Police Union Grip on Cities Must Be Broken

AFSCME President Lee Saunders

It’s called “the blue wall of silence,” that seemingly impenetrable code of honor among cops who cover for fellow officers suspected of breaking the law. For decades, this code has been scrutinized but rarely as much as right now in the wake of the videotaped death of a black suspect, George Floyd, while in the custody of Minneapolis police. In addition to triggering demonstrations and riots, the incident, with less fanfare, has caused many people to call out the unions representing cops as being part of the problem. Critics argue that police unions often are more focused on shielding members from accountability than protecting the public or improving community relations. While riots and demands for the abolition of police forces are indefensible, there are legitimate concerns that police unions are doing more harm than good.     

There are currently about 700,000 law enforcement officers in this country, most of whom belong to a labor organization. The three principal unions are the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). American labor leaders are progressive in their politics, but also defend unionization on principle. “Everyone should have the freedom to join a union, police officers included,” recently wrote Lee Saunders, president of the AFL-CIO-affiliated AFSCME, whose union represents around 90,000 officers. “The tragic killing of George Floyd should not be used as a pretext to undermine the rights of workers.” Likewise, the AFL-CIO general board in June came out with a list of aggressively Left-leaning recommendations for reform, including a call for the Minnesota AFL-CIO to fire Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. “People of color have suffered for far too long,” the statement read. Yet the board rejected expulsion of police unions as an alternative: “It would be quick and easy to cut ties with police unions. But disengagement breeds division, not unity.”

The context of all this, of course, is the disruptive and often violent street protests in cities across America in response to the May 25 death of a 46-year-old black suspect, George Floyd, following his arrest for passing a counterfeit bill at a Minneapolis convenience store. A homemade video showed a handcuffed Floyd apparently dying of asphyxiation after one of the officers on the scene, Derek Chauvin, had kneeled on his neck for close to nine minutes. The next day, based on a police department review of eyewitness statements and security camera footage, he and three other officers at the scene were fired. Two separate autopsies subsequently concluded that this was a homicide. Officer Chauvin was charged with manslaughter and second-degree murder; the other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

The rioting in response to this death, led by a pair of social media-driven radical groups, Antifa and Black Lives Matter, was nothing less than criminal. Yet amid the hysterical recriminations, including calls for abolishing (or “defunding”) police forces across the nation, the flurry of hostile responses, if unintentionally, have raised an often downplayed issue: the need to reform police unions that often wield power out of proportion to their numbers, in the process sowing the seeds of public distrust. Part of the distrust of cops is the result of inadequate union self-governance. The bigger part is related to how these unions interact with City Hall and other external forces.

As to self-governance, many police unions have experienced financial scandals, something that Union Corruption Update often has chronicled in recent years. In Rhode Island, Christopher Hayes, president of a Fraternal Order of Police lodge, pleaded guilty to wire fraud in a sum of more than $70,000, while its treasurer, Adam Coheeny, pleaded guilty to stealing over $30,000. In Detroit, Paul Stewart, vice president of the Detroit Police Officers Association, was convicted by a jury of honest services fraud for falsely obtaining about $48,000 through his dealings with the corrupt administration of the eventually convicted Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. In Miami, Fla., Vernell Reynolds was convicted of wire fraud in connection with the disappearance of more than $200,000 in funds from the Police Benevolent Association affiliate which she headed. And in Jacksonville, Fla., Nelson Cuba and Robbie Freitas, respectively, president and vice president of the lodge of that city’s Fraternal Order of Police, were convicted for their roles in a scheme to transfer more than $575,000 from an illegal gambling operation to a nonprofit foundation connected to the FOP.

The more significant form of corruption, however, are the activities that are legal and par for the course. All too often, police unions shield their members from internal and outside investigations, and potential criminal charges resulting from them. These unions are an integral part of the blue wall of silence. For an officer to be objective in his judgment of his peers would be to open him to ostracism, termination and possibly death. To protect their interests, police unions have devised numerous procedural safeguards for members that are unavailable to civilians. Libertarian critic Peter Suderman describes the unofficial mission of police unions as “defend the narrow interests of police at the expense of public safety.” The following are several manifestations of this mission.

