Since the Covid-19 pandemic and the riots following George Floyd’s death, crime and public disorder have brought American police under intense scrutiny. Police budgets in some jurisdictions have been slashed, and police departments have had trouble recruiting new officers, even as crime surged. Just when we need better policing to stanch the crime wave, police have been put on the back foot. 

The debate over policing has also cast a harsh light on the unions that represent police officers. The topic of police unions cuts across our politics, as progressives champion unions but distrust the police, while conservatives support the police but are skeptical of unions. One of us (DiSalvo, working with a coauthor) recently found evidence suggesting that police collective bargaining mitigates the loss of trust in police among non-black citizens in the aftermath of civilian killings. But like many other studies, the interactions between police officers, civilian elected leaders, unions, and the public is complex, and police unions have not received as much scholarly attention as their importance warrants. 

A central claim of police union critics is that the unions protect bad officers and keep them on the beat. They argue that unions end up facilitating more police misconduct than would occur without them, by virtue of the protective labor contracts that they negotiate. Such contracts include provisions that require management to take many procedural steps to initiate personnel action against an officer. They sometimes stipulate how and when an officer can be interviewed, require destruction of officer disciplinary records, and provide extensive rights to officers who wish to challenge supervisor complaints. As a result, the critics argue, police departments reduce disciplinary actions against officers accused of serious misconduct.

In a review of police union contracts, law professor Stephen Rushin found that 88 percent of those he surveyed included at least one provision that sought to curtail or hinder disciplinary action. One examination of police prosecutions from 2009 to 2010 found that, “out of 8,300 credible reports filed against 11,000 officers, only 3,283 resulted in criminal charges. Only about 1,000 of those officers were convicted, and only 36 percent of those convicted were eventually incarcerated. Among the officers accused of either excessive force or killing a civilian, only 7 percent were charged with a crime.” And from 2012 to 2020, out of 2,600 complaints of misconduct, only 12 police officers from Minneapolis were disciplined, with the most serious sanction being a 40-hour suspension.

Unions respond that these protections reflect the unique challenges of policing. Officers often face unpleasant, high-tension, and dangerous situations on the job. They are subsequently granted considerable discretion in determining when the use of force is necessary. False or exaggerated citizen complaints are unavoidable. Police officers need strong due-process protections enshrined in contracts to mitigate the risks that unsubstantiated claims pose to their reputations and careers. Strong procedural protections are the only sensible counterweight to the inevitable friction between police and the citizens they serve. In addition, some legal scholars have found that contractual provisions do not hinder officer accountability.

Of course, police unions, like unions everywhere, want to protect their members. From the union’s point of view, the majority of good officers should not be punished for the behavior of a bad few. Union leadership is typically legally bound to represent all officers equally and has internal organizational incentives to do so; failure to represent vigorously an officer accused of misconduct can become fodder for future leadership elections. 

Officers clearly benefit from and value such job protections and union activity. Indeed, unions sometimes give up demands for higher pay in exchange for greater protections (and vice versa). One recent study found that collective bargaining rights for police reduce the number of officers killed or injured in the line of duty. Furthermore, insofar as an officer’s skills are not readily applicable to other jobs, the prospect of dismissal from the police force is tantamount to getting kicked out of the middle class. A recent study of police misconduct by Ben Grunwald of the Duke University School of Law and John Rappaport of the University of Chicago Law School found that, in Florida, officers fired from their preceding job find new law-enforcement work at about half the rate of officers who voluntarily leave a job. 

Beyond job protections, increasing hostility toward police officers (and the heightened scrutiny of police and their unions) has made it increasingly difficult to recruit new police, which may be one cause of recent crime surges. A study by the Police Executive Research Forum found that police agencies are losing officers faster than they can hire new ones due to resignations and retirements (oftentimes early). Thus, total police staffing has fallen. The same organization found an 18 percent growth in the resignation rate in 2020–21, compared with 2019–20, and a 45 percent growth in retirements. Many attribute this recruitment and retention crisis to declining public approval of the police and a rising need for greater incentives to join or remain on the force, something that police unions can help mitigate. 

