Reforming Police Unions Necessary to Restore Public Confidence in Law Enforcement, Says New York Times

Police unions protect bad officers from being held accountable for their actions, and local governments have to stop letting that happen.


Rick Majewski/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The New York Times editorial board on Saturday issued the paper's strongest call yet for reforming police union contracts that often prevent officers from being held accountable when they harm civilians.

Positioning the issue as fundamental to the maintenance of public trust in the law, the Times' editors said local governments everywhere—not just in places like Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Ferguson and other American cities where police killings have sparked public outrage—should "stop reflexively truckling to police unions and demand contracts that actually reflect public interest."

There are many elements that have combined to erode public trust in policing over the past decade or two. Those include the spread of more aggressive policing tactics to enforce misdemeanor crimes—commonly called "broken windows" policing—and the use of stop-and-frisk, all the way up to federally driven policies like the distribution of military-grade weapons to local police departments and the destructive nature of the War on Drugs.

Police union contracts deserve to be considered along with those other elements, though they have not received as much scrutiny. Provisions in police contracts shield officers from accountability, yes, but they also give police officers an incentive to lie and protect them when they do.

The awful (and intended) consequences of those contract provisions have been on full display in Chicago in recent months, as the city has struggled to discipline officers involved in the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year old.

Police initially claimed McDonald was holding a knife and threatening officers before they opened fire. Video of the shooting that surfaced in November 2015 revealed the police were lying about what happened: McDonald did not have a knife and was moving away from the cops when he was shot 16 times and killed.

Even with a blatant lie caught on camera, the city has struggled to hold the officers accountable. Some have already retired and started collecting pensions, while five others are awaiting judgement by the Chicago Police Board—but it's not even clear if the board has the authority to actually fire them.

The Times used the McDonald shooting and investigation to take aim at Chicago's police union contract, but many of the provisions included in that police contract are common in others: like a rule that prohibits investigators from interviewing officers within 24 hours of a shooting, giving everyone involved a chance to get their stories straight. Can you imagine police officers being so deferential with civilians suspected of committing a crime?

Chicago's union contract also prevents police officers in Chicago from being charged with making false statements, essentially encouraging cops to lie to investigators.

Even when a police officer does get caught breaking the law, disciplinary proceedings are overseen by supposedly independent arbitrators "who frequently have a vested interest in pleasing the police unions so they can keep their jobs," the Times' editors said.

It sounds bad, and this isn't the first time the New York Times has taken on the power of police unions in its editorial pages. Is anyone listening?

There's been little change in the last 15 months, since Jonathan Smith, who headed up the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division's special litigation team from 2010 through 2015, wrote a scathing op-ed in the Times claiming police unions efforts to shield their members from accountability had contributed to a general erosion of trust between the public and law enforcement.

"The union protections also hamper departments' ability to audit police conduct," Smith wrote. "This is critical when officers are involved in shootings. In many cities, we found that relatively few officers were responsible for a majority of use-of-force incidents. Yet cities rarely track the data or look for patterns of misconduct."

Regular Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat also took on the issue of police union contracts in 2015, arguing that unions have consistently exploited the deep reservoirs of public sympathy for police officers to create bad policy and incompetent personnel.

Police unions are even more powerful than teachers' unions, since they are insulated from political criticism on both the right—which reflexively reveres cops, to the point where public sector union reforms pushed by Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio actually left police officers' collective bargaining deals untouched—and the pro-union left.

The consequences of bad policy driven by police unions, though, can be far more acute than what teachers' unions have done to undermine the public school system.

"Even with the worst teacher, the effects are diffused across many years and many kids, and it's hard for just one teacher to do that much damage to any given student," Douthat argued. "A bad cop, on the other hand, can leave his victim dead or permanently damaged, and under the right circumstances one cop's bad call — or a group of cops' habitual thuggishness — can be the spark that leaves a city like Baltimore in flames."

In case you missed it while doing more fun things over the long weekend, you can read the whole New York Times editorial here.

