Changing attitudes put police-union reform on the table
We’ve been surprised and encouraged, actually, by three trends that have emerged in the wake of the protests, despite being disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court decided this week not to re-examine the “qualified immunity” laws that shield police and other government officials from lawsuits regarding their official conduct.
First, most Americans express support for reforms, despite the disturbing scenes of riots and mayhem. Violence can undermine even the most laudable cause, yet a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll finds a strong majority, including those on the right, supporting “sweeping law enforcement reforms such as a ban on chokeholds and racial profiling.” Polls also show general support for police officers, which suggests the public has an admirably balanced view of the issue.
Second, the issue of police unions—and their role in protecting overly aggressive officers—has floated to the top of the heap. Pundits on the right and left have finally discovered the degree to which these public-sector unions control local governments, derail reasonable reforms and make it nearly impossible to fire or discipline officers even for egregious behavior. The Minneapolis officer involved in Floyd’s death, for example, was the subject of 18 previous complaints.
Third, even some police unions have broken from their usual approach and have called for changes in disciplinary procedures. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this development. Recently, three major California police unions ran Sunday advertisements in several major newspapers detailing a reform agenda. “No words can convey our collective disgust and sorrow for the murder of George Floyd,” said the ad, which then called for a new use-of-force standard and a national database of officers fired for gross misconduct.
The devil is in the details, of course, and the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, predicated the creation of a new “bad-officer database” on the implementation of new protections for accused officers. Still, it’s a telling sign that these unions, which typically pay the legal defense for accused officers and have lobbied over the years for the Peace Officers Bill of Rights and for various open-records exemptions, have copped a different attitude.
Real change will start by recognizing that our current system has advanced on a bipartisan basis. Many Democrats who now are thundering for reform have resisted changes thanks to their closeness with public-sector unions. In 2006, the California Supreme Court cloaked police disciplinary proceedings in secrecy in the Copley decision. Even in a state where Democrats have long held strong majorities, it took a dozen years before the legislature rolled back those provisions—then, the Democratic attorney general fought its implementation.
Because of their support for law enforcement in general, Republicans have usually dug in their heels at reform proposals. For some reason, many of them refuse to recognize that police unions operate in the same ways as all other public-sector unions. We liken it to the situation with teachers’ unions. Conservatives appreciate the hard and important work that teachers perform, but understand that teachers-union backed hiring practices make it inordinately difficult for school districts to oust incompetent—let alone mediocre—teachers.
And just as teachers’ unions, with their war chest of automatically deducted dues, are usually able to elect their allies to school boards, so do police unions use their war chests to elect allies to city councils. In Santa Ana, Calif., last month that city’s politically aggressive police union spent nearly a half-million dollars to recall a conservative council member who questioned their pay packages and called for expanded citizen oversight of police behavior.
Instead of being overly concerned by calls to “defund the police,” conservatives might look at how tax and funding mechanisms can be used to call for greater accountability. For instance, why should police settlements, which typically result after an officer unjustly kills or hurts someone, come out of general taxpayer budgets rather than police budgets?
Why shouldn’t we look at the way police agencies increasingly use civil asset forfeiture to supplant their budgets? Why shouldn’t councilmembers predicate police raises on better training? The reason is that local officials don’t want to feel the unions’ wrath at election time.
Unraveling police-union protections is a long and complex topic that involves many financial, political and legal matters, and it’s more appropriate to a research paper or book than a blog. Nonetheless, given the public and even police-union support, Americans now have the opportunity to look deeply at these issues. Let’s not delay.