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.