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  1. Yeah, if only the cities negotiated better police union contracts, instead of, say, rejecting unionization of government employees, saying categorically they won’t negotiate with employee organizations, and firing anyone who goes on strike or calls in sick when they’re perfectly healthy.

    1. In the left-wing worldview, you don’t get effective public service by setting high standards and enforcing them vigorously, instead you get it from setting no standards and rewarding failure generously.

    2. Ultimately, I find it doubtful that most of the reforms proposed by left-wing advocacy groups will improve the policing situation. Instead, the most likely outcome is twofold:

      1. To further entrench the notion that no one is allowed to defend himself and his property against criminals, because self-defense is just a disguised form of racism;
      2. To retain and even expand the “professional” police forces but to discourage them from actually doing anything, thus maintaining union membership at public expense while also delivering no actual service to the public.

  2. How about this for reform:

    (a) The public, through its elected representatives, prescribes the duties and compensation of government employees, and is responsible for firing those who misbehave.

    (b) The government won’t negotiate with associations purporting to represent their employees.

    (c) Anyone who fails to show up for work must prove a valid excuse or get fired. Eg, if they call in sick they need a note from a doctor who doesn’t work for the union, and disliking the boss or the terms of employment is not a valid reason to skip work.

    (d) No work stoppages or slowdowns, no public insults to the boss (and hence to the public), or you’re fired.

    There, I think that should reform the abuses.

    1. Oh, and

      (e) Decisions about whether to fire a cop will be made by the elected mayor (in the case of city police forces) or the elected sheriff (in the case of county sheriff’s deputies). An elected official who keeps bad cops on the job will be accountable to voters.

      1. Lots of places have elected sheriffs, who get to hire and fire the deputies. The guy who gets the union endorsement almost always wins the election.

        1. Well, that’s still a problem, but not something that can be “cured” within the framework of representative government.

          Unless we shift the firing authority to a more reliable source – county commissioners?

          1. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, rather just saying it won’t affect much until people change their minds about what matters in their elected representatives.

            1. Sure, but at least that’s inherent in representative government.

    2. Sounds about right.

  3. Off topic, read it and weep:


    1. We should have stayed loyal to Britain, like the slave colony of Jamaica. That would have been less oppressive to minorities!

    2. Replace the Iraq war and ISIS with the Seven Years’ War and Pontiac’s Rebellion, the Great Recession with the economic depression of the late 1760s, and today’s populist outrage with the kind that fueled many Patriots, and the parallels between then and now are remarkable.

      “Take your cartoonish understanding of sensational proggy news-cycle of the past 18 months, apply it to your completely non-existent understanding of the past, and PRESTO: Its like “”whoa dude, now it all fits in my preconceived narratives!”””

      1. Set it all to the Dark Side of the Moon

  4. “It’s hard for just one teacher to do that much damage to any given student.” I beg to differ. One individual teacher can lead to dozens of kids a year missing out on an education, especially in districts where one teacher teaches multiple subjects. There are also more teachers and more student victims. The weasel built in the “but Teachers unions are different” right into the argument. They are no different.

  5. Law enforcement has become accepted by the population as a higher class citizen. The brainwashing has been going on for some time now. Justifications abound, such as the higher priority placed on those who kill or attempt to kill police officers because they must be extra dangerous to the public to be so brazen. Or that policemen put their lives on the line being out among the criminals so deference must be given, as everything has the potential with them to become life or death. They enforce our laws and keep us safe, so naturally they must be allowed to keep their weapons when off-duty and in retirement in places civilians would face incarceration for doing the same.

  6. This weekend I was around some politically connected guys in jersey, and I heard all kinds of stories. One was about a cop they knew who never made an arrest in 9 years so they put the cop on a desk. I said, well I assume firing him was out of the question?. A good laugh was had by all.

  7. Oh and speaking of cops, this morning I saw more heavily armed cops in the Path station in jersey city than I recall seeing in years. I don’t know much about guns but they were brandishing some big machine gun looking ones.
    I wonder if there’s a big threat. Or if it’s cause it’s close to 911?

