This is not a simple yes or no answer. I believe that much of what we are seeing now in an era of having cameras everywhere, from security cameras, cell phone cameras to officer body worn cameras, is a manifestation of years of bad police culture. Before the advent of all this video footage, most of this misconduct remained in the shadows. I believe that most of police misconduct is deeply rooted in a lack of procedural justice. We, the organizations and quite frankly, the profession itself, have not acknowledged and embraced the value of procedural justice.
Before we can understand the importance of procedural justice, we must first remember where we ultimately get our authority from, which is the community that we serve. They have entrusted us with being their guardians and protectors in our civil society. Society has given us that authority and has recently shown they can take it away, such as defunding the police.
Procedural justice is the foundation of fairness of processes used by those in positions of authority to reach specific outcomes or decisions. Procedural justice values the outcomes that the community expect. People want a voice, neutrality, respect, and trust. Again, they’ve entrusted us to protect them and society. No other profession is given the legal ability to take away what people cherish the most – their freedom and their lives. However, all too often we forget where we get our authority from and aren’t sensitive to the needs of the communities that we serve. This creates a sense of division and distrust, which is magnified in communities of color.
Our police cultures are born in academies where we drive home the fact that police must arrive on scene and take control immediately. This fundamental, one size fits all approach, of a loud, authoritarian “do as I say or else” persona isn’t always necessary. If fact, it often contributes to the narrative that we don’t listen, don’t care, and don’t respect our fellow mankind. It continues through training, both formal and informal, that reinforces “we say, and you (citizens) do,” almost to an exclusion of any other options. It creates and continually reinforces the mindset that we are always right. That we don’t make mistakes. And again, most importantly, that we don’t listen or in many cases care. We are not embracing the communities that we serve; we are not always respectful to our citizens. We don’t ask them what they expect and need from us, we assume we know, because we are the police. If we want to improve our profession, improve our communities, we must do better around procedural justice. It is our culture to change. I believe what we saw in the George Floyd case was an extreme manifestation of poor police culture on full display. Derek Chauvin had no regard for a human life and neither did his fellow officers.
I firmly believe that it’s not the union’s role to establish agency culture, that responsibility lies with each individual administration. Therefore, I don’t believe the unions are to blame. However, I do believe the profession itself also needs to value their communities and procedural justice. That is the foundational piece that gives us our legitimacy to serve in the manner that is expected by the citizen’s that we serve. It must begin with every leader in every police agency, large and small.
What I do blame some unions for is the refusal to recognize the need for reform and/or work as a roadblock to needed change. Again, the specific change I’m talking about isn’t defunding the police or making cops social workers. It’s the fundamental change that begins with procedural justice in our communities. I believe that often the type of person that is drawn to our great profession are the “Type A” personalities”, which is generally a good thing. However, they also tend to believe they are always right, or they are opposed to change, or are simply afraid to try something non-traditional because they are afraid to fail. That’s why our profession keeps doing the same things, in the same ways that we know how to do them. John Wooden once said, “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” I believe that the defunding of the police movement is the best example of this. As a profession, it’s time for us to collectively acknowledge the need for this change and to try. We might fail along the way, but that is where some of the greatest lessons are learned.
What are the pros and cons of union membership in police administrative investigations?
Understanding that unions and union laws vary from state to state, I’d like to frame my response in the context of the State of Michigan. In general, aside from the protections of Garrity, which I am a strong proponent, union members reserve no more protection from violating laws than the citizens that they serve. Nor should they. I’ve always been amazed that many states have given police more protections than their citizens when it comes to committing crimes.
That said, I’ve had the fortune of evaluating this question from two different, opposing positions. For ten years, I served as the president of our command union. Later in my career, I was appointed to an executive level position in the organization. So, I’ve experienced the gamut of important roles that the union plays.
In general, I welcome and appreciate the role the union plays. Clearly their most important role is ensuring that the contract is followed, and their employees are treated fairly and consistently. In our organization we strive for those same goals, so there isn’t a disconnect there with our union. Although, they might not always see it that way. For example, when it comes to employee discipline, fairness isn’t synonymous with equal. The entire just cause standard must be applied in each individual case.
However, there are drawbacks to having a union. Unions tend to protect all employees, even the bad ones. They also tend to focus on the needs of a few, usually the tenured employees, to the detriment of the rest of their membership. Particularly when it comes to leveraging seniority for preferred shifts, positions, and benefits during contract negotiations. They also tend to slow down progressive work and serve as the main barriers to change that I talked about above. They make organizations less nimble to adapt to the changing landscapes and certainly hamper attempts at proactive change to the status quo. Again, I believe that our profession tends to draw these types of personalities. Therefore, it’s our responsibility as leaders to LEAD our organizations to the desired outcomes that our communities deserve and expect. It is also our responsibility to engage with our staff and unions and provide them the leadership, resources, training, and most importantly, the support that they need to be successful in carrying out the mission of our organizations in the manner that we expect of them.