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To confront police abuse, shift power away from police unions

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey referred to the police

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey referred to the police union contract as a "nearly impenetrable barrier" in regard to policing reform efforts. Credit: AP/Evan Frost

Police officers — by and large — are heroes who put their lives on the line to protect the communities in which they live and serve. How then should we react to cases of police misconduct and brutality when they come to light? Confronting this requires what Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey referred to as “this one, nearly impenetrable barrier, which is the union contract and the way it is set up.”

Derek Chauvin, the officer arrested and charged with Floyd’s death, had multiple complaints against him. Only one resulted in a reprimand. Thou Theo, seen standing guard in the video as Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck, also had multiple complaints against him. The city settled a lawsuit of alleged brutality by Thou and another officer for $25,000 in 2017.

Why then were these officers still allowed to stand in the line of duty?

It’s important to remember that not all complaints filed against police officers have merit. Some are filed by individuals who are upset at an officer who arrested them for legitimate reasons, and some criminals file complaints against good cops as a way to get them sidelined.

Nonetheless, such complaints must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, and when it is determined that a complaint has merit, appropriate consequences must follow — including not erasing misconduct and disciplinary records.

Yet, according to an interview with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, “The elephant in the room with regard to police reform is the police union. It sets up a system where we have difficulty both disciplining and terminating officers who have done wrong.”

Time and again, union contracts come into play in keeping police officers accused and even convicted of misconduct and abuse in positions of power, potentially subjecting community members to lawlessness and injustice.

The problems are not just in Minneapolis. A Reuters review of 82 police union contracts in large cities nationwide found that they often include provisions that obstruct discipline, erase discipline records, and insert elevated standards of review that shield rogue police officers from justice.

While there can be a tendency to link all police together, or to assume that all the problems come from within police departments themselves, that’s often not the case. Often times officers report misconduct and abuse by their peers, or police chiefs even dismiss officers for just cause, only to have those decisions overturned following challenges from labor unions, often over technicalities unrelated to the underlying misconduct.

A 2017 Washington Post article titled “Fired, Rehired” obtained the records of 37 large municipal police departments that had collectively fired 1,881 police officers since 2006. Yet, nearly 1 in 4 — a total of 451 officers — successfully appealed those terminations, and the departments were forced to rehire them. Moreover, a majority received back-pay covering their termination period.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus was forced to reinstate an officer he fired, not just once, but twice. As Chief McManus explained, overturning disciplinary and dismissal decisions for reasons other than factual errors “undermine a chief’s authority and ignores the chief’s understanding of what serves the best interest of the community and the department.”

Yet most reform efforts have failed to confront the unions. The report from President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing mentioned unions only in the context of ensuring they have a seat at the table in the reform process. But history shows that giving police unions power over accountability and discipline typically results in less of each, and can pose a risk to community protection.

Camden, N.J., provides one instance in which doing away with the police union allowed they city to transform its police force from a triage unit into a proactive community police force as the homicide rate fell by two-thirds and complaints against officers plummeted 95%.

If we want to ensure the safety of a certain product, we wouldn’t allow a group that represents the individuals who produce those products to set the safety standards, and control the consequences of violating those standards.

Similarly, if we want to protect community members from police misconduct and abuse, we cannot allow police unions to control the circumstances and treatment of police misconduct allegations, nor to undermine the decisions of police chiefs to remove problematic officers from their forces.

At a minimum, local and city officials should renegotiate collective bargaining provisions in police contracts to remove provisions that hamstring departments’ ability to enforce accountability and discipline.

This will require fervent politicians and public officials who won’t cower to unions — even if they withdraw donations or launch attack campaigns against them — but will instead take away unwarranted union powers.

It’s time for the “nearly impenetrable barrier” of the union contract to fall.

Rachel Greszler is a research fellow specializing in economics and entitlements at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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