Why Are Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Full-Time Police Union Employees?

No one should be forced to pay for officers who spend their days opposing policing reform and defending bad cops.


Police departments, fire departments, and school districts across the country pay thousands of public employees full-time salaries to do no work for the public. Instead, they work solely on behalf of the employees' unions. This practice, called "release time," means taxpayers must pay the salaries of officers who lobby against police reforms, such as eliminating qualified immunity and requiring cops to wear body cameras. When Houston Police Officers' Union chief Joe Gamaldi tells lawmakers not to change qualified immunity, he's doing so on "MBA Union Business Leave" time—funded by tax dollars.

Phoenix taxpayers pay about $3.7 million annually for officers whose only job is to work for the police union—lobbying, recruiting members, or representing employees in disputes with city officials—instead of patrolling the streets. This amounts to about 73,000 person-hours that could be spent on anything from fighting crime to de-escalation training.

Release time provisions are embedded in collective bargaining agreements. Sometimes these expressly say that "released" employees won't be assigned public duties but will instead work for the union itself. The Jersey City Education Association, for example, specified in its contract with the school district that the union's president and vice president would receive government paychecks but "shall be permitted to devote all of [their] time to the [union's] business and affairs." They weren't required to report to anyone, or specify how they spent their time, and school district officials were not allowed to assign them work. Instead, they spent all their working hours on union activities, including filing grievances, circulating literature, and attending "gatherings" on the union's behalf.

Many cities and unions refuse to disclose how much time and money is involved, so it's impossible to say for certain how much it costs. But Mallory Factor, a professor of international politics and American government at the Citadel, has estimated that release time costs the nation's taxpayers $1 billion each year. That's almost certainly an underestimate, since release time exists across agencies and entities and is largely under the radar. But in Jacksonville, Florida, for example, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is entitled to 2,500 hours to be spent "by any member of the F.O.P. for F.O.P. activities" instead of police work. In Tampa, more than a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars a year fund some 10,000 hours of "release time" for public-sector union bosses. In Austin, police, fire, and emergency medical services unions all obtained agreements that pay union officials to lobby for more benefits—a perpetual motion machine whereby taxpayers pay people to demand more taxpayer money.

Release time's defenders say it benefits taxpayers by helping resolve employment disputes and ensuring a more orderly work environment, but the facts don't bear that out. When the Goldwater Institute sued the Jersey City School District, for example, the union admitted there were no rules in place to ensure that officials actually performed such tasks. On the contrary, since "released" union officials negotiate against the government for pay and benefits, "release" is actually adverse to the public purse. And if "labor peace" is the objective, it doesn't seem to work. In 2016, Jersey City teachers, led by "released" union officers, went on strike after their negotiations with the district failed. As the state's Commission of Investigation found, "union representatives, first and foremost, are in the business of promoting the interests of private entities and their dues-paying members, not those of the taxpayers."

The costs aren't just financial—they're social, too. Public sector unions occupy an anomalous position in a democracy: intermediaries between the people and their government. This gives them a unique monopoly, since taxpayers can't shop elsewhere.

Because public employees are paid by tax money, those demands are not limited by the forces that restrain private sector unions. The United Auto Workers must always remember that if they insist on too much, General Motors or Ford will go bankrupt and everybody will lose their jobs. That's not true in the public sector, where the concessions unions obtain are limited only by the voters' tolerance—and often not even that, since constitutional rules limit the government's ability to undo contracts made in the past. Recent pension reform cases show that if voters balk at wasteful spending, they often have no effective way to repeal a bad bargain.

Release time is also used to provide defenses for officers facing disciplinary charges. If a cop shoots an innocent citizen, he or she can't be fired without a hearing—and at that hearing, the officer is entitled to representation funded by citizens. The same goes for other government employees, including teachers or principals who violate students' rights. Victims of official wrongdoing surely take little comfort in the fact that they are paying to protect the jobs of the people who abused them. And I doubt it gratifies other cops or teachers when they get lumped in with the wrongdoers in the inevitable public backlash.

Favors like release time create a distinct, privileged class of Americans. They're neither publicly accountable government agents nor private citizens, but a specially favored cadre, paid by often-dissatisfied "customers" and overseen by "employers" who have little effective power to fire or discipline them. That is extraordinarily dangerous, because it removes public employees' responsibility without diminishing their authority. It's no wonder many citizens view public employees—especially police officers—not as fellow citizens, let alone as their agents, but as occupiers and adversaries.

