Unions are tools of the working class that help us leverage bosses and owners to get what we are owed: the full fruits of our labor. As such, police unions are not unions.
Primarily, police unions stand apart from real labor unions in that their membership is not part of the working class. In fact, the police are one of the traditional enemies of the working class. From the beginning of labor’s struggle, the Capitalist class has attacked (via threats or outright violence) organized workers with their hired goons, the police. The police’s unique position in the state also sets them apart from the working class that they oppress.
The highest rights in the USA are granted in the constitution. These rights limit the power of government and enumerate the freedoms that regular citizens are guaranteed (at least in theory). But police, in their role of agents of the government, are exactly from whom these rights are designed to protect us. In many states, California included, the police unions have helped push their own Police Bill of Rights. These policies are designed to protect police that are being investigated for their crimes against us.
Police conduct, especially of those officers that are accused of crimes against their community, should be transparent to the community. Unfortunately, The Police Bill of Rights of California helps officers that are or have been under internal review keep this information from the public. For example, “No statement made during interrogation by a public safety officer under duress, coercion, or threat of punitive action shall be admissible in any subsequent civil proceeding. […]” This is further qualified to allow for statements made by police under investigation to be used for civil suits brought by the police review board, in cases where there is a conflict between testimony and body camera footage, or if the police officer has subsequently died. Notably absent from this list is an exception that allows civilians suing an officer or a police department in civil court. The Police Bill of Rights of California impedes justice by keeping the results of these official interrogations out of the hands of civilians seeking justice.
California also allows for some of the most aggressive records sealing procedures in the US. In California Penal Codes PEN § 832.7 and PEN § 832.8, California has specified that all police personnel records are sealed except for access by the police departments review, by a grand jury, or by the office of the Attorney General. These protections for the police reduce transparency and make democratic oversight of the police nearly impossible.
Besides having specific rights codified into law, police unions also pressure cities to change their standard operating procedures to favor officers. For example, employment contracts in 17 cities allow for setting time limits for citizens to file complaints against officers. Nine cities forbid anonymous complaints. 1 Almost half of the contracts allow police to review the evidence collected against them before submitting themselves to interrogation.
In this era of shrinking labor union power, these are not workplace protections that are afforded to the regular rank and file of labor unions, but they are granted to members of police unions.
The most damning evidence suggesting that police unions are not normal unions, is that they are not the target of the same legislation designed to make their union activities illegal. In Wisconsin, very soon after Gov. Scott Walker took office, a Republican controlled legislature moved to make collective bargaining by public sector unions illegal. Notably exempt from the unions destroyed by this legislation were all of the unions that typically vote along conservative lines: police, fire, state troopers, and inspectors. Even those ideologically opposed to unions know that police unions are not labor unions, and they act accordingly.
Beyond the traditional violence of their membership towards labor and their lobbying for policies that create a “Wall of Darkness” protecting police from accountability, police unions also cost municipalities dearly. In Santa Ana 49.47% of the budget is spent on the police department. 2 That is $115,871,364 spent on law enforcement to the detriment of other programs that could have a social good. This is just one local example, and many more are found nationally. Cities, on average, spent four times as much on policing in 2006 as they did in 1982. Cities that bargained through a union saw the largest increases in share of city budget. This shouldn’t be news, as we know, collective bargaining works.
We have also seen a nationwide reduction in crime. This crime reduction is often attributed to the increased pay for police officers, but the same average decrease in crime happened even when the police were not compensated as well. There does not seem to be a strong correlation between increasing how much we spend on policing and decreasing crime rates.
There are some ways forward for the working class. We all debate the value of entryism into the political process, but in this case there are some clear and immediate opportunities for reform. Police contracts are negotiated by city officials that are directly elected by the citizens of a municipality. Only in rare cases are these city council seat races polluted with the same big money that is corrupting the political system of the USA. Those that fill these seats are vulnerable to much less political pressure, and if they will not succumb to local organizing, they are vulnerable when they come up for re-election.
We can seek political allies among those that want their city’s resources spent in a more fruitful way. Parents of privilege often see the police as a positive force that will protect their children. One could begin speaking with them about how costly the police are, and how the police unions are looting money from educational programs that would benefit their child. This is just one example.
The absurd protections for police are mostly in contracts that expire regularly. Groups willing to engage in more direct strategies such as protests and civil disobedience can demand a renegotiation of their city’s police union contract.3 Each one of the renegotiation windows is an opportunity to put pressure on city officials to line through the most egregious points that benefit the police at the cost of our liberties.
- Across the U.S., police contracts shield officers from scrutiny and discipline https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-police-unions/ ↩
- City of Santa Ana Fiscal Year 2017-2018 City Budget http://www.ci.santa-ana.ca.us/finance/budget/2017-2018/documents/2017-2018_proposed_budget-20170620.pdf ↩
- Black Lives Matter Takes Aim at Police-Union Contracts https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/black-lives-matter-takes-aim-at-police-union-contracts/418530/ ↩