The Real Reason Police Unions Enable the Worst Cop Abuses
If you look past a splash page on PBA local’s website vainly showing Lynch talking to a who’s who of right-wing media and scan their press releases, what emerges is a long list of issues that trace why the public is fed up with abusive policing. Lynch’s union denies there’s a problem with excessive force; denies there’s a police slowdown; chastizes top city officials who said that Eric Garner didn’t deserve to die from a police choke hold; demands that the mayor fire key staff; criticizes a public-interest group that listed bad cops—all while saying the PBA needs better pay, better pensions, and yes—more secretive disciplinary procedures.
In short, Lynch has become the latest national symbol of everything that is unbalanced, unaccountable, uncompromising, and out-of-control about aggressive and abusive cops. His rants contradict every claim made by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton that the NYPD is reeling in its previous abusive tactics and retraining its ranks. Lynch’s statements also illustrate a vastly under-appreciated hurdle to real reform: how police unions can oppose, undermine, resist, thwart and block necessary solutions.
It’s instructive to note how modern police unions emerged and have evolved. Most police unions were created in the early 1970s, after a presidential commission issued a detailed report that in part noted that the South’s police crackdowns on civil rights protesters were by departments that were little more than political patronage shops. From an employment law perspective, police were “at-will” hires, meaning they could be hired and fired any time by their bosses. The unions were created to professionalize departments, including instituting collective bargaining agreements with discipline procedures. Nationally, the fine print on these procedures varies, but in most cases even the worst cops are afforded due process rights, including binding arbitration—or relying on a third party to resolve disputes—as the last stage in fighting employment decisions like getting fired.
A half-century ago, these procedures were seen as the cure for the most racist or corrupt police agencies. But today, these clauses, especially binding arbitration, are increasingly seen as problematic because they cannot be overturned even by elected officials, police chiefs, civilian police review boards, or even federal judges who are overseeing reforms in plagued departments under Justice Department settlements.
The complaints about how union-backed arbitration protects bad cops do not just come from activists protesting excessive force. Federal judges and police chiefs who are trying to change the culture inside departments have criticized this aspect of police unions.
“Just like any failure to impose appropriate discipline by the chief or city administrator, any reversal of appropriate discipline at arbitration undermines the very objectives [of the federal consent decree requiring reforms],” U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson wrote last August, after the Oakland police officer who was videotaped tossing a gas grenade into a crowd of Occupy protesters was reinstated.
Washington, D.C. Police Chief Kathy Lanier similarly bemoaned how too much power has shifted to the binding arbitration process. Last February, she noted that a ruling that ended a six-year contract dispute—which raised salaries and benefits but the D.C. union chief still called “disrespectful”—also rejected the city’s effort to rein in arbitration.
“It is unsuprising that an arbitrator would reject common-sense limitations on an arbitrator’s authority designed to ensure that bad cops stay fired, and instead choose the union’s proposal to expand the scope of disciplinary cases that are subject to arbitration,” her statement said. “This decision just further supports my recent testimony before the [D.C. City] Council that common-sense legislative reform of arbitrators’ authority is desperately needed to ensure that officers who are not fit to serve are not ordered back into the communities by unaccountable arbitrators.”