NEXT: Brickbat: Collegial Misconduct

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  1. The question can be made: Why do we let public sector institutions be union shops?

    1. Because the alternative is Somalia?

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      2. Gee, my workplace is not unionized, and it is nothing like Somalia.

        1. gee that is why your wages have remained stagnent while the 1% . are raking in billions year after year. Lucky they didn’t send your job to communist China.

    2. This is very true and hasn’t always been. Public sector employee unions haven’t always been able to form. However, those who are now targeting police unions didn’t seem to mind all that much before the police unions endorsed President Trump, and they never mention other public sector unions except in passing. Likely just a coinkidink. No calls to audit school funding either. Likely just an oversight that will be corrected by the left momentarily. I mean… children deserve the best, right?

      1. It makes no sense to allow collective bargaining of public sector employees as unlike corporations, the bargaining team on the other side has no financial incentive to actually bargain. It’s not the politicians’ money and they will never run out.

        But if one is going to oppose public sector unions, it’s hypocritical to just target police unions now because they turned against your political team or because it’s just all hip to go after cops on anything. The police unions are inconsequential in funding compared to teacher unions. I guess it’s just not the right political year to make those kinda enemies, huh?

        1. ” It’s not the politicians’ money and they will never run out.”

          the reality is so much worse than that. There is a very real possibility that some of that money will make it’s way back into the campaign coffers of that very politician.

          Making the whole operation a conspiracy against the taxpayer.

          No public sector union should be legal. End them all.

          1. Possibility? It’s the whole point of public employee unions. They’re nothing more than a way to launder tax dollars into the campaigns of urban politicians.

            What’s better than laundering tax dollars into campaigns? Doing it through people who get to shoot somebody.

            The very reasons police shouldn’t be unionized is why they are!

            1. “Possibility? It’s the whole point of public employee unions.”

              You know that, and I know that. My point is: The situation does not have to actually occur, or be identified for there to be a problem. That the mere possibility exists is problem enough to justify eliminating the inherentlycorrupt process.

      2. Who, exactly, are you accusing of being a fair-weather anti-public-unionist? It certainly isn’t anyone here at Reason. The authors and the vast majority of commentators have opposed public sector unions for a variety of reasons for decades.

        1. Well said.

        2. Maybe you missed the part where he said they endorsed Trump? Ergo, half the electorate supports police unions. Jeez, are you also going to force him to show you their skin color to prove that they’re white public union backers too?

          1. Logical fallacy, I think. The police unions endorsed Trump; I vote for Trump; ergo I support police unions? I think not.
            Or, if I do not support police unions, I must not vote for Trump, thus must vote for Hillary? But … I imagine the teachers’ unions endorsed her, and I don’t support teachers’ unions ….
            And no, I did not find any of the alternate party candidates acceptable in the last presidential election.

      3. Whenever my leftist friends talk about the police reforms they want to see implemented, they never once mention breaking the police unions, which is the most important reform needed, more so than ending QI. It’s almost as if messing with any public employee unions is a line in the sand for them.

    3. No shop should be a union shop. Texas is an Open Shop, Right To Work State. Teachers’ unions don’t even have any teeth in this state. Which is why I’m shocked and pissed off that police officers’ unions not only get to be an exception, we pay for their employees. I wonder if fire fighters’ unions get this kind of special treatment here. Probably not, given the gross disparity in pay between police and firefighters here in Houston.

    4. There’s plenty of evidence that public sector unions are perverse and destructive. Why isn’t it obvious that individual liability for public servants would be the opposite of the status of law in the private sector where employers are responsible for the behavior of their employees?

    5. You should ask Joe he supports all Unions including local, state and federal. His left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing in this instance. He supports Public Unions on the left hand but on the Right Hand he wants to defund the Police Departments. He better reconcile with those hands or will have to answer the hard questions on the disparity. Oh that is if his handlers allow him out of the basement.

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    7. JFK made it so. Then he/democrats get rewarded with a portion of dues from the public sector unions in campaign donations for eternity.

  2. Well, Timothy, it is because the voters keep electing politicians that permit this kind of fraud.
    Next question?

    1. We could explain blame to all the pundits and ‘journolists’ who maybe should make some note of the politicians involved, and their direct incentive for perpetuating the very system that they also claim is so ‘systemically racist.’