Contract clauses. Police unions especially exercise their leverage come collective bargaining time. Clauses typically cover a wide range of issues, including probes into officer misconduct, length and manner of interrogations, sanctions for guilty officers, and opportunities for guilty officers to reverse or avoid sanctions. Especially advantageous to police unions is the “purge clause,” which requires a police department to remove all records of disciplinary action against a particular officer after a certain time elapse, typically between two and five years. A Reuters analysis of collective bargaining agreements in 82 U.S. cities revealed that most agreements contain such expungement clauses. In some cases, the elapse was only six months. Union contracts also often prevent officers from being questioned quickly after an incident. Officers, in fact, are allowed to review all relevant evidence against them prior to submitting to an interrogation. Public transparency regarding ongoing contract negotiations is quite limited. In all but eight states, collective bargaining must take place behind closed doors.

Covering for fellow members. Police unions instinctively circle the wagons on behalf of a fellow officer under investigation, often paying the officer’s legal bills. “I think police unions are always going to default to the position that the officers are blameless in instances where they use deadly force,” remarked Merrimack College criminologist Thomas Nolan several years ago. “Even though internally unions and union officials might express reservations among themselves, at least publicly the position is always going to be that the officer feared for his life or feared for the life of another person, and that his use of deadly force was entirely justified.”

Legislation. Police unions know to apply pressure to get favorable legislation. Fully 16 states, for example, have a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights on the books. Such laws, which build on existing collective bargaining agreements, often prevent police departments from publicly identifying officers under investigation. Moreover, if an officer is cleared of wrongdoing, the department may not acknowledge that an investigation even took place. Even states without such laws offer similar insulation from accountability, such as denying public access to an officer’s personnel files and body camera footage.

Political donations. To labor unions, the best kind of politician is one who can be bought. Police unions in particular know this lesson. They give generously to candidates for state and local office in both parties. Successful candidates, once in office, in return are likely to act favorably upon requests from the unions that helped elect them. Charles Ramsey, former police chief for the District of Columbia and former police commissioner for the City of Philadelphia, for one, has seen too much of this. “They (police unions) form a political action committee,” he told CNN. “They donate to district attorneys’ races or state attorneys’ races, state senators and representatives and so forth. And then we wonder why you can’t get anything done.”

The leverage wielded by police unions may be making our cities less safe. A recent study by Oxford University researchers of the hundred largest U.S. cities concluded that a high degree of police protection in union contracts positively correlated with the frequency of cases involving alleged excessive force. Likewise, a study by researchers at the University of Chicago showed that extending collective bargaining rights to Florida sheriffs led to a 40 percent increase in the number of cases of excessive force. Such outcomes are partly the result of the heavy use of arbiters in cases of police misconduct. Arbiters aren’t simply negotiators. They are vested with the power to override decisions of supervisors, elected officials and civilian review boards. A study of more than 170 police union contracts by Loyola University Chicago law professor Stephen Rushin revealed that about 70 percent of police union contracts allowed officers to file an appeal with an arbiter.

None of this should be taken as a denial of the importance of law enforcement to a community. Police, sheriffs and other law enforcement officers protect the innocent from violent and otherwise destructive wrongdoers. Their work is dangerous and often thankless as well. Those who would defund police forces should explain to the rest of the nation how such a measure is going to make anyone safer. The recent collapse of public safety in Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle in particular is a direct result of what happens when political leaders order police to pull back in the face of a riot. The verbal and physical attacks on police in the face of a withdrawal of support from City Hall, not unexpectedly, has triggered a wave of police force resignations, especially in Atlanta and New York City.

The challenge, then, is supporting police officers in their work while limiting their capacity to use unions in ways that thwart the public interest. A few steps come to mind as to promoting the latter goal. First, state legislatures should prohibit collective bargaining by these unions (the tenure of former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker showed that this approach can be applied to public-sector unions generally), or failing that, prohibit them from inserting clauses into contracts that shield members from public accountability. At minimum, lawmakers should bar the use of records-purge clauses and require that all interrogation rules applying to accused officers match those applying to civilians. State and local governments also should ban police unions from endorsing political candidates and making contributions either directly or through PACs. When a police union influences the outcome of elections, it compromises its ability to serve the public. Another necessary step is to eliminate or at least curb the use of arbiters in resolving police misconduct cases. These outside parties carry far too much veto power over the review process. As a general rule, police unions, like police departments, need to be held to account for protecting officers who use excessive force when apprehending suspects.  

Police serve a valuable and necessary function in our society. Too often, however, they use unionism to protect reputations at least as much as the public. The riots following the death of George Floyd, replete with looting, arson and statue-toppling, were an outrage to any decent citizen. But in retrospect, it is fair to say that his death, and others like it, could have been prevented if reform measures routinely rejected by police unions had been in place.