Police unions have become too powerful.

Because of events over the past week in Philadelphia, Santa Clara and Chicago I decided to post a commentary on police officer labor unions on Labor Day.  Police unions have evolved into something unlike anything that has gone before in the history of the labor movement in this country and unlike anything else in the private or public sector today.  Their power is political rather than economic and is not susceptible to market forces.  They have been able to strengthen their position not only through collective bargaining but also through favorable legislation.  In many large cities they are as much a part of the governance of the police departments as the police chiefs.

Unfortunately many police unions continue to use their considerable power to resist the reforms in policing and police accountability necessary to restore the trust of minority communities in the police that serve those communities.  If anything, the attitudes of police unions toward reform and those who advocate reform appear to be hardening.

The first event that drew my attention occurred in Philadelphia.  John McNesby, president of Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 5, publicly slammed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee in July for inviting relatives of black men killed by police but not family members of police officers killed in the line of duty to speak at the Democratic National Convention.  He said that the FOP was “insulted” by the omission.  Fair enough.

Last week, however, McNesby defended a Philadelphia police officer who has a tattoo on his left forearm of a spread-winged eagle beneath the word “Fatherland” that bears a resemblance to part of the Parteiadler, the emblem of the Nazi party.  The images have been associated with some neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, although it is not known whether the officer is a member of such a group.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney described the tattoo as “incredibly offensive.”  McNesby was not offended and defended the officer’s right to freedom of expression.  “I’ve seen it. It’s an eagle. Not a big deal.  I see people with panthers on their arm.  Doesn’t mean they are black panthers.”  McNesby was insulted by the failure of Democrats to invite families of slain police officers to speak at its convention but saw no problem with a tattoo worn by one of the members of his union that is likely to offend the 300,000 Jews who live in the city as well as the 55% of Philadelphia’s population that is non-white?

McNesby couldn’t bring himself to utter one word of empathy for citizens who might be alarmed at seeing what appears to be a neo-Nazi tattoo on the arm of a police officer.  McNesby’s concept of leadership is not encouraging, but is fairly typical.

Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, is located in Santa Clara, California.  Last week the Santa Clara Police Officer’s Association, the union representing Santa Clara police officers, wrote a letter stating that its members might refuse to provide security at 49ers games if the 49ers did not take disciplinary action against quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem during a preseason game in protest against the alleged brutality of police officers toward blacks.  He also wore socks with images of pigs wearing police hats to training sessions.

The socks were inappropriate and offensive; a complaint to the 49ers was understandable.  But threatening to take action that would put the safety of thousands of fans at risk because one NFL player chose to exercise his right to express himself in a disrespectful but lawful manner?  The letter was a remarkable display of the union’s attitude toward the general public.

The third event that caught my attention happened in Chicago.  The Chicago FOP called on members of the Chicago Police Department not to volunteer to work overtime on the Labor Day weekend “to protest the continued disrespect of Chicago Police Officers and the killings of Law Enforcement Officers across our Country.”  86 people were murdered in Chicago in August, the deadliest month in 20 years.  The FOP’s announcement of its Labor Day boycott came on the heels of the news that the Chicago police superintendent is seeking the termination of five officers involved in the shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014, an incident that undoubtedly lowered respect for Chicago police in Chicago and elsewhere.

The shooting of McDonald was ruled to be justified until video belatedly surfaced showing McDonald walking away from officers rather than toward them as stated in their reports.  He was shot 16 times.  And the FOP believes that the answer to the “disrespect” that it is feeling is to refuse to work overtime to protect the public during a holiday in the middle of an epidemic of violent crime?  Again, what does it tell you about the basic attitude of an organization when it chooses to try to regain the respect of citizens by threatening their well-being?