      It’s not like any of this sprang up over night. Most of these places have been ruled by the same political machine for decades if not longer.

    2. It should be noted that police unions *should* be acting as a check on local government in Oregon in lieu of Federal Officers. IMO, November will be very telling in this regard. To see which candidates sprint backwards from ‘defund the police’ in order to get police union endorsements and which police unions bite their tongue and endorse which ‘defund the police’ candidates.

  3. Actually, lots of corporations have similar agreements with unions. Of course, if the unions force the corporations into bankruptcy, then everyone involved loses. Public sector unions just get more taxes extracted from the public and are encouraged to double down on their efforts. AFT keeps saying ‘for the children,’ but are actually only feathering their own nests.

    1. I forgot who it was but back in Chicago when there was a teachers strike a reporter asks a teachers union rep if they were concerd about the children, the reps reply was “I will care about them as soon as they grow up and join the teachers union”

    2. But private companies, at this time, can move and get away from unions.

    3. True. I used to work for a trucking company. The shop stewards got paid for wandering around the dispatch area, looking for errors in dispatching. They were allowed to go through drawers and examine records from previous days. If they found that an employee was called to work out of order, then the employee who was not called would also get paid for that work.

      That’s why YRCW stock has lost over 99 percent of its value in the last twenty years.

  4. The unions aren’t necessarily the problem. It’s the people who are negotiating with the unions, i.e. the people who represent us, who are the sell outs. We the people need better representation. Cop unions are different story than kinds of unions because of the sensitivity of the job they do. Personally I don’t think cops should be allowed to unionize or lobby politician. They should be paid well but they should stay out of politics. But they obviously haven’t and so in this world at this time cop unions can go fuck themselves. I’d take away their fancy cars and make them ride bikes if I was deciding this shit.

    1. Who elects the people the unions negotiate with? Generally the unions and their families. Something like 15% of the working population works directly for the government on some level (federl, state, local)

    2. Incentives matter. The people negotiating with public unions have no incentive to get a good deal for the taxpayers. Quite the opposite, since these union people also vote. For that reason alone all public sector unions should be abolished, because it amounts to extorting those who they supposedly serve.

      1. Or all public employees and their family forfeit voting rights for their jobs.

        Either work for the state or vote to change the state. Not both.

        1. I completely agree, though it will never happen.

        2. There is still the problem that the Unions can spend money to get you elected. So even if your members don’t vote, the Unions can still get you or your opponent elected via direct contributions to your campaign, or political advertising on your/his behalf.

          No, at the end of the day, public sector unions should not be allowed at the bargaining table.

          1. It is not just money, it is also the time they can spend getting voters to the polls or handing out literature or other support activities.

    3. How do you propose we get “better representation”? Public unions also use tax dollars, filtered through public employee wages and union dues, to fund campaigns for candidates that will support public unions. And of course, union members also campaign, and vote in large numbers.

      How about taking the vote away from public employees?

      1. Prohibit government from initiating force.

    4. Was that your opinion 2 years ago…. or 2 weeks ago? You know, before they endorsed President Trump? Hating on teachers unions too? Cuz kids are pretty sensitive too, and teachers unions back the dirtbag teachers who abuse kids. Just to put that in context though, teachers unions are supporting Biden, so I’m gonna guess that’s an important, if not mentioned difference.

      1. While IO agree that the tilt of Reason had been oddly anti-Trump considering the Libertarian balance between Populism and all out Leftist Fascism, I don’t think this is an issue with THIS article. The corrupt police unions are a big deal at the moment. And, be fair, Reason has been sniping at the (revolting) Teachers’ Unions for decades.

      2. Trump doesn’t have anything to do with this. Libertarians (and Reason) have always been critical of public sector unions.

        Just as libertarians have always been critical of police abuse and of shitty laws that create opportunities for said abuse.

        Now that the left is drifting towards a libertarian attitude regarding cops, right wingers interpret that to mean libertarians have moved left.

    5. “We the people need better representation. ”

      That is naive at best.

      So long as the unions can funnel money to the politicians – via direct or indirect campaign contributions, or a myriad of ‘non-profit’ organizations then there is no hope for ‘better representation’ because the fundamental arrangement is one of corruption.

