“The Labor Movement was the principal force that transformed Misery and Despair into Hope & Progress.” Martin Luther King Jr.
I first quote MLK with the prospect of showing some similarities of the labor movement for public employees in the black community of the 1960’s who were denied bargaining unit rights for better working conditions in Memphis for garbage collectors. There are similarities to be observed for the unionization of police officers about a half a century prior. The Boston PD strike that resulted in anarchy in the streets with the federal government having to step in to quell the lawlessness. Denying any unionization of workers in any realm of the United States denies freedom.
Police unions were first brought about for what was needed for the LE profession: better working conditions, living wages, & an improvement in quality of life. Over the years, police unions have grown in size, monetary gains, & political influence. We cannot deny how pre-union terminations were carried out by those in power. Even today, there are individuals who wield bullying power over those who depend on their career to make a living. With the rise of media-induced unwarranted assaults against officer’s rights that have been hard-fought for, it seems the unions & their members are in for unfair regulatory decreases in labor rights. Do I believe unions are to blame for exacerbating police misconduct? Unfortunately, the answer cannot be a simple yes or no.
If you cannot tell yet, I am what is considered pro-union. I have been involved on a local & state level with unions to include local Executive Board positions. I have been a union representative for accused officers of misconduct. By my duties as a Detective within the Criminal Investigations Division @ a slightly higher level (just below Management), I have investigated officers for misconduct as well. I can see both sides of the coin- just never @ the same time- but first & foremost, I believe in accountability within our profession. It is up to everyone but especially the IA investigator- to do his/her job correctly & not cut corners.
Police officers must maintain the same protections that are afforded to other professionals. Discipline & terminations must be based on proof of wrongdoing- not blatant unsubstantiated innuendo. Unsupported ambiguity flies in the face of everything we stand for in the justice system. Our profession demands truth & justice. This is true for police administrative investigations as well. I have observed this first-hand several times in my 31 years in LE. If those justifiable rights afforded to the accused subject officer are not followed, officers who were unjustly sanctioned or terminated w/out just cause would have had no recourse to correct a career-ending mistake. Either by over-punishment w/ no progressive discipline or by Management w/ a personal axe to grind against the accused.
LE officers are subjected to bad situations all of the time. No one calls 9-1-1 because they had or are having a great day. Some of those interactions include a loss-of-freedom of an individual. This can create a animosity toward those individuals who ‘took’ their freedom away; whether temporarily or on a more extended period of time. This sometimes creates a situation where that individual wishes to “get even” with that LE officer- no matter how unwarranted or false. They will do anything to try to get that officer into trouble w/ their employer. I further submit that the LE profession generates more complaints than any other profession in the world. A strong union prevents unwarranted discipline against an officer for false complaints.
Union membership within IA investigations provide the accused with certain rights to ensure fairness. This includes if punishment is warranted, it is done so equally & not different for someone else doing the exact same thing. Bias is taken out of the algorithm. Unfortunately, this includes representation of the same rights of someone accused of abhorrent & disgusting behavior. Some individuals see this as “protecting bad cops”. It’s not protecting them inasmuch as ensuring an even playing field for all.
Taking the most recent example of George Floyd, you can ask any LE officer if he/she believes what they observed was a ‘reasonable’ action by a LE officer. After review of the facts of the incident, I submit everyone in the LE community does not condone that behavior & Chauvin murdered Mr. Floyd. LE expects proper justice in that case both criminally, civilly, & administratively; just as any other citizen placed in that situation. We do not arrest w/out probable cause. To do so w/ no PC, we would not be a Democracy. The vilification of our profession as a whole & police unions are considered evil by certain groups are uninformed & oblivious to the facts. They are ‘driven’ by the constant attention of the media- not for the greater good, but to make money.
Unions & collective bargaining in LE were started to improve an officer’s way-of-life. Now there are leaders within this community of union representation that hide behind the veil of this narrative, but their main goal is to wield power over political / community leaders through money as well. Some community leaders have to sometimes become submissive to these unions or by not submitting, do so @ great risk. Over the decades, there have also been some particular rights granted through negotiation that went beyond what would be considered standard employee interview techniques for private entity employees. As an example, providing all investigative material to include complainant name, videos, statements, etc. to the accused. This is a detriment to the investigative process. A synopsis of the information is sufficient w/out showing the accused the possible exact direction of the investigation which can give the accused enough lead to justify or conceal his action(s). This does hinder the investigative process.
Proponents of ‘police reform’ by limiting or excluding union representation cannot or refuse to understand the difficulties of wishing reform through the eyes of a police officer. It’s as if choosing a LE career, you have somehow made yourself less than human & do not deserve equal rights under set agreements & Constitutional law as other professionals or civilians. Oversight based on reaction w/out proof of wrongdoing.
While it’s too early to finalize any possible scholarly studies in the reduction of collective bargaining rights & reducing funding, we are seeing a surge of negative results. An exodus of experienced officers, reduction of recruiting numbers, & the worst outcome of all; the surge in criminal activity w/out any fear of reprisals from the executive or judicial branches of government.
One study shows a spike in crime in the nation’s 50 largest cities including a 24% increase in murders over this past year alone†. The reduction in police activity is due to unjust blaming of the entire police system for misconduct. If more barriers are put in place hindering a officer’s ability to act to include legal exposure to criminal, civil, & job sanctions; the reduction in police effectiveness will spiral out of control.
I believe that it was Aristotle who once wrote, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” The leaders within LE Management, leaders of the unions, & leaders of the citizenry must come together to create a future based on reality- not on unrealistic goals borne from reactionary headlines. The leadership of any organization is ultimately responsible for the successes or failures of that organization. When leaders fail to actively lead, they create a dangerous vacuum that could implode if overran by others that do not have final leadership accountability.
As a Field Training Officer, I would tell my trainee that our ‘game’ we work (law enforcement) has a field of play. During our work, there are boundaries on all four sides. One side is the Constitution. Another is law (city ordinances, state, & federal). Another side is policy, & the opposite is morals & our Code of Ethics. These are the boundaries we play in. If you cross any of those lines, you get penalized. It could be an admonishment, verbal warning, suspension, termination, possible death of an individual, & possibly criminal charges. Dependent on what incident you’re dealing with, that field can become smaller i.e. Use of Force or OIS which makes those borders even closer to crossing due to added scrutiny. I encourage that new officer to stay inbounds @ all times. That same example should be utilized not only by LE officers, but also Management, unions, & citizenry. If that is accomplished, then any police administrative investigation that’s completed will be just & accepted by all sides who have an interest in a cohesive society.