In July the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a blistering report accusing the Baltimore Police Department of a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct including unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests.  The response by the president of the Baltimore FOP was that the “systemic deficiencies” reported by the DOJ were the fault of management, not rank-and-file officers.   “I will not allow the Department of Justice to lay blame on the shoulders of the dedicated men and women of the Baltimore Police Department,” stated the president, Lt. Gene Ryan.  The vice-president, Lt. Victor Gearhart, scoffed at the report as “heavy on anecdotes from questionable characters and light on provable facts.”

There is a common theme to all of the above:  Police union members are never to blame and someone else is always is at fault.  Union members don’t need to change because they are never the problem.  The problem always lies with politicians, management or the citizens that union members are sworn to serve and protect, not with the manner in which union members are doing their job.

Something is out of whack.  Why?  The answer lies in the fundamental nature of labor unions and the strong insular culture that prevails in many large police departments which, in combination, produces organizations that are particularly adversarial and resistant to change.  When that intransigence is reinforced by the strong political support that many police unions enjoy you can end up with an entirely unworkable and destructive situation, which is the case in Baltimore.

The principle by which police unions, like other unions, are governed is the self-interest of their members.  This creates tunnel vision causing them to see their world only in terms of their own rights and privileges.  The unions generally are contractually obligated to defend even the most marginal of conduct by their members, a fact that tends to define the unions by that conduct.  McNesby, for example, would rather risk provoking the anger of a majority of the citizens of Philadelphia than criticize one of his own members.  Although McNesby may see that as protecting the rights of one of his members the rest of the world sees it as the police union condoning insensitive and even hateful conduct by its members.

In cities such as Baltimore strong police unions have become parallel governance structures within police departments.  They do more than represent their members in collective bargaining; they share power with police chiefs over the control of the department.  This has happened because police unions draw political support not only from traditionally pro-union Democrats but also from law and order Republicans.

Consequently, police unions frequently have more political influence with the elected officials that are in charge of the governments that employ the police than do police chiefs.  It is like having the officers and directors of a private company aligned more with the labor unions representing the company’s workforce than with the managers employed to supervise the workforce.

In Maryland police unions used their political clout in the General Assembly to wrest control over the discipline of their members away from police chiefs through the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR).  A succession of Baltimore mayors and city council members intimidated by the city FOP lodge took away even more control over the disciplinary process from the city’s police commissioner than required by state law.  They further diluted management’s influence over rank-and-file officers by allowing sergeants and lieutenants to belong to the same union as the rank-and-file officers that they train and supervise.

The LEOBR is hardly the only impediment to police accountability.  The “us vs. them” culture of most large police departments which includes the “blue wall of silence” is another, perhaps greater obstacle.  It discourages officers from reporting the misconduct of their peers and even encourages them to lie to protect each other.  The LEOBR, in concert with what the DOJ referred to in the Baltimore Police Department as “a cultural resistance to accountability,” has rendered the process for holding Baltimore police officers accountable for misconduct almost completely ineffective as documented not only by the DOJ but also by a separate investigation done by the Baltimore Sun.  The Baltimore Police Department, like many other police departments, does a very poor job of getting rid of bad cops.

Institutions such as police departments have to change and adapt as society evolves. Change is always hard, but it has become nearly impossible in some police departments, including Baltimore, because of police unions.  The problem is that police unions are not changing; they are becoming more, not less, reactionary.  Traditional labor unions have waxed and waned over time; some unions that were formed because of intolerable working conditions and low wages eventually hastened the demise of certain industries because of their excessive demands.  Immune from market forces, and given almost unconditional support from politicians, police unions have seen no need to change and adapt, so they haven’t.  Something is going to have to give if reform is going to take place.

It is pointless to blame the unions themselves; they are doing what unions do.  The entire responsibility for allowing the situation to get to this point rests with elected officials.

Earlier this year the Daily Record ran an editorial stating that the Baltimore Police Department could not be reformed unless someone managed to “dismantle the police union’s grip on city government.”  That is precisely the case and unless the mayor and city council, with some help from the General Assembly, are willing to do what is necessary to reduce the power of the FOP over the manner in which the Baltimore Police Department is run no worthwhile reforms will occur.

September 5, 2016

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