Police unions must go

To be fair, I thought this long before Covid and long before George Floyd (basically, ever since I learned about the issues when I started teaching Criminal Justice Policy in the 00’s), but, damn, if the response to Covid vaccine mandates just doesn’t put the spotlight on what profoundly anti-social, reactionary institutions these unions are.  NYT:

In many cities across the country, there is friction between governments and law enforcement unions over requirements that officers get vaccinated against the coronavirus or prove their vaccination status, leading to contentious public clashes.

Even though the shots have proven to be largely effective in preventing severe disease and death, many police officers and their unions have pushed back, threatening resignations and lawsuits.

John Catanzara, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago, has urged police officers there to ignore requirements by the mayor, Lori Lightfoot, that city employees report their vaccination status. Employees who are not vaccinated will be subject to twice-weekly testing, but vaccinations are not mandatory.

In Baltimore, a police union leader told officers not to disclose their vaccination status to city officials amid negotiations over a mandate scheduled to take effect there next week, The Baltimore Sun and other local news outlets reported.

City leaders in San Jose, Calif., decided just as a vaccine mandate was taking effect at the end of last month to allow unvaccinated officers to remain employed through the end of the year, with incremental discipline and testing requirements.

Officials in Ann Arbor, Mich., reiterated their commitment this week to a vaccine mandate for city employees, despite pushback from the police union there.

And in Seattle, a police union has expressed fears that the city’s shortage of officers will worsen because of vaccine mandates, The Associated Press reported.

More than 460 American law enforcement officers have died from Covid infections, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, making the coronavirus by far the most common cause of duty-related deaths in 2020 and 2021. More than four times as many officers have died from Covid-19 as from gunfire in that period.

Some elected officials say police officers have a higher responsibility to get vaccinated because they regularly interact with the public and could unknowingly spread the virus.

Of course, this is the least of it when it comes to police unions.  Peter Suderman made a nice case against the unions in Reason about a year ago and it is, of course, as relevant as ever:

In 2018, as a gunman murdered 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Sgt. Brian Miller, a deputy with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, hid behind his police cruiser, waiting 10 minutes to radio for help. For his failure to act, Miller was fired. The official cause was “neglect of duty.”

In May 2020, however, Miller was reinstated and given full back pay. His 2017 salary was more than $138,000. Miller had challenged his firing, and he had done so with the full backing of his union.

Miller’s reinstatement is notable in that it relates to a high-profile case. But the essential story—an officer performs poorly, with fatal results, and the union comes to his defense—is all too common. That is what police unions do: defend the narrow interests of police as employees, often at the expense of public safety. They start from the premise that police are essentially unfireable and that taxpayers should foot the bill for their dangerous, and even deadly, negligence. And although unions are not the only pathology that affects American policing, they are a key internal influence on police culture, a locus of resistance to improvements designed to reduce police violence. To stop police abuse and remove bad cops from duty, police unions as we know them must go.

In case after case, police unions have defended deadly misdeeds committed by law enforcement. In 2014, for example, New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes. As a result of Pantaleo’s chokehold, Garner died, gasping the words, “I can’t breathe.” [emphases mine]

The incident, caught on video, helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement. A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, but five years after Garner’s death, he was fired from the force following a police administrative judge’s ruling that the chokehold was, indeed, a violation of department policy.

Pantaleo had violated his police department’s policy in a way that resulted in the death of a man who was committing the most minor of offenses. Yet when Pantaleo was finally fired, Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, Pantaleo’s union, criticized the city for giving in to “anti-police extremists” and warned that such decisions threatened the ability of city police to carry out their duties. “We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job,” Lynch said.

In essence, the police union’s position was: Officers of the law should not be punished for using prohibited techniques in ways that result in the deaths of nonviolent offenders, because to do so would unduly inhibit police work. A deadly violation of department policy is just police “doing their job.”

Too often, when police wantonly use deadly force, their unions slow or prevent justice…

These are anecdotes, but other evidence bears the point out. The Police Union Contract Project, which collects and compares police union contracts across the country, notes that the agreements are generally designed to make it difficult to hold police accountable, in part by giving them privileges that are not afforded to the broader public. For example, the contracts often prevent officers from being questioned quickly after incidents and often give them access to information not available to private citizens. Cities are often required to shoulder the financial burdens of officer misconduct, and disciplinary measures are often restricted. Forthcoming research out of the University of Victoria’s economics department finds that the introduction of collective bargaining does not correlate with a reduction in total crime, but it does eventually correlate with higher numbers of killings by police, especially of minorities.

In other words, the research finds roughly what one would expect given a public sector workforce with unions set up to protect police officer compensation while limiting discipline and oversight. Police get paid more, yet the public is no safer—and it’s at greater risk of violence by police.

Presumably, there may be some reform that dramatically limits the malignant influence of police unions that allows them to continue existing.  But, honestly, the evidence is pretty damn that, in their present form, police unions really do need to go.  

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