In response to Beyonce’s “Formation” video and Super Bowl halftime performance, police unions across the country dubbed Beyonce “anti-police,” and called for officers to boycott her shows. Such a reaction makes you wonder how an institution that so thoroughly embodies toxic masculinity could have such thin skin, but bellyaching about Queen Bey is hardly the most injurious social externality that police unions produce. If police unions want better public perception, they should focus on reform rather than attacking critics.
Because of the tremendous responsibility police officers hold, missteps in the line of duty can have life-altering consequences. Officers whose behavior causes loss of life, physical harm or wrongful convictions should not have a clear path to re-employment, but police unions tirelessly work to do just that. Discipline without finality is meaningless, and police unions erase such finality. The consequences of such a backwards policy make the police unions a greater threat to the public than nearly any other union.
Of course, rehiring assumes termination, which is difficult enough to do with the help of police unions. When cops are fired by their police chief, their labor contracts entitle them to appeal the decision in front of a neutral arbitrator. Police unions provide representation in these hearings. Although such appeals theoretically provide officers a safeguard against unjust termination, the numbers show that they help overturn nearly all attempted firings. In Philadelphia, a civilian oversight group found that out of 26 appealed terminations, 19 of them were overturned by the arbitrator, and the officers were allowed to return to the streets. In Oakland, 12 out of 15 appealed terminations were either mitigated or overturned. And in Pittsburgh, 70% of these appeals were overturned. These officers were being terminated for more than just procedural incompetence, but excessive use of force, domestic abuse and assault. The ability to even charge officers is limited, as police union contracts often prevent anonymous complaints against police from being investigated, mandate erasure of officer personnel files after a set number of years, limit civilian oversight of departments and institute several other harmful policies.
We should realize that must internalize the need to reform police unions when the Miami Fraternal Order of Police says about Eric Garner “the fact that he states eleven times that he can’t breathe proves he was actually breathing.” Fairer negotiation of union contracts is a necessary first step, but ultimately the role and function of police unions needs to be fundamentally reevaluated. Public safety and the fair administration of justice are threatened when police unions are allowed to offer officers more protection than the victims of their misdeeds.
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