“Police unions in general have become the most vocal interest group opposing criminal justice reforms and especially reforms to police discipline and use of force. Historically, they have, unlike most unions, been profoundly conservative institutions that uphold a particular white ethnic, “law and order”-focused variant of right-wing politics. They have been among Donald Trump’s most fervent allies; Kroll spoke at a Trump rally in 2018, and the International Union of Police Associations has already endorsed Trump for reelection.
The foregrounding of police unions’ role in the warping of American law enforcement has also prompted some difficult conversations on the left. The presence of a segment of a union movement that’s unapologetically right-wing and hostile to Black communities has tested the limits of solidarity from more left-wing unionists.
As long as police forces exist, police unions will exist in some form as well, even if just as political pressure groups. It is therefore natural to think that reforming police unions in some way must be part of the broader agenda of changing policing in America. They are among the biggest stakeholders in the way the system works now; without addressing their power, other reforms may never get off the ground.”
“Most police union experts I spoke with, though, fell in the middle: They believe that police unions can be usefully reformed without being abolished.
There are a number of possible models for this kind of reform. The organization Campaign Zero, co-founded by activists DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe, has been a leader in pushing for police union contract transparency; much of the research above relies on contracts they’ve surfaced publicly.
They recommend a bevy of contract changes, most of which involve removing provisions included in many union contracts or state laws known as Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights (LEOBRs), which provide similar protections to police officers as contracts do but are implemented as state legislation instead. Problematic provisions in contracts and LEOBRs include mandates that delay interrogations of officers (as Rushin highlighted), the ability to appeal to an arbitrator partially chosen by the police union, and bans on investigating misconduct that happened more than 100 days in the past.
Rushin has proposed allowing the public to observe collective bargaining between the police and state governments. That way, the public can exert pressure on city leaders not to yield to police union demands about discipline. A 2017 Reuters investigation found that in a number of cities, such as San Antonio, city leaders have given police unions concessions as an explicit trade-off for not offering high pay or limiting pay cuts. “If that trade-off is publicly visible, that our failure to compensate is causing cities to give significant concessions on discipline,” Rushin notes, then public pressure might force the city to increase police salaries rather than reducing accountability.”
“Suppose that a FedEx deliveryperson pushed you onto the sidewalk, causing a head injury when you fell. The deliveryperson would be liable in a civil suit, and so would FedEx. But it’s different with government. Qualified immunity generally protects police officers and other public employees from lawsuits; meanwhile, a principle called “vicarious liability” protects police departments and city governments from such lawsuits. Fisk argues that Congress should reverse Monell and allow governments to be held liable for police officers’ misconduct.
The most dramatic reform, short of outright abolishing collective bargaining rights for police unions, is one that Harvard’s Sachs suggested sympathy toward and the Boston Globe has editorialized in favor of: limiting police unions to simply bargaining on wages and hours, not on discipline. This change is already the law in Massachusetts. (Fisk argues this would go too far. “There’s two sides to the contract; why are we focused only on what unions are asking for rather than focusing on what cities are asking for?” she says.)
Reforming police unions is hardly the only important task in efforts to reform the police generally. But there is an emerging consensus that something significant has to change in these organizations. If not, they will remain unaccountable lobbies that frustrate even mild efforts to reform police departments and save the lives of unarmed civilians.”