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New Report: Reforming Police Unions Key to Officer Accountability

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press release

New Report: Reforming Police Unions Key to Officer Accountability

January 12, 2021

New York, NY — During last summer’s debate over criminal justice, observers across the political spectrum asserted that police unions tend to shield officers from consequences for misconduct. Yet the ensuing wave of state and local legislation largely sought to change departments from the top down. In a new report, Manhattan Institute (MI) senior fellow Daniel DiSalvo assesses the role of police unions in creating job protections for officers, suggesting that reform-minded policymakers should concentrate on enhancing officer accountability through future rounds of collective bargaining. Driving a harder bargain in negotiations is a more promising way to restore public confidence in police, DiSalvo writes, but it will require a concerted strategy on the part of public officials.

The report, part of MI’s Policing and Public Safety Initiative, surveys the organizational and legal incentives that drive union leaders to vigorously defend officers accused of misconduct. While several states and localities recently passed legislation with the stated aim of reducing misconduct and restoring confidence in police, most of these laws changed only existing policies, some were hastily passed and based on little evidence, and almost none dealt with bargaining over disciplinary procedures.

The report recommends possible targets for policymakers in future negotiations, including:

  • Revisiting grievance procedures to ensure that supervisors are empowered to make hard decisions.
  • Limiting third-party arbitration to align police chiefs’ authority and responsibility.
  • Easing misconduct reporting, within reason, to clear the way for prompt investigation of civilian complaints.
  • Reviewing procedures for the investigation of complaints, which can sometimes be cumbersome or slanted.
  • Storing, not purging, officer records in searchable electronic databases, while ensuring that officers are not held liable for unfounded allegations.

As unions may view the removal of some of these protections unfavorably, policymakers may need to offer favorable contract terms to improve a department’s ability to recruit and retain talented officers in exchange. But the overarching goals should remain strengthening the chain of accountability between street-level officers and their supervisors and increasing police professionalism—and collective bargaining negotiations are a fruitful option to achieve them.

Click here to read the full report.

About the Policing and Public Safety Initiative

The Policing and Public Safety Initiative is an MI project encompassing research, journalism, and events that focuses on criminal-justice issues. The initiative expands on MI’s legacy of treating order and justice as complements, evaluating today’s pressing issues with an eye toward promoting community policing, preserving the hard-won gains that cities have made against crime, and allowing city dwellers to live peaceful, prosperous lives. As part of the initiative, MI commissions research from its own fellows and from external scholars and practitioners. Click here to learn more.