The trouble is that some evidence suggests that union rules may end up protecting the minority of officers who are the subject of most misconduct complaints from the public. Police misconduct data collected by the Cato Institute confirm that only “around one percent of all police officers commit misconduct in a given year.” Before he killed George Floyd, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin had 18 complaints against him, was involved in three shootings (one fatal), and had received two letters of reprimand for misconduct. However, under contractual rules, some of which push decision-making authority outside the department to arbitrators, it is often hard to discipline or fire an officer like Chauvin, even with multiple charges of misconduct. A 2017 investigation by the Washington Post found that 45 percent of Washington, D.C. officers fired for misconduct were rehired on appeal, as were 62 percent of those fired in Philadelphia and 70 percent of those fired in San Antonio. Based on a review of 36 police departments, the study concluded that “just under one quarter of all officers fired for misconduct are rehired, often by arbitrators, on appeal.” Critics of police unions in turn claim that, by shielding those guilty of misconduct, the unions serve to undermine police-community relations. 

The size of a police force may have contradictory effects. Larger police forces may help reduce crime (as some studies suggest) and encourage trust in the police. Alternatively, larger and more active police forces may generate more friction between police and the public, which can be a source of public mistrust of or lack of confidence in the police. Hiring more officers may encourage more bad policing, as departments wind up considering candidates with lower qualifications and more prone to misconduct. Social scientists have yet to arrive at firm conclusions on these complex questions.

Recent scholarly research has examined whether jurisdictions with collective bargaining see more police misconduct or violence against civilians. A few papers find a causal relationship, while others do not. One study provided quasi-experimental evidence that the introduction of collective bargaining for police in Florida increased police misconduct. This paper found a 40 percent rise in misconduct in sheriffs’ offices in Florida after collective bargaining was instituted in 2003, compared with police departments that have been able to unionize since 1968. Another working paper found that the introduction of collective bargaining is associated with more police killings of non-white civilians. It suggests that collective bargaining for law enforcement can explain about 10 percent of nonwhite civilian deaths by police from 1959 to 1988. However, a third working paper finds no relationship between collective bargaining and police misconduct, noting that, while police unions do reduce civilian oversight and increase protections for officers, these effects do not yield more misconduct.

Whatever the case, community trust in the police is immensely important. Trust can be undercut by greater misconduct or by just a few spectacular cases of police violence. Trust is essential because citizens who trust the police are more likely to aid them in solving crimes. If unions are protecting the officers responsible for most misconduct, then they would be impeding quality policing. In a recent scholarly paper, one of us (DiSalvo) and economist Matthew Nagler found that the presence or absence of collective bargaining rights for police in a city did not directly affect trust in law enforcement. The paper did find, though, that when police kill a civilian, police union support for the office has a buffering effect, which prevents trust among non-black citizens from falling very far. For black Americans, on the other hand, trust in the police is very low—in the DiSalvo-Nagler sample, 68 percent of blacks trusted the police some, little, or not at all. According to Gallup, a 30-point gap exists between white and black Americans expressing “confidence” in the police.

 The reason police unions can shore up trust after a controversial police killing is that they can mount a public defense of the police in general—and very often of the officers involved, as well. One could interpret such activity in at least two ways. Seen in a negative light, the unions are papering over the actions of bad cops. Seen in a positive light, they’re explaining the actions of good cops caught up in stressful and sometimes violent situations that would otherwise be difficult for the average citizen to comprehend. As the San Antonio Police Officers’ Association states, “The brutal nature of officers’ job responsibilities presented unique challenges that made the need for police associations to exist so that they could address law enforcement labor issues.” 

Put differently, the police could be covering for officers who are doing a bad job, or they could be providing a valuable service by helping to maintain the modicum of public trust in police that is essential for public order. Cops cannot do their jobs if they cannot rely on the community to provide information and work constructively with them. Unions, then, on this view, may increase community trust and effectiveness of the police. More research is required to establish which of these interpretations is closer to the truth. 

Police unions find themselves caught in the maelstrom that is contemporary American politics. Considerable uncertainty remains surrounding the effects of unions on police misconduct and public trust in the police. Before reformers from both sides get swept away by their preconceptions—that police unions are a net negative, or that police unions are always right—they should focus on the most obvious problems, such as unreasonable obstacles to accountability. They may discover more common ground than they thought possible.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images


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