    6. The point has been made elsewhere here that the unions and the people negotiating with unions are essentially the same people, in that they have the same incentives. It’s like having two criminals debating over how much cash to steal from you, and you saying that the problem is with criminal 1, not criminal 2.

  5. Sounds like the “released” public union members are like mafia muscle. They add to overhead costs of the organization, compared to “productive” mobsters who are at least providing hookers and drugs, and picking up the trash.

  6. “Why Are Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Full-Time Police Union Employees?”

    Because the relationship between the Public Employee Unions had been one of reciprocating corruption.

    1. I should not try to comment before I metabolize my morning caffeine. Relationship between the Public Employee unions and local politicians.

  7. “Why Are Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Full-Time Police Union Employees?”

    Because fuck you, that’s why.

  8. If a new CEO comes in and stacks the board with his friends who then vote him a new contract with much better terms there may not be anything illegal going on, but it stinks to high heaven and the shareholders would rightfully question what the hell is going on here. In the case of public sector unions, they’re not bargaining with their employers – the public – but with other public sector union employees and the whole thing stinks to high heaven just the same as the case of a CEO with a board stacked with his friends. Even attempts to keep the bargaining at arm’s length fail when the “independent” board doing the bargaining is made up of people less than critical of government spending. Let me on one of these panels that conduct the collective bargaining for the government and you’ll see some real bargaining, the sort where the terms might become less favorable to the union – that’s some real compromise rather than the one-way ratchet where the new agreement is always better than the old.

    1. How many of these problematic unions are from Democratic machine states and cities?

    2. If a new CEO comes in and stacks the board with his friends who then vote him a new contract with much better terms there may not be anything illegal going on, but it stinks to high heaven and the shareholders would rightfully question what the hell is going on here.

      And the solution is to quietly dump your shares and buy something else.

      The same solution applies if you don’t like how local politicians interact with local police unions.

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  10. Because whether you split off pay specifically for the union reps busywork buddies or pay cops more so their expanded dues can cover it, the taxpayers are paying for everything anyway.

    Money is fungible.

    Yeah, I know it’s a rhetorical question.

    1. Yeah, everyone thinks if you “make the cops pay for something” then the taxpayers are magically shielded from that cost being passed on in the union contract. Tariffs, how do they work?

  11. Why is this article concerned with just full time taxpayer paid police union reps and not public union reps in general?

    1. Might have something to do with police reform being in the news right now. Just a thought.

      1. Right, which is all the more reason the pubsec unions for any paramilitary organization (ie, the police) should be made illegal.

      2. Because it’s been, what?, a few hours since I heard about how teachers are going to be on the front line in the fight against COVID this fall?

  12. “Why Are Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Full-Time Police Union Employees?”

    Because the union can deliver the votes!

    1. There are few things more fanatically entitled than a group of union True Believers.

      1. My state is chock full of them. All unions are sacrosanct, the government employee unions most of all.

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  14. “Why Are Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Full-Time Police Union Employees?”

    Hey, if taxpayers didn’t do it, the union’s membership would have to!

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  15. because taxpayers are borg.

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  17. No QI
    No unions
    No secret records

    1. No No-knock warrants
      No constitutionally-guaranteed pensions

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  19. General Motors or Ford will go bankrupt and everybody will lose their jobs

    That is just about the worst example possible. The UAW and federal government made sure taxpayers lost $11.2 billion when GM went through bankruptcy in 2009.

    1. And the bondholders lost the most. Moody’s, S&P, et al should really take into account the size of a company’s unionized workforce in determining their ratings after the GM experience. Turns out GM’s debt issues should have been BB or lower.

  20. Probably for the same reason you’ll be paying for their malpractice insurance when we get rid of Qualified Immunity.

    1. Bingo.

      I’m all for doing away with police and not paying for any of it, but if we’re GOING to have them and GOING to pay for them, then if they want part of their total contractual compensation to come in the form of “release time” for their union guys, I don’t see how that’s any different than the groceries, greens fees, etc. they spend their salaries on.

    2. I’m better with that. Because over time the insurance rates will adjust with the quality of the policing. In that sense they will be like bond ratings for other public works.

      1. So what? As long as the symbiotic relationship between the police unions and elected officials exists, that will be irrelevant. Taxpayers will just be paying the unions’ higher insurance rates.

