If you want to fix policing, then rein in police unions
That point seems obvious. Once I was a guest on John Stossel’s TV show, where he had the audience howling with laughter as he unveiled an unbelievably long and convoluted chart showing the New York City public schools’ process for firing a bad teacher. Los Angeles Unified School District has “rubber rooms,” where teachers who are deemed unfit for the classroom twiddle their thumbs and collect full pay as their cases wind through the adjudication process.
Read the Vergara decision. Even though higher courts overturned it, the eye-opening Los Angeles ruling documented the way the state’s union-backed system of teacher protections keep “grossly ineffective teachers” in the classroom, thus robbing many students of a quality education. Yet my liberal friends, who express concern about the plight of poor kids, think we can somehow improve public education without tackling the largest impediment to reform.
Meanwhile, most of my conservative friends understand that teacher-union problem and complain about it all the time. When it comes to police reforms, however, they are as thickskulled as the liberals. They rarely acknowledge that the same dynamic is at work with police unions, which keep the most dangerous officers on the force.
There are many reasons for our current policing problems, ranging from drug-war induced militarization to an insular culture, to the legal immunity the U.S. Supreme Court provided to cops and other government workers. But it’s impossible to reform police departments until lawmakers take on the police unions. Unlike with teachers’ unions, however, police unions are more adept at buying politicians on both sides of the aisle.
California state law provides law-enforcement officials with the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, which offers the equivalent of what Stossel described with teachers: a list of special protections that shield officers from accountability. Note that the Minneapolis officer at the center of the controversy over George Floyd’s death reportedly had 18 prior complaints filed against him.
Then a decades-old California law requires local governments to meet-and-confer with unions. Those agreements provide officers with additional procedural protections. These include strict time limits on launching investigations and paid leave while their cases are under review. Often, the agreements require the agency to give officers the names of witnesses, making it unlikely that a fellow officer will testify against a misbehaving colleague.
It’s easy to see how the current system frustrates accountability. In one instance, even the district attorney accused some deputies of standing by a “code of silence” after the DA’s failed case against an officer who was accused of using excessive force against a suspect in his custody. I’ve watched it take years to incarcerate a police officer who was accused of sexual assaults – thanks in part to outsized union protections that leave the public remarkably vulnerable.
A 2019 study from the researchers at the University of Chicago analyzed violent police incidents following a 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision that granted sheriffs’ deputies the right to organize. This sophisticated analysis compares agencies with newly granted collective-bargaining rights with other police agencies that already had such rights. “(T)he right to bargain collectively led to about a 40-percent increase in violent incidents,” the report concludes.
Those numbers should not be shocking. Consider a parallel. Any police officer or prosecutor will tell you that Proposition 47, which reduced criminal penalties for many lower-level crimes, led to a spike in drug and property crimes after criminals realized they could evade punishment for committing them. If you exempt people from any punishment for misbehavior, you’ll get more misbehavior. That also applies to government employees, such as police and teachers.
Some conservatives have argued that it’s unfair to compare teachers’ unions to police unions because policing is a more-dangerous profession than teaching. That’s true, but there’s a flip side to that argument. “They’re teachers’ unions, but with tanks and endless get-out-of-jail-free cards,” wrote Lyman Stone in The Public Discourse.
In other words, police do have a more dangerous job – but their mistakes and abuses have a more devastating impact on the public. Stone looked closely at the data and found that police violence has increased as a proportion of U.S. deaths even as crime rates have plummeted.
As policy makers consider ways to reduce some of these shocking use-of-force incidents, they need to evaluate the role of unions in protecting overly aggressive officers. More of us need to follow the lead of my Dad and put aside our political biases as we look for policing solutions.