Fault Lines
21 April 2017

Police Unions Are Still A Bad Idea

February 10, 2017 (Fault Lines) — FDR, the quintessential progressive, had no problem with unions. But he made one exception:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. 

Unfortunately, police unions in the modern era have proved politically invulnerable. Safe from the left, who depend on the support of many public sector unions to raise campaign cash and seek reelection. And safe from the right, whose law and order rhetoric has only grown more shrill in recent days.

Thus, a recent windfall to the New York Police Department, who managed to parlay blackmail, protest, advertising dollars and the sheer weight of their badges into $1.9 billion additional taxpayer dollars in spending.

The sheer rent-seeking prowess of the union is breathtaking. When Eric Garner’s death by strangulation in broad daylight became a public relations problem, the City Council sought to criminalize chokeholds. New York’s theoretically pro-citizen Mayor threatened to veto the measure, along with anything that might require officers to identify themselves to the public or seek special permission for dangerous searches.

Police officers, by dint of their portrayals in movie and television, enjoy some of the highest approval ratings of any job. In 2016, Gallup recorded that 76% of people have a “great deal” of respect for police, up from 64% in 2015. So when police organize to do something like, say, turn their backs on the mayor during a funeral while in uniform, it can really hurt, politically. Wide-spread protests don’t help, either (strangely, no pushback from Sheriff Clarke on those). And police union heads enjoy media access and cachet that would be the envy of any lesser group.

Now, as is often pointed out, being a police officer is dangerous. And while we can point to all kinds of fun statistics to suggest it’s not quite as dangerous as suggested (for instance, it is about three times more dangerous to give birth than to be a police officer for a year), let’s not discount the fact that police officers choose a career that involves helping others. But whatever respect is owed to police officers, it should probably not extend to letting them do their jobs poorly out of fear of the consequences if reasonable rules were enforced.

And that, sadly, has been the norm. The problem is that the person who bargains with unions, in this case, the mayor, finds himself with a lot of incentive to go along with what is requested even when it isn’t in the public interest. A police union can provide money, the legitimacy that comes from an endorsement, and even the occasional photo op, all in exchange for some measly accountability protections and some of the highest salaries of any civil servant. Although the government is theoretically bargaining on all of our behalves, a public sector union/politician agreement becomes much more about mutual advantage than the public welfare.

You know what other group wears a uniform, is widely respected by the public, and does a dangerous job? Soldiers. Yet the government took the step of making it illegal for them to join a union. Not because soldiers are widely despised or looked down upon, or because the feds needed an additional excuse to give them crappy salaries and poor quality medical care—but because an effective military is one that can’t threaten to go on strike.

Police officers perform important work. And of course they deserve to be compensated fairly. But when they screw up, they ruin lives. And if there ever an ideal moment to start agitating to end them, this would be it. Police unions have become so politically intertwined with the current administration that it is likely what was once bipartisan wariness might turn into some real venom from the left.

It is because police work is so important that it can’t be left to a union. Officers aren’t keeping anyone safe when they call their union rep after a shooting, instead of an ambulance. The public isn’t served when disciplinary files are kept locked away from view. When transparency and meaningful accountability become politically impossible although widely popular, something has gone badly awry.

Long story short, police officers should be fairly-compensated, well-treated, and fireable when they screw up.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Pedantic Grammar Police
    10 February 2017 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Obviously you intended to apply “agitating to end them” to police unions, but grammatically you applied it to police officers.

    • Andrew Fleischman
      10 February 2017 at 10:41 am - Reply

      No, I’m afraid you just discovered my subliminal anarchist agenda.

  • Froggy64
    13 February 2017 at 9:45 am - Reply

    In the UK there is a compromise. Police have not been allowed to join trades unions or strike since 1919, but they are members of the national Police Federation, which represents them in salary negotiations and if they have legal problems. I’ve not heard of the Police Federation offering political endorsements – I suspect it’s not allowed by the Police Act 1996 (which replaced the Police Act 1919). Of course a similar system would be much more difficult over here because of the chaotic structure of law enforcement in the USA – but it is interesting other major democracies find ways to deal with the problems raised by police unions in a fair-minded way.