Serious conservative arguments against public sector unions are worth carefully considering in light of recent protests against police brutality. It is notable, however, that conservative lawmakers have routinely shielded police unions from accountability when given the chance. For example, while in office, Governor Scott Walker exempted police from his crackdown on collective bargaining rights of public sector unions in Wisconsin. It’s time for conservatives to line up behind a set of their own broader convictions to help support what is clearly a groundswell demanding serious reforms.
Today, there are seven million public sector union workers. The share of government workers belonging to labor unions is more than five times the unionized share of the private sector. Unions represent 60 percent of police officers and 70 percent of public school teachers in the United States. The power of these unions is driving cities and states into fiscal ruin as they lobby for increasingly bloated benefits packages. Even worse, these unions have negotiated for arbitration processes that make it virtually impossible to fire dysfunctional, abusive, or violent employees.
Because he had the Minneapolis police union at his back, Derek Chauvin, the police officer whose actions resulted in the death of George Floyd, had reason to feel that he was above the law. During his 20 years in the department, Chauvin had faced at least 17 misconduct complaints but had never been disciplined. Twincities.com reports that when police officers in Minneapolis and St. Paul get fired from their jobs, arbitrators reinstate them 46 percent of the time. Following the death of George Floyd, Bob Knoll, the president of the Minneapolis police union, called George Floyd a “violent criminal” and described those protesting over his death as “terrorists.” Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, has supported legislation that would make recording an on-duty police officer punishable by 15 years in prison.
For over fifty years, police unions have created for police officers an alternative justice system by negotiating contracts that defang civilian oversight and prevent police chiefs from disciplining or firing officers. Police union contracts routinely contain provisions that mandate a 48 hour waiting period before an officer can be questioned after a complaint is filed, call for the destruction of prior disciplinary records, and require arbitration in cases of disciplinary action. A University of Chicago working paper found that violent misconduct among sheriff’s officers increased 40 percent after a state supreme court ruling allowed the officers to unionize.
Loyola University Law Professor Stephen Rushin, who analyzed 656 police union contracts to examine the role of arbitration in misconduct cases, noted that “the median police department in the data set offers police as many of four levels of appellate review in disciplinary cases.” Some provided six or seven layers of review. After those levels are exhausted, most departments then allow accused officers to appeal to a third-party arbitrator, often of the accused officer’s choosing.
In 2014, Forbes published an article that recounted stories of 26 police officers in Philadelphia who were fired by their commanding officers for egregious misbehavior ranging from retail theft to excessive force to on-duty intoxication. 19 of these officers were reinstated to the police force via secretive appeals processes. A 2017 Washington Post investigation revealed that in Washington D.C., 45 percent of officers fired for misconduct between 2006 and 2017 were rehired on appeal.
“The unions, at least in New York City, outright just protect, protect, protect the cops,” wrote retired NYPD commander Corey Pegues in his book, Once a Cop. “It’s a blanket system of covering up police officers.”
In 2018, Broward County sheriff Brian Miller was fired after hiding behind his police cruiser and waiting for ten minutes before radioing for help as 17 students were being gunned down at Marjory Stoneman high school. With the backing of his union, Miller challenged his firing. He was reinstated and given full back pay.
“One of the easiest things for law enforcement to do is arrest people for violent crime—except when it comes to our own,” said David O. Brown, the Police Superintendent of Chicago. “We hem and haw. We pull our thumbs. We have to do a thorough investigation with evidence staring us in the face, and we don’t apply the same standards of swiftness of justice.”
The power of police unions was on raw display in Santa Ana, CA this spring after Republican city councilwoman Cicilia Iglesias cast a vote against giving the Santa Ana police $25 million in raises. Santa Ana had an unfunded pension liability of $637 million and a net deficit of $471 million, and Iglesias deemed the pay raises to be fiscally irresponsible. In retaliation, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association spent $341,000 to oust Iglesias in the middle of her term. The city had to spend an additional $710,000 to conduct special elections.
Camden, NJ is a city that succeeded in busting the power of the police unions, with very salutary results. In 2013, as a result of fiscal distress, the mayor and city council voted to disband the Camden Police Department and sign an agreement with the county to provide shared services with a non-unionized police force. The new county force is double the size of the old one, and officers almost exclusively patrol the city. “Every officer that graduates the police department immediately goes on a foot beat and gets introduced to the community,” Camden County Captain Zsakheim James said. “We knocked on doors, we introduced ourselves to the community as the guardians we are.” The department adopted an 18 use-of-force policy in 2019 that emphasizes de-escalation. An officer who sees a colleague violating the edict must intervene, and the department can fire any officer it judges to have acted out of line. Reports of excessive force complaints in Camden have dropped 95 percent since 2014. Homicides in Camden have dropped from 67 in 2012 to 25 in 2019.
Conservative lawmakers should join the chorus of voices promoting police reform. Governor Walker himself is now on board. When most people violate the norms of the workplace, their bosses don’t have to resort to an elaborate, lengthy arbitration process to determine whether they are fit to serve. Police should be as accountable to the public as the rest of us are. Police accountability should be an issue that unites all Americans, including all police officers who are faithfully and lawfully serving the public at great risk to themselves.