The president of the Minneapolis police union was the subject of at least 20 internal-affairs complaints as well as lawsuits for racism, excessive force, and other misconduct. Pittsburgh’s police-union president was threatened by the district attorney with obstruction-of-justice charges for interfering with officer-involved shooting investigations. The Chicago police-union president faced potential termination for allegedly filing a false police report, insubordination, and making racist comments. The head of the Philadelphia police union filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against a district attorney who refused to allow dishonest police officers to testify in criminal cases; the head of the Pennsylvania state police union sued me for doing the same. The head of the Houston police union has objected to the firing of police officers involved in officer-involved shootings, even defending a fatal shooting that turned out to be based on information falsified by the police.
At a time when police need impeccable leadership to navigate a hostile environment, police-union leadership in the largest organizations is persistently flawed. How did the United States end up with so many problematic police-union leaders? The answer lies in the attributes necessary to be a law-enforcement-union president for a large police force: a lack of interest or competence in police work as well as a stubborn resistance to change.
The first problem is one of self-selection. Police departments don’t make hiring decisions based on attributes that would make for a forward-thinking union leader. They select for officers who want to uphold the law, protect the public, engage their physical and investigative skills, and be part of a team environment. Based on these attributes, most police officers want nothing to do with being a union leader. Union work—filing grievances, bargaining sessions, planning the next election, fundraising, making political statements, talking to the union’s lawyers, and chatting with other union leaders—has little to do with real police work.
The officers that gravitate to union leadership in many instances are police officers who got in trouble for misconduct or poor performance and were protected by the union. The Houston union chief, also a vice president of a national police organization, traces his interest in union politics to the union’s defense of him when he was a young officer accused of excessive force. The other frequent breeding ground for union leadership is police officers who yearn for strategic conflict but did not attend law school. Military leaders are all too familiar with these “barracks lawyers,” known for their aggressive tactics and insidious impact on morale. One study from the National Institute of Justice compares police unions and their leadership to the mutinous crew on a ship: thwarting the will of the captain, resisting necessary changes, and destroying the ability to steer the boat through stormy seas.
The second problem is one of de-selection. In a perfect world, the best law-enforcement officers would rise to union leadership. However, to rise to a leadership position in a police union, it is critical that the police officer not be particularly good at policing. If a police officer is a skilled investigator with leadership abilities, he will be extraordinarily busy and consistently promoted; busy investigators don’t have the time for union business. Officers promoted high enough eventually become management and thus are excluded from the union as a matter of labor law.
Finally, police-union leadership suffers from bad incentives. In an ideal world, union presidents would do what is best for both the police department and the public at large. But owing to the nature of public-sector unions, a police-union president must be comfortable consistently taking unreasonable positions that hurt the public—and police. If the department has a cop who performs poorly, consistently uses excessive force, or is racially biased, the police-union president often will lead the charge to keep that cop on the job. A Duke Law Journal study of police collective-bargaining contracts shows that union leaders were willing to trade monetary advantages for the ability to dictate control over discipline of problematic officers. If a municipality needs to save money by downsizing its police department, reducing salaries, or merging into a regional department, the police-union president will oppose such changes, regardless of the economic health of the municipality. If a prosecutor identifies officers with serious credibility problems and refuses to allow them to testify, expect the police-union president to be howling for the prosecutor’s scalp come election time. Philadelphia’s police union took out billboards complaining about a district attorney who identified dishonest cops, inadvertently helping to elect uber-progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner.
Poor union leadership contributes to dwindling support for the police. This is a self-inflicted wound. In order to regain their rightful place as respected law enforcement officers who protect good citizens from the criminals who destroy communities, cops should select better union leaders. Even those officers who despise union activities must step up and take control of their own unions.
None of this is to deny that good police-union leaders exist. Pat Lynch of the New York City Police Benevolent Association has done an excellent job protecting his members from the anti-police sentiment engendered by Mayor Bill de Blasio while holding cops accountable for performance, not unreasonably defending bad cops, and criticizing flawed law-enforcement policies. But good police-union leaders around the nation currently are being driven out by thuggish and narrow-minded union presidents who criticize the old guard for their alleged spinelessness. Of course, left-wing attacks on police have helped empower this new breed of union leader, creating a bunker mentality.
The vast majority of rank-and-file police officers are honorable and honest public servants. Many police commanders are doing an excellent job under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But bad union leaders can drag down both the street officers and commanders. It’s time for the police to police their own unions.
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