Police Abuse

Want To Reform Policing? Bust Police Unions.

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.


My Dad and I never agreed on politics given that he was unabashedly liberal in his views. He was a public-school teacher in New Jersey, so one would have expected that, as a proud Democrat, he would have been a champion of one of the Democratic Party's most-powerful allies: the teachers' unions. Instead, he refused to join. His rationale was simple: Those unions always protect bad teachers, which harms students.

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 the 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 decriminalized 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.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

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  1. And let’s not forget that Joe Biden’s Green New Deal redux supports increasing union power and overturns right-to-work laws. Democrats love to buy those votes.

    1. And let’s not forget that Joe Biden’s Green New Deal redux supports increasing union power and overturns right-to-work laws. Democrats love to buy those votes.

      I agree that Biden wants to increase union power by favoring union labor in his climate plan. But could you point out precisely where in his plan he is proposing to “overturn[] right-to-work laws”? He clearly doesn’t favor right-to-work laws but I don’t see where he says he is going to use his power to overturn those laws, which are state-level laws in the first place.


      1. Ban state laws prohibiting unions from collecting dues or comparable payments from all workers who benefit from union representation that unions are legally obligated to provide. Currently more than half of all states have in place these so-called “right to work” laws, which in fact deprive workers of their rights. These laws exist only to deprive unions of the financial support they need to fight for higher wages and better benefits. As president, Biden will repeal the Taft-Hartley provisions that allow states to impose “right to work” laws.



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  2. End all government employee unions. They are a conspiracy against the taxpayer.

    “Some conservatives have argued that it’s unfair to compare teachers’ unions to police unions because policing is a more-dangerous profession than teaching.”

    Got any names Greenhut?

    1. In California, where Greenhut lives, there is a ballot proposition to be voted on in November that will remove limits on property tax raises for businesses. It is proposed and funded by SEIU and the AFT. They want more money. They will always want more, and will support any politician who calls for more taxes.
      End the special relationships between public employee unions and the government.

    2. Agreed, completely. What FDR had to say about unions for public employees would get him called a MAGAhead today.

    3. I gotta agree with FDR about gov’t employee unions. That noted far right conservative (by today’s standards) Franklin Delano Roosevelt was strongly opposed to government employee unions: “The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.”

  3. Increasing transparency will work wonders here. Require the publication of all complaints and disciplinary actions against police officers. This will make plain what officers need to go. I would start there before undertaking a radical option like dissolving the police unions.

    The next thing that would help here is doing away with qualified immunity. Sorry, but the way QI is adjudicated now is insane. It has to go.

    1. No QI
      No unions
      No secret records

  4. Or just require that the union actually negotiate with the true boss, the voter. All union contracts should require voter approval. And no union shop; cops should not have to join.

    1. This!

      Pro-union people like to make the point that unions best serve workers when negotiating with employers, cast as foes in the classic private enterprise sense. Union workers want higher pay, reduced hours, or whatever, and business owners or managers want reduced labor costs and greater productivity–and those interests generally align with customers who want to pay less for products.

      But in most public union contract negotiations, its hard to even pretend that the parties across the table, elected officials that are union allies, have any incentive to push back on union demands. In many cases, they have the opposite motivation, expecting future political benefits from granting union contract demands. And the interests of the taxpayer “customer”? Fuhgeddaboudit.

    2. “All union contracts should require voter approval.”

      That’s a very good idea; kudos.

    3. Bingo! That is the only rational way to deal with a union of civil servants, if civil servants must be allowed to unionize. Which they should not.

  5. The main problem with police unions, along with teachers’ unions, along with all of the unions, is not the unionization per se – that is just a manifestation of individuals’ right to associate – but the special privileges on unions bestowed by government. Such as, a particular union being granted a monopoly by the state as the sole collective bargaining representative. That often leads to ossified corrupt union leadership that doesn’t have to face any competition for effective representation for its membership. Let unions compete with each other for representation of its members before management.

    1. The problem with public sector unions is that their employer uses force to collect revenue. It’s not like some business that must shut its doors if union demands push customers away. The public sector can literally kill people who refuse to pay for things they neither want nor need. Because of that all public sector unions should be abolished, because they amount to extortion rackets against the very people they are supposed to serve.

