After every police brutality case like the one involving George Floyd, there are loud calls — this time backed by nationwide protests — for police departments to reform. Frustratingly, nothing seems to change. Among the many reasons for this bureaucratic sclerosis, one often gets overlooked: the power of police labor unions.
The purpose of policing is to promote public safety and uphold the rule of law so that individuals and communities can thrive. The purpose of police unions, however, is to win members better salaries and benefits and to protect their job security — specifically by pushing for safeguards against investigation, discipline and dismissal. These protections can make it difficult for police chiefs to manage their forces effectively and can allow a few bad officers to act with impunity, poisoning an entire organizational culture in the process.
The most notorious example of this problem emerged from Chicago after the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by officer Jason Van Dyke. Before that fatal incident, Van Dyke had been the subject of 20 civilian complaints, 10 of which alleged excessive use of force. But under the union rules then in place, the complaints proved toothless. As a task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the wake of the shooting reported, “The collective bargaining agreements between the police unions and the City [had] essentially turned the code of silence into official policy.”
To be sure, many of the protections demanded by police unions reflect the unique challenges of policing. Because of the nature of their work, law enforcement officers tend to have adversarial relationships with the citizens and communities they serve. False or exaggerated complaints are inevitable, and it is understandable that labor representatives would want to protect their members against these threats.
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