[CW: This article mentions suicide, police brutality and racism.]
When you think of “Left” and “Right” in a political sense, I can almost guarantee one of the first words that pops into your head is “divide.” But what if I told you that there’s something both sides of the political aisle agree on, something that tickles the fancy of Democrats and Republicans alike?
Police unions are this distinct hybrid, combining the Right’s fetishism of law enforcement officials with the Left’s obsession of unionizing anything that moves.
Sure, bipartisan support is a great thing, and we’re always trying to get more of it, but why does it have to be for police unions of all things? The problem is that police unions inherit all the same flaws of a regular police force and of public sector unions in general.
Racism is obviously the largest issue in American policing today, whether it be the shooting of unarmed Black people, the disproportionate arrests and stops of Black drