The Dilemmas of Police Unions

Police unions are everywhere these days. Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, which represents a majority of the department’s members, recently held an election. The winner, Kevin Graham, ran on a Jeff Sessions platform: against reform, against DOJ consent decrees, against critics of policing practices. Elsewhere, many police unions advocate cooperation with ICE to enforce Trump’s deportation agenda and support laws to make violence against police a hate crime and to limit accountability in shooting investigations and public access to body camera footage.

So, what else is new? Police unions have lobbied for their interests at city halls and statehouses for multiple generations. Police unions have also historically been a hotbed of conservative politics. Locals endorsed George Wallace in 1968. The national FOP endorsed Trump in 2016.

In the 1960s, big-city scout cars bore bumper stickers endorsing segregationist causes like Proposition 14 in California, to repeal the state’s new fair housing law, or far-right slogans like “Support Your Local Police,” created by the John Birch Society, who notoriously speculated that Dwight D. Eisenhower, two-time U.S. president and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II, might be a Soviet spy. Dozens of officers in Los Angeles and New York, most notably, were outed as Birchers in the late 1960s.

The rough equivalent of right-wing revanchism and racial paranoia among police today might be those San Antonio police who wore MAGA hats at a Trump campaign event, the overwhelming majority of white officers in a recent national Pew poll who skewed toward conservative positions on racial justice, and the nation’s largest police union embracing the new U.S. attorney general who once admitted his desire to return to a whites-only immigration policy. The FBI also routinely monitors the attempted infiltration of police departments by white supremacist groups.

Ideally, police should be outwardly non-partisan. Their very purpose is to act as an impartial force in keeping order and protecting the public from private and official harms. We have come to believe over the past fifty years that the police—in keeping with the state’s constitutional commitments to equal protection—should reflect the demographic diversity of the public they serve in part because it is understood that police can easily abuse their power against disfavored minorities and advance the interests of the powerful. That their principal union has embraced the most openly xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic president in multiple generations is thus worrisome—and indeed calls into question the practical value of police unions in general.

As I’ve come to learn after researching police unionization in the 1960s, they can serve a useful, even vital purpose. At the same time, they present a real danger to public safety in that they can institutionalize longstanding tendencies, which predate unions, whereby the police close ranks and protect their own rather than serve public interests.

Before unions, rank-and-file officers had very little power within the department. When the movement to professionalize police gained influence in the 1960s, its proponents embraced a doctrinaire management style that treated patrol officers like cogs in a machine. Indeed, John Cassese, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in New York City, frequently complained that the commissioner treated the rank-and-file like “robots.” For Cassese and other police association leaders, the union provided a means to restore their rights and dignity on the job. Some big-city police unions even organized job actions against quotas on arrests and traffic enforcement.

Before unions, a commanding officer could simply discard a grievance from a patrol officer without filing a report or giving an official reason. The system was capricious, arbitrary, and ad hoc. One of the first union demands was thus to institute a formal grievance procedure to guarantee due process rights in internal investigations and a method to appeal trial board decisions, all the way up to the commissioner and even, depending on the issue, to an outside arbitration panel.

Before unions, policing was essentially compensated as unskilled labor. A Detroit patrol officer in 1967 made between $7400 and $8500, placing them above truck drivers and librarians but below bricklayers and roofers. As late as 1965, Baltimore still hired candidates with only an eighth grade equivalency. City officials and police executives nationwide agreed that raising pay was necessary to establish professional standards. Only through collective-bargaining and sustained, state-protected pressure from below, however, were police unions able to obtain long-desired job security—to the degree that, thanks to overtime, police detectives are now the highest paid public employees in some cities, out-earning the police chief and the mayor.

If you’re familiar with police unions, you may realize what came next. Over the last year, a previously obscure state statute commonly known as the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights has gotten more attention after high-profile police shootings. These state laws, first passed in Florida and Maryland in 1974 and elsewhere in the 1970s, grant officers accused of misconduct considerably more breathing room than ordinary criminal defendants to review the evidence against them and “cool off” for days or weeks to confer with legal counsel and commanding officers before issuing a written statement and speaking with civilian oversight authorities. Some also require the department to destroy disciplinary records after a certain period of time, allowing “problem” officers to remain in the system. While only 14 states have passed the LEOBOR, most police contracts contain similar provisions. The DOJ highlighted these “bill of rights” clauses as the institutional backbone for the “code of silence” in the Chicago Police Department.

Police unions first won the “bill of rights” provisions in the 1960s. The Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA) signed their first contract with the city in August 1967, about a month after the five-day rebellion had ripped a hole in the city. The contract did not address wages or benefits—only so-called “non-economic demands.” The new grievance procedure enumerated new rights for officers accused of misconduct: they could wait 24 hours before making a statement to a superior officer and were permitted a union steward or legal counsel (or both) at trial board hearings. The contract also imposed a duty on management to confer with the union on any policy affecting working conditions. The DPOA then used these “bill of rights” to obstruct investigations of the notorious Algiers Motel slayings during the 1967 riot and the 22 killings by the elite undercover unit STRESS between 1971 and 1973, among much else. In the early 1970s, in this climate of impunity (and weak departmental regulation of use of force), the Detroit Police had the highest rate of civilian killings per capita of any big city in the country.

The ideal balance as I’ve come to see it would be to weaken the bill of rights provisions for misconduct investigations—to break the code of silence—without compromising the traditional protections against arbitrary, capricious management that every labor union enjoys and without jeopardizing the First and Fifth Amendment rights of police officers, first recognized by the Supreme Court‘s Garrity decision in 1967. Workers need a voice on the job, especially front-line workers who know the demands and dangers of the job better than their superiors. A healthy workplace where workers feel valued and respected is necessary for all, especially police. But because of the unique position of police—as armed agents of the state entrusted to keep order and protect life—we must take special care that the “bill of rights” for police does not ultimately weaken bill of rights protections for the public, as it appears they do now.

That said, knowing the long history of the Blue Wall of Silence—before unions, before “bill of rights” clauses, before Garrity—the best medicine may be preventive, redefining the police role toward more reactive strategies less likely to inflame tensions and identifying those practices that amplify danger and risk for officers and the public.

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