First, I believe that the misconception that unions are to blame for police misconduct is unwarranted. However, it is not without merit. The unions have placed many stipulations into contracts that make the process more laborious to remove problem officers. This has caused many in administrative positions to blame the unions for making it difficult to remove issues from the agency. Does this create an obstacle? Yes. Are they obstacles that cannot be overcome? No. These contracts make it more laborious but not impossible. The unfortunate truth is that many in the administrative positions didn’t have the work ethic or the integrity to document the things they should have. The hard part of discipline is taking action, not just when it’s outrageously egregious, but also for the more minor violations. I have been on both sides of this conundrum. As a patrol officer and Union president I know that I was not disciplined from something that I clearly should have been. But as an administrator, I also know that I have not held someone accountable to the degree I should have until it was much later down the road. I know the right thing to do would have been to start documenting unacceptable behavior as soon as I observed it, but instead I tried to get this person to change through influence which never actually worked. I should have done both, then I may have been successful in saving this person’s career.
Because I saw both sides, I am well aware that the unions and the civil service system are needed mechanisms. It is clear to those of us in the field that there are a small percentage of officers who make up the “bad batch” that give the rest of us a bad name. That percentage also applies to the administrators as well. When those bad apples get into the higher echelons of government, they create the environment that caused the creation of civil service rules and unions. They begin using their power for nepotism and they improperly target those they don’t get along with. Thus, the civil service process becomes necessary. However, it is still a very workable system. If utilized properly, these systems can hold the bad apples accountable while also protecting the good officers.
The human instinct is to find a nice and neat way to explain the reason for a problem. This issue is far from neat or easy to explain. Our shifting cultures as a nation, combined with the different shifting law enforcement cultures across the nation when multiplied by the failures of our politicians and law enforcement leaders had created this uncontrolled goliath. Now all we can do is try to mitigate the damage as we all move through this era. In the end, I could point to poor leadership or towards past failures. But the reality is that our culture as a nation is in a state of flux, and the most prominent image of our old, fixed culture is the arm of the government that enforces those cultural norms on the public… the police. We are the proverbial whipping boy of this conflict.
As for pros and cons of membership when it comes to administrative investigations. I would argue that the pros outweigh the cons. All the “Pros” are doing are making sure that the process is fair and just for all. The “cons” only rear their ugly head when the system isn’t utilized properly due to negligence or laziness on the part of leadership. When utilized properly, the system can hold those accountable that should be and it can protect those that may be wrongfully punished. Administrators with he courage and fortitude to use the system to their advantage will prevail in creating a culture of accountability for their agencies.