Why are police unions still so powerful?

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Over the past few weeks, calls to abolish police departments and dramatically rethink what community law enforcement might look like have been vaulted from a niche — albeit longstanding — issue within progressive circles, and into the raging mainstream debate about race, justice, and equality, after white police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a Black man, on the streets of Minneapolis in late May.

Police abolitionism, like all seismic social re-imaginings, is not a monolithic movement. Questions about tactics, priorities, and even terminology have punctuated conversations about how best to work toward a police-less society in recent days. But for all the disagreement about what defunding and dismantling police departments looks like, there remains a steady sense that convincing communities of the virtue of abolition is only one part of the equation. Another, perhaps even more intractable obstacle to radical change in this arena are police unions.

Conflict between a progressive movement and groups that frame themselves as — and currently sit alongside other — labor unions might seem at first like an unusual dynamic between camps that are frequently seen as being natural allies. But despite the similar nomenclature, police unions operate very differently from their ostensible peers.

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To begin with, unlike the bulk of labor unions in the United States, which represent trades like electricians and truckers, police officers — and by extension, the unions that represent them — are explicitly empowered by the state to oversee matters of literal life or death. It's an extraordinarily significant and singular mandate, and one that police unions are able to leverage to carve out protections that go well beyond those enjoyed by other professionals.

As The New Yorker's James Surowiecki wrote more than four years ago, that leverage is a byproduct of police unions' ability to "[define] working conditions in the broadest possible terms." In effect, what this means is that beyond simply negotiating basic employment protections and standards, as is the case for most other unions, police unions have successfully expanded their contracts to include a host of stipulations that complicate, and ultimately stymie, efforts at accountability for individual officers, and reform for a department as a whole.

According to a 2016 analysis of more than 80 of the largest cities in the U.S. done by Check The Police, a project of the criminal justice reform group Campaign Zero, there are six major ways in which police union contracts go beyond ordinary collective bargaining agreements and actively work against accountability and restructuring.

From their study, police unions shield their members by:

Disqualifying misconduct complaints that are submitted too many days after an incident occurs or if an investigation takes too long to complete.
Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident or otherwise restricting how, when, or where they can be interrogated.
Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get prior to being interrogated.
Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and/or the media to hold police accountable.
Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct including by giving officers paid leave while under investigation, paying legal fees, and/or the cost of settlements.
Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file.

Taken cumulatively, these broad areas of police union-negotiated control — found in some configuration in the vast majority of the cities included in Check the Police's study — constitute a latticework of protections designed to afford police officers largely unchecked authority on the job, while simultaneously making it harder for large-scale reforms to gain political traction. The fewer officers able to be held accountable for on-the-job misdeeds and broader patterns of racism, the more difficult it is for communities to justify reform, let alone or abolition, as a political remedy for inequality in law enforcement.

City officials, meanwhile, are uniquely positioned to be beholden to police unions. The combination of the union's lobbying power, coupled with its ability to paint politicians as being "soft on crime" and the threat of delayed response time in areas whose leadership has criticized police — as alleged by Minneapolis city council member Steve Fletcher — make for a potent force in local and even state politics.

Consider, as well, the sheer numbers involved in police unions. The AFL-CIO affiliated International Union of Police Associations claims some 100,000 members of the umbrella organization's 12.5 million total. Compare that with the fewer than 7,000 members in the Writers Guild of America East (of which I am a member) which this week became the first labor union to publicly call for the AFL-CIO to break ties with the IUPA following the protests after Floyd's death.

In a nod to the power of the IUPA, the AFL-CIO issued a lengthy statement on Twitter, which both tacitly acknowledged the role police unions have played in throwing sand in the gears of progress ("a union must never be a shield from criminal conduct") while steadfastly refusing to sever ties with the law enforcement wing of its membership.

All told, police unions have essentially established themselves as a wholly legal, wholly unaccountable bulwark against any external efforts to adjust, or abolish, law enforcement practices as they currently exist.

So what can be done?

In Minneapolis, the local Police Federation is helmed by Bob Kroll, a staunch President Trump supporter who in 2007 was accused in court of wearing white supremacist symbols as part of his membership in the City Heat motorcycle club. His accuser, then-officer Medaria Arradondo, who is Black, is now the chief of the Minneapolis Police Department. This week, Arradondo announced he was withdrawing the department from ongoing union contract negotiations with the federation.

"This is not about employee benefits or wages or salaries," Arradondo explained, highlighting the difference between the usual subjects of union negotiations, and those unique to police contracts. "This is further examining those significant matters that touch on such things as critical incident protocol, use of force, significant roles that supervisors play in this department, and the discipline process."

Following the breakdown in negotiations between the department and the police federation, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President Kristen Clarke hailed the move in an email to Mic as a significant step to help curb the unchecked power police unions have amassed.

Police unions are just one piece — albeit an enormously important one — of the increasingly complex puzzle of how best to reform, defund, dismantle, or simply abolish law enforcement.

Historically, police unions have crippled the ability of police departments, local governments, and the public to investigate, discipline and hold accountable officers who engage in misconduct and use deadly force without basis," Clarke told Mic. "In too many cities, police unions use restrictive collective bargaining agreements as an obstacle to the reforms needed to improve policing, address racial bias or promote accountability. Mandatory arbitration procedures that reinstate officers that are fired for misconduct and procedures that insulate complaints from public disclosure all contribute to a culture of police impunity. We hope that Minneapolis and other cities will seriously reexamine their police union contracts to ensure that they do not undermine accountability and put their citizens at risk."

Of course, police unions are just one piece — albeit an enormously important one — of the increasingly complex puzzle of how best to reform, defund, dismantle, or simply abolish law enforcement as it exists today.

"Many of the barriers [the Minneapolis Police Department] faces is systemic reforms (or transformations) in policing are tried to structural constraints," University of Minnesota Sociology Professor Michelle Phelps, who specializes in studying criminal justice, explained in an email to Mic for a separate story on the police reform efforts in Minnesota.

Among those constraints are indeed "the union contract, which makes it difficult to discipline and fire officers and enact more restrictive use of force policies," Phelps continued, but also "the limited community or city oversight of the police; and state-level laws which restrict reforms (e.g. banning cities from requiring officers live in their jurisdiction)."

In Minneapolis, currently ground zero for the police abolition movement, a supermajority of city council members pledged this week to dismantle the police department — although details of what that means, and what comes next have been scarce.

Still, as longtime Twin Cities labor leader and activist Javier Morillo pointed out in a recent editorial for the local progressive Minnesota Reformer website, there are certain steps that can be taken now to help curb the police federation's power to disrupt Minneapolis's elected leaders' efforts. Among the ideas proposed by Morillo are expanding contract negotiations to include the broader community being served by the MPD, as well as better delineating who within the department is actually representing the rank and file, and who among the officer class currently allowed within the bargaining unit, is actually management.

At present, it remains to be seen just how and how hard the local police union — and police unions across the country — will fight the growing calls for police reform and abolition. What's clear, however, is that the time has never been better for genuine progress to be made that can help transform decades of racial inequality law enforcement into a more just, more equitable way of caring for, and living in, our communities.