      1. Yep.

      2. Precisely.

      3. Definitely many problems with public employee unions but I think the worst thing about them is they make it near impossible to fire bad employees. This policy has resulted in a lot of racist, abusive cops staying employed and a lot of child molestors and bad teachers keeping their jobs. Public sector jobs should all be AT WILL. Anyone can be fired at anytime for any reason, or no reason.

      4. Totally agree, sarcasmic.

  6. In Wisconsin police unions support Republicans and teachers unions support Democrats. Guess which union was destroyed under Walker and which one was preserved? It’s political all the way down.

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  8. Absolutely critical. Take the teacher unions with you.

  9. Of the two I fear the teacher’s union more. Yes, there are some bad cops out there and the unions have been known to back them regardless of their actions but I have had few if any interactions with the police in my life, a few speeding tickets etc. On the other hand teachers unions do the same for bad teachers and as I have a school age child I have to deal with them all the time. Bad teachers have the full backing of the union and the school administration the police not so much, at least of late. The police budget in my state comes out of the general budget that is paid for with sales tax, the schools and teachers are paid for with a dedicated additional property tax, no way to opt out of that. I had noticed even before this latest commotion the police unions are starting to back away from unwavering support for bad cops, not seeing the same for teacher’s unions.

  10. This is what unions do. The very best workers do not need employer intercession. The average worker rarely does. The poorest workers often do. The union does not and should not care how good an employee you are, only that you’re a union member in good standing, and therefore a member of the brotherhood sisterhood.

  11. Want to decrease the power (political & economic) of the police unions? Declare that any legal suit that is lost due to police brutality will be paid 50% from union pension funds. The local/state government would pick up the other 50%, unless the individual police officers are found guilty, then they are liable for some as well.

    When you are hit in the pocketbook, sometimes your perspective, and actions, change.

  12. I am not in favor of any unions for any government employees. That said, I strongly disagree with many authors here who believe they should get rid of qualified immunity. In the current state of our emotional juries who want to guarantee compensation without regard to real blame – or even if the officer makes a mistake – there would be mostly unjust verdicts and unreasonable compensations.

    Mostly, though, it is hard enough to find cops as it is. Probably the only people who would want to would either never do anything or would be jerks who didn’t have anything to lose and didn’t care.

    I guess a solution for every police officer is to put everything he/she has in some other name, but they shouldn’t have to do that.

  13. There’s little doubt that the result of bad police is far more damaging to individuals involved, but the kinds of bad behavior by teachers that the unions help to protect can be ongoing for decades and demoralize their peers (wasn’t there some stat about even the idealistic “Teach for America” volunteers mostly getting disillusioned and quitting within 3-5 years instead of helping to improve the schools they’d been sent to?) in ways that could be far more damaging to society as a whole when their schools are turning out class after class of “graduates” who are functionally illiterate.

  14. Long as your busting unions, why not bust the illegal gov workers union and kick the politic 1st teachers union out of the public schools….Much as I hesitate to say it, it may be the Police union that keeps law and order intact and keeps the force manned….

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  16. I’m a retired public sector employee (Federal) and I strongly feel that all public sector unions should be banned. They only protect horrible employees and completely screw the taxpayers. If a union negotiates with a business owner, the businessman has skin in the game. He needs to negotiate a deal that will keep him profitable. Public officials, however, do not. They are playing poker with the taxpayers’ money and any ridiculous terms they agree to come out of our pockets, not theirs. The guarantees stupid pensions, health benefits, and work rules given to buy votes. Just look at Illinois.

  17. Police Unions are but a small part of the major problem in the U.S. ALL UNIONS have metastasized into exclusively self-serving, self-perpetuating organizations. Most are the finance and get out the vote for Democrats (by any means) arms of the Democrat Party!

    Teachers Unions
    Government Unions
    Trade Unions

    The entire lot have long since abandoned their once important function, a balance to the power of big corporations.

  18. Back in the 1960s, as cop unionization was being debated in SoCal, there was a loud campaign centered around “Support your local police — and keep them INDEPENDENT!” That campaign lost, and the unions came in.

  19. And while you are at it, bust the government employees’ unions. No employee should be able to vote for who is going to be his/her boss.

  20. One benefit of police unions is that they reduce the likelihood of officers becoming operatives for whichever party controls city hall.

  21. As far as “complaints” go—about any working police officer is going to get them. This may come as a surprise, but even the guiltiest criminals often resent being arrested, and will try to make trouble for the officer who arrested them.

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