Arresting law enforcement abuses begins with police unions

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By Noelle Du Bois

“If he is faithful to his union, he may have to be unfaithful to the public.” – President Franklin Roosevelt

The death of George Floyd ignited outrage across America once video emerged of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Protests and social media campaigns were launched to raise awareness of racial injustices towards black citizens and demand reform of the policing system.

Effective reforms may be difficult, however, because of police unions.

Labor unions exist to represent their members by improving wages, benefits, workplace conditions and other labor-related issues, often in the form of collective bargaining and lobbying. While various police unions exist across the United States, the largest is the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), with more than 2,000 local chapters.

Beyond achieving the traditional labor union wins of wage and workplace improvements, the collective bargaining powers of police unions have dangerously expanded and created problematic issues regarding internal regulation. For example, police unions can shield officers accused of misconduct by providing access to evidence ahead of interviews, delaying officer interrogations, and limiting consideration of previous complaints, investigation length, anonymous complaints and civilian oversight.

This often shields police officers with repeated complaints from investigation and forces taxpayers to continue to fund officers who are harming their community. Prominent examples include Lt. Bob Kroll, the head of the Minneapolis Police Union (29 complaints for excessive force and racial discrimination) and Officer Chauvin, accused in Floyd’s death, who had 18 civilian complaints filed.

This happens because 46 states (excluding Georgia) allow collective bargaining by public safety officers. Even without collective bargaining, however, misconduct investigations still have barriers due to the “code of silence” culture among law enforcement officials. This often makes it difficult to find officers willing to testify during a misconduct investigation.

Police unions have also been behind numerous attempts to stop legislative reform. Among legislation stopped by lobbying on behalf of police unions are physical fitness standards, civilian oversight boards, demilitarization efforts, prohibitions on no-knock warrants, and ending qualified immunity. Historically, these efforts have swayed politicians regardless of party affiliation: Even in liberal-leaning states such as California, officers are shielded from accountability and commonsense reforms by the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights.

The influence of police unions was apparent in Georgia’s 2020 legislative session, when increased protections for police were simultaneously passed with Georgia’s hate crimes legislation.

By preventing community-oriented reforms, police unions allow mistrust and tension to grow, creating a dangerous position on both sides. According to the Cato Institute’s 2016 Criminal Justice National Survey, around 49% of Americans believe “most” police officers think they are above the law and 46% of Americans say police are not generally held accountable for misconduct. These statistics paint a clear picture of a negative relationship between citizens and police, and without reform these numbers will continue to grow.

President Trump’s executive order banning chokeholds, creating independent credentialing bodies, and encouraging the use of social workers was a positive step toward reforms. The FOP even put out a supporting statement: “It strikes a great balance between the vital need for public and officer safety, and the equally vital need for lasting, meaningful, and enforceable police reform.”

It remains to be seen whether the union actively supports the president’s order. Police unions have historically worked against these policies until the public came together and demanded change. Reform should strive to uphold officers who protect and serve and tread cautiously in the community. A brutal police force is no characteristic of the society America strives to be and there should be no place for a system that indiscriminately protects bad police officers.

[Noelle Du Bois is a student at Florida State University and a Koch Summer Intern at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Established in 1991, the Foundation is a trusted, independent resource for voters and elected officials. The Foundation provides actionable solutions to real-life problems by bringing people together. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 21, 2020)]

8 COMMENTS

    • Exactly, even if you follow the laws precisely cops can still cause you problems. We need to fix the system so that the only people who have a problem with police are criminals and limit their power so that only people tried by a jury of their peers can be sentenced to death.

  1. “Protests and social media campaigns were launched to raise awareness of racial injustices towards black citizens and demand reform of the policing system.”

    You lost me right there. Floyds death (per the medical examiner) was a lethal dose of PCP in his system, and with him over stressed from being arrested, his body reacted to the PCP and resulted in his death.

    Granted, the officer should have let him up after he said he could not breathe, but Floyd was saying he could not breath even when he was at his own car being told he was being arrested…

    This criminal and drug addict should not have had 4 funerals and treated like a martyr….

    • While they found PCP in his system if it was going to kill him it would have done so immediately after he took it when there was the highest concentration in his body. Just as only 6% of COVID-19 deaths did not have preexisting conditions, but most of the other 94% would still be alive today if they hadn’t caught COVID-19. George Floyd had other things in his system that increased his chance of death, but he would probably still be alive if the officer hadn’t kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Do you honestly believe that the police are not biased at all? Do you think that the US justice system does not need reform, despite the fact the US has by far the biggest prison population per capita of any first world country? Why should people be able to profit from operating a prison?

    • Why should drug addictions be treated as crimes and not medical issues? If we get people the help they need to overcome their addictions instead of just throwing them in prison, we can reduce the chances of repeat offences. This also has the benefit of making our streets safer overall as someone who is addicted can get help, instead of wandering the streets homeless trying to get money by any means necessary to fund their addiction. As a Christian, I want to follow Jesus to the best of my ability; help those who need it and believe that all people are redeemable.

  2. Yes indeed, police reform should include a long hard look at police unions as one possible part of the problem. As with most things, there are multiple factors that cause some of these problems like police brutality. Here are some:
    1. Police unions – sure they should reconsider their role, emphasize training and stop acting like defense attorneys.
    2. IDing suspects engaged in a crime using everything except skin color in the description. Politically correct, sure. Smart, no. If a black guy or a white guy or a girl wearing a red shirt and Nike shoes runs away after mugging an old lady, wouldn’t it be safer and more efficient to issue a description that includes skin color – the one thing the suspect can’t change on the run. Age and weight and height are others, but nobody gets uptight about that.
    3. Not considering previous arrests or crimes when putting someone on trial. Hiding that info from a jury is just plain stupid.
    4. Not using a taser early in a confrontation. Not saying police should go up against a gun with a taser, but many times it would be better to tase somebody than wrestle them to the ground – especially the doped up muscle-bound 250 lb. guy with an attitude.
    5. Not using tear gas immediately in hostage situations. most hostages would prefer 3 minutes of tear gas to 12 hours of terror. Might work on domestic dispute situations as well.
    6. Making resisting arrest and looting federal hate crimes with minimum 10 years in prison.

  3. I totally agree that police unions are the major impediment to reform. They wholeheartedly defend suspect officers no matter how bad the misconduct and that stymies social justice. Cops aren’t always right, as we’ve seen through plenty of cell phone videos. There is no excuse for shooting someone in the back or choking them to death.