  21. IMO, there is a valid role for police unions.

    If there were a situations where, say a Mayor or a Governor told officers to stand down in the face of violence or perpetrate violence unconstitutionally and the officer’s conscience wouldn’t let them. When they inevitably get fired by the Mayor/Governor, a union that supports them and helps get them employed elsewhere.

    Admittedly, it’s a double-edged sword and a bit of a pipe dream which is why I oppose police unions but, if we must have a sword in hand, the double-edged one would be better than the one we’ve currently got with the single cutting edge facing us.

    1. Well, they are still free to form a private organization that can help with those things with their own money. The group just doesn’t get to be involved in contract negotiations and the like.

  22. Because taxpayers footing the bill for their own abuse at the hands of government is the cornerstone of government. That police are, but, the expensive tools of government’s abuse is, but, added injury; and that their unions (to a lessor degree all public sector unions) are, but, a conspiracy to add insult to the injury.

    “Authority has every reason to fear the skeptic, for authority can rarely survive in the face of doubt.” ~ Robert Lindner

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  23. Ummm… Because those rioting lefties who always insist on MORE and MORE government are now mad at the result of their own ideology yet are just too damn stupid to realize their own hypocrisy?

    Lefty ideology – more gov housing, more gov healthcare, more gov education, more gov regulation…. Well crap; the government is here to make all our dreams come true — lets to riot against them.

    Freak-en idiots….

  24. You should ask Joe he supports all Unions including local, state and federal. His left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing in this instance. He supports Public Unions on the left hand but on the Right Hand he wants to defund the Police Departments. He better reconcile with those hands or will have to answer the hard questions on the disparity. Oh that is if his handlers allow him out of the basement.

  25. I am fairly certain this wont hit the site as a response. Reason has become a liberal,Democrat propaganda site. Every Union have employees of those they represent working for them while getting paid. Teachers who are not allowed to teach are given jobs with the same pay and not forced out.This has been going on for over 40 years but reason does not tell you this.They want the Police to be disbanded so if the Democrats take over they form their Gestapos to keep you in line and report anyone out of line to report them and report even their parents. If Americans are this stupid you deserve what you get!

  26. The title of your opinion piece is, itself, moronic. Taxpayers often are required to pay for things of which they disapprove. My taxpayer dollars over the years have supported: (a) wars which felt inappropriate and stupid; (b) schools, even though I have never had any children; (c) welfare benefits for lazy folks; (d) salaries for all public union employees (not just police). To single out police unions while exempting from your concern teachers’ unions is merely to attempt to de-fund them because they express opinions with which you disagree. That is a violation of those unions’ First Amendment Rights.

    1. More accurately, the left part of his brain (to the extent it remains functional) does not know what the right part is thinking.

    2. No one is violating the unions’ First Amendment Rights. We just don’t feel obligated to pay them to express them.

    3. You don’t understand the First Amendment, do you?

  27. I saw this when I was working for the US government. People who were union stewards spent 40 hours a week doing union work and not their stated jobs. Some of them brag about it.

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  29. Why Are Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Full-Time Police Union Employees?
    For the same reason they foot any bill. If they refuse they will be arrested. If they refuse to be arrested, they will be shot.

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  30. Why are the public allowing themselves to be ruled, e.g., why do they vote for rulers? They must believe in the ruler/ruled political paradigm. This means they believe the initiation of violence, threats, and fraud by those they have granted authority to rule them is necessary, even if not moral.
    If they later complain about specific results, e.g., police corruption, they should question their politics first. They (the public) may be supporting an immoral/impractical political system. Perhaps they should stop doing that. Perhaps a new system based on rights, reason, choice, and voluntary compliance would be both moral and practical. It couldn’t be worse than the Police State. It’s only logical.

  31. The question in the headline strikes me as needful of an answer, in detail, and RDN as opposed to some point in the future that, strange to note, is never reached.

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  33. hey you guys just wait a damn minute…without unions who will make sure that ineffective and lazy and stupid people can get overpaid? who’s gonna see to it that people found sound asleep on a jobsite don’t get canned? who will make sure my dumbass kid gets a job just because he’s my kid. who will make sure that the public employees can never be fired and at the same time assure they are never required to deliver a full days work? HUH? WHO?

    the fact that teachers have a union is fucking retarded

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