Abolish Police Unions

by Will Wilkinson

There’s a solid leader in this week’s issue of The Economist on the need for reform in American law enforcement. The Economist endorses rolling back police militarization, more fastidious record-keeping about police killings, and the deployment of body cameras. There’s also this, under the heading of accountability:

[I]t must be easier to sack bad cops. Many of America’s 12,500 local police departments are tiny and internal disciplinary panels may consist of three fellow officers, one of whom is named by the officer under investigation. If an officer is accused of a crime, the decision as to whether to indict him may rest with a local prosecutor who works closely with the local police, attends barbecues with them and depends on the support of the police union if he or she wants to be re-elected. Or it may rest with a local “grand jury” of civilians, who hear only what the prosecutor wants them to hear. To improve accountability, complaints should be heard by independent arbiters, brought in from outside.

I agree with every bit of this, but none of it’s going to happen as long as police unions are allowed to exist. Just as teachers’ unions block almost every conceivable democratic reform to the public school system, police unions continually stymie attempts to resist the corrupt, praetorian tendencies of American law enforcement. Nationwide, police unions fight tooth-and-nail to keep even the most abusive cops on the streets. So good luck “sacking bad cops” with police unions in the way.

Other reforms face similar resistance. In Miami, the police union has opposed, and continues to oppose, a popular initiative to equip the police with body cameras. Or how about the ex-cop private investigators, working for a law firm representing more than 120 California police-officers’ unions, who tried to frame a Costa Mesa city councilman for drunk driving. Why? Because he tried to mess with police pensions. Steven Greenhut of the San Diego Union-Tribune asks:

This raises an important question: How widespread is this kind of behavior? At a Costa Mesa press conference last year, elected officials from other cities made allegations of police using disturbing tactics to achieve their political goals.

“What kind of world do we live in when the people we give guns and badges to hire private investigators to surveil public officials?” asked Righeimer. Calling it “unseemly,” OC prosecutor Robert Mestman said this case is significant because the victims “are democratically elected city council members.” Mensinger said it seemed Orwellian: “Public officials should not be extorted over public benefits.”

The Costa Mesa story may be about pensions rather than the conduct of routine police work, but it is indicative of the gangsterish anti-democratic pressure police unions routinely exert within the political system. In New York City, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is currently sending a not-so-subtle “nice place you got here” message to Mayor Bill de Blasio in response to his failure to signal complete obsequious deference to the union after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who was filmed killing the unarmed and submissive Eric Garner with a chokehold. The union has asked its members to fill out a form requesting that the mayor stay away from his or her funeral should he or she be killed in the line of duty. “Due to Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito’s consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve, I believe that their attendance at the funeral of a fallen New York City police officer is an insult to that officer’s memory and sacrifice,” the form reads.

Such drama! Such entitlement! All because the mayor publicly demonstrated some modest, measured sympathy for those protesting the crookedness of a system in which police are able to kill with impunity. Such disrespect for the uniform! The message the union is sending to the man duly elected to, among other things, oversee the city’s police is clear: fall in line or get out of the way.

I have long argued that government employees ought not be allowed to unionize. When public employees collectively bargain, who are they bargaining against? Their public employers, which is to say, the democratic public, which is to say, us. The point of a democratic government is to govern in a way that more or less tracks the public interest. The point of a government employee union is to organize against the public interest, to get in the way when the democratic public’s notions about its interests conflict with the interests of the union’s members. When a public-sector union is strong, government of the union’s domain is effectively ceded to the union itself. When that domain is the armed, business end of the law’s coercive authority, that’s a giant problem. It shouldn’t be allowed.

The political problem with abolishing police unions is obvious enough. Democrats reflexively defend unions, and Republican antipathy to public-sector unions disappears when it comes to cops and firefighters. Heroes, you know, every one. This rare bit of bipartisan concord leaves police unions spectacularly well-defended against reform. Until one party or the other begins to see the damage unions do, and becomes willing to fight it, anything more than superficial change is impossible.