for their actions.

And so we return to the November death of Akai Gurley and Peter Liang, the officer who killed him.

“I think I’m going to get fired,” Liang was heard telling his partner in that six-and-a-half-minute span.

Officer Liang is not merely a bad apple, though thankfully he has been stripped of his gun and will likely face a grand jury in coming months. He’s a rookie police officer who has come up through a union culture that programs cops to think of self first, rather than of community first – the very orientation the job of a policeman requires.

It is right to admire and acknowledge the sacrifices that law-enforcement officers make for American communities every single day. But it is precisely the sensitive nature of this work that makes the current system by which officers relate to their employers — the people they are hired to protect — untenable.

Look no further than the contemporary tradition of collective bargaining in this country, a frequent means through which this reduction in police force culpability occurs.

It’s easy to assume that collective bargaining, the process by which government unions negotiate public workers’ contracts, deals only with compensation packages, benefits and “fringe benefits,” and “work rules” – a term of art designed to sound like innocuous talk over shift schedules or how many boxes you can ask an employee to lift that day.

In negotiations that occur almost exclusively in secret and almost always with a professional government-union negotiator (not a lawmaker), unions fight over a range of issues beyond compensation that impact the day-to-day practices of government workers, and in turn, citizens’ experiences interacting with them. In the case of police unions, these negotiations govern how we hold accountable officers we trust with deadly force.

Take, for instance, the national debate over whether or not police should be required to wear body cameras. More than half of Americans reported in 2013 that they supported police wearing body cameras, with less than a third of Americans opposing the concept. And for good reason: Evidence suggests body cameras tend to reduce complaints against law enforcement overall, which sounds like a good thing.

Yet police unions around the country have impeded the deployment of cameras and even held out in contract negotiations over the issue.

In Wichita, Kan., earlier this year, the police union took the city to court over the introduction of Taser Cams, because per contract language, the city was required to obtain the union’s approval before introducing a body camera policy. A similar conflict over body cameras is brewing in Boston this month.

Police unions, by their very nature, are antithetical to a culture of oversight. As the Goldwater Institute found during discovery in a lawsuit against a Phoenix police union, police unions come to view themselves as the arbiter of policy, not the 501(c)(6) nonprofit associations they are.

That lawsuit, which has thus far been successful, challenged the practice of union “release time” by the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA). In Phoenix, collectively bargained contract provisions relieved more than half a dozen officers of their police duties to do full-time union work, funded by city taxpayers. One of the release-time officers, who collect full-time government salaries and benefits, had not actually been out on the beat in nearly a decade.

Worse, the suit revealed that much of this taxpayer-funded union activism revolved around deliberately undermining management and jeopardizing the peace.

In the context of the introduction of Taser Cams in Phoenix, union officials urged officers to file grievances against the city and to refer to Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia as “Danny,” rather than “Chief,” because “he needs to know we r [sic] equal partners and he is not above PLEA!”

Preparing for some tense contract negotiations, one union official wrote to his brethren that perhaps they should “torch this place,” and suggested that they hire a private investigator to follow the police chief and “break it off in his ass” if he were found to be meeting with other unions over disputes involving new uniform guidelines.

In one chilling incident, the union actually encouraged officers to refuse to re-pledge their professional oath.

The anecdotes from Phoenix, which would otherwise be unknown were it not for this lawsuit, provide a rare insight into the culture that police unions impose on law enforcement.

This is the opposite of how we want police officers to behave, but it is precisely what happens in communities where strong police unions exist (that is to say, virtually everywhere).

It’s particularly troubling to observe the way in which Republican politicians throughout the country have given unions in the public-safety sector a pass even as they reform other areas that touch public-sector unions.

In Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker gained the spotlight by ushering through a ban on collective bargaining, public-safety unions were carved out of the bill. So too were public-safety unions in Michigan during the landmark right-to-work legislation there. In other states where reforms have gained ground but not made it into law, police unions are often carved out in the first round of committee hearings.

“They’re with us on issues that matter,” Republican politicians are often heard saying in some form when asked to defend their cozy relationship with police unions.

Indeed, the Fraternal Order of Police endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008. In gubernatorial races around the country this year, police unions frequently endorsed the Republican candidate. Police unions have also supported favorite Republican proposals, such as controversial immigration bills like S.B. 1070 in Arizona.

But far more important to us than incidental coalition alignment ought to be the fundamental value of government accountability, which the continued strength of police unions threatens.  

Next month, Republican legislative majorities and Republican governors together will command 22 state houses, and union reform will be on the agenda in many of them.

Given what we see happening throughout America, all constituents — but particularly Republicans — ought to demand that their elected officials cease giving police unions a free pass.

Police unions must be held accountable, and we should consider whether they ought to be recognized by state and local government at all. Today, the existence of police unions, far from enhancing a strong, citizen-oriented police force, threatens the continued peace and safety of our communities.

The longer we wait to demand accountability, the harder it will be to achieve. But without serious reform to American police unions, Officer Liang’s six-and-a-half minutes of infamy could repeat itself all over the country unbeknownst to us.

Perhaps it already has.

— Lucy Caldwell is vice president of client relations for High Road Stories, a holistic marketing campaign firm focused on free-market causes. She was formerly senior political adviser to the Goldwater Institute.


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