    1. Seems a little early to be the usual 9/11 beef-up.

  8. Police are civilians. Stop feeding into their big man military pathetic delusions by implying they are anything other than civilians with inferiority complexes.

  9. Gov. Walker hated all public employee collective bargaining agreements except, of course, those involved with “public safety”. Because FYTW.

    1. I doubt his plans would have gone anywhere if he had tried to include the cops and firemen.

  10. This is all bushwah! We know from all the cop shows and movies that cretins from “Internal Affairs” are always looking to jam up and fire street cops for taking a free coffee from the Mom and Pop bodega.

  11. I had links up the other week showing that even the few Republicans there are on the New York City city council, even those were all endorsed by the police union.

    . . . which means that as overrepresented as Democrats are on the city council, the police union is even better represented than the Democrats.

    It’s like that in Chicago, too. The only Republican alderman was endorsed and funded by various police unions.

    Why would the police unions accept reform?

    Why would they do that when they control the city council?

    Is the New York Times going to start endorsing Republicans who are running against pro-police union Democrats?

    Is the New York Times under the delusion that the police are in some way accountable to the city council?

    Does the phrase “Political Machine” mean nothing to them?

    Did they just graduate from high school yesterday?

    Is this the same New York Times editorial board that damned Scott Walker for his efforts to curb the abuse of collective bargaining by public employees?

    “Gov. Walker Resumes His War on Workers”


    1. “the police union is even better represented than the Democrats.”

      What do you have against New York being represented by its :Finest?”

  12. John Kasich of Ohio actually left police officers’ collective bargaining deals untouched

    Untrue. The Police union was included in his “reform package”- it was overturned by referendum at the next election.

  13. How about this: if you’re a cop, you can’t vote. Actually make that any government job

  14. You do not mention the police officer’s “bill of rights” statutes in many states that build the WORST of police contract provisions into law. Often enacted by huge, bipartisan majorities of easily “bought” legislators.

  15. ‘Restore public confidence’ begs the question

    Every poll I’ve seen and cited shows immense public confidence in police

    That aside unions can be made better but in general do great work enduting due process

    Contrary to belief unions often do NOT take firings to arbitration -only the ones we believe were wrong

    My Union wins about 90% but when a cop clearly should have been fired and got due process we reject arbitration requests

    Btw, OF COURSE a VESTED cop can resign before an investigation and keep his pension

    We put in our entire career. That’s EARNED

    A cop in WA who murdered a witness and is serving life is collecting his pension.

    Reasonoids are influenced by teevee where a cop gets fired and lose his pension

    POST vesting in most jurisdiction that’s not how it works nor should it

    Booya due process, Booya contracts Booya justice

    Freddie Gray -justice
    Eric Garner – justice
    Ferguson – justice
    MASSIVE 17% spike in homicides due to Ferguson effect/depolicing? Result of BLM/complicit press

    Those lives matter

  16. It would create perverse incentives of cops couldn’t keep their pension after vesting if found guilty of misonduct or a crime

    If that was the case – far more cops would resign immediately upon vesting so as to ensure pension

    I can retire , collect pension and go work Boeing Fire or some other private (no leoff II) agency and get double pay!!

    By the time a cop vests, agencies have invested hundreds of thousand in many cases (training etc) and it also takes about 5 yrs before a cop becomes efficient

    We don’t want to lose veteran officers

    So our pensions are guaranteed upon vesting in WA

    again even if convicted of murder (wasn’t even a police shooting). It was an off duty murder to kill a witness against him in insurance fraud iirc

  17. Not this lie, again.
    ” Can you imagine police officers being so deferential with civilians suspected of committing a crime?”
    You mean when they tell the criminal: “You have the right to remain silent”?
    A right that NEVER disappears. Non-police offenders can refuse to assent to an interview, EVER.
    Making police officers subject themselves to an interview denies them a Constitutionally protected right.
    It seems clear that the protections granted to defendants – speedy trial, due process, etc, etc, are too good for the “men in blue”. “Off with their heads” eh?
    Glad all you “libertine-arians” are so cavalier about others’ Constitutional rights.

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