‘The major stumbling block’: Powerful police unions stand in the way of structural reform, experts say

Demonstrators across the country demanding justice for George Floyd might be wise to aim their wrath at a rare target: police unions.

Law enforcement insiders and criminology experts point to such organizations as the biggest reason police practices have hardly changed despite the outrage over killings of unarmed black men over the years. They also say it will take a pitched battle to effect change after Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis police custody.

“Police unions are the major stumbling block against law enforcement reform,’’ said Kalfani Ture, a former police officer in Georgia who now teaches criminal justice at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. “The police union, in fact, institutionalizes the culture of maybe being a bad cop because it (represents) the status quo.’’

Ture offered several examples of how police unions shield members from accountability for their actions, including coaching officers involved in use-of-force incidents on how to write favorable reports and having them collaborate to present a narrative that exonerates them from blame and places fault on the suspect.

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An account of Floyd’s deadly encounter on insidempd.com says he resisted arrest – there has been no evidence of that – and adds, “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance, where he died a short time later.’’

There’s no reference to officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes or his pleas for air as he expired.

DPS Troopers guard the embankment to I-35 during a protest at the Austin Police Department Headquarters on Saturday June 6, 2020.

Ture also said unions have been effective at purging officers’ personnel records, allowing those engaged in misconduct to hop from one agency to another, and have established a culture of silence and retribution that represses reports of wrongdoing.

The organizations also have lobbying power and provide financial contributions to candidates for office, enhancing their clout. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, California’s largest police union has spent about $3 million in the last three years on its political operations.

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Noted criminologist Daniel Nagin, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, noted that Chauvin had 18 complaints filed against him – about one for every year he served in the force – and only two resulted in discipline.

“Their contracts in various ways can often make it very difficult to remove or discipline police officers,’’ Nagin said of police unions in general. “They also often make investigations not transparent – the deliberations and the outcomes are not public. And there are a lot of protections provided to the police officers that go beyond what most of us would regard as fair and reasonable for employees.’’Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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On Thursday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced his support for a package of reforms that would alter how investigations of police killings and officer discipline are handled in the state.

That’s only one of a number of proposals for overhauling policing that have emerged as scores of Americans take to the streets to demand change, perhaps to the point that police departments get dismantled, as the Minneapolis city council has pledged to do.

At least a dozen cities have banned choke holds since the protests started, and House Democrats on Monday unveiled proposed legislation that aims to limit police use of force.

Nagin pointed out most policing is a state and local function, so federal initiatives like that one help set a tone but don’t have as much practical impact. However, he also noted a recent erosion in the longstanding support law enforcement has enjoyed in white communities, which contributed to its influence.

A new poll indicates 57% of Americans – including 49% of whites – believe police are more likely to use excessive force against blacks. That’s compared to 33% and 26% six years ago.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, here attending a memorial for George Floyd with his wife Gwen, said Thursday he endorses a package of police reforms in the state.

“The last couple of weeks suggest this was an event that fractured community support for the police across all demographics,’’ said Nagin, who co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with recommendations for improving policing. “Now we have to see whether that persists. The unusual thing about this event has been the sustained response to it.’’

Whereas high-profile police killings of unarmed African Americans like Floyd have previously resulted, at most, in enhanced training for officers, momentum for structural change seems to be building this time. That could prompt police unions to relax their stance when it comes to discipline and accountability.

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Neither Patrick Yoes nor Jim Pasco – national president and senior advisor, respectively, of the Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest law enforcement union – responded to e-mailed requests for comment. But in a Wednesday interview with NPR, Yoes expressed a willingness to consider amendments.

“I’m confident that we all agree that we need to have some reform,’’ Yoes said. “We need to have some discussions on how to improve what we’re doing.’’

The intensified scrutiny on police unions and the power they wield is long overdue, said Justin Hansford, a law professor and director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Hansford said the unions gained clout during the war of drugs of the 1980s and ’90s, when the political establishment on both sides of the aisle wanted to be seen as tough on crime and earned such recognition with their support. That gave those organizations access to the levers of power, and the relationship remained entrenched even after the political climate changed.  

Also contributing to that status, Hansford said, was the news media’s propensity to rely on law enforcement as the voice of authority for information related to alleged crimes.

“They have organization, they have history, they have relationships, they have money and, probably their most important asset, they have the unquestioned ability to be seen as the go-to place for 99% of people’s facts,’’ Hansford said. “People don’t question their word. That’s changing a bit because of video, but I think that’s still mostly the case.’’

As he helped advocate for residents of Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of black teenager Michael Brown in 2014, Hansford said he spoke with heads of law enforcement who felt handcuffed by labor deals that limited their ability to impose discipline on their wayward charges.

Protesters gathered for a fourth night at City Hall on Tuesday in Wilmington, N.C.

That’s not entirely the fault of police unions, said former New Orleans Police Department superintendent Ronal Serpas, who now teaches at Loyola University New Orleans. Serpas said it’s common for state and local police agencies to operate under contracts negotiated by their unions, which naturally pursue the best deal they can get.

“Contracts that seek to advance pay, health benefits, etc., are not the issue,’’ Serpas said via e-mail. “The issue is over the last decades unions have bargained for influence and direct actions in the disciplinary and assignment-of-officer systems of police departments. Those encroachments of managerial rights have been approved by elected administrative and legislative branches, and the unions have gone as far as these officials have allowed.’’

Michael Makowsky, an associate professor at Clemson University who has studied the economics of law enforcement, said organizing hasn’t lifted police wages significantly over the years.

Instead of risking alienating taxpayers by demanding larger salaries for their members, unions have focused on gaining job security and more favorable working terms, requests that are usually more palatable to elected officials.

Over time, that has created the conditions that have led to repeated incidents of police using lethal force – at times against unarmed suspects – without severe penalty.

“When you consider the fact that police are allowed to use force in their jobs, they have a greater capacity to physically harm someone in our society without consequence,” Makowsky said. “So now you take a role that has physical force as an option and you principally compensate them with job security, well, that’s now two problems that make each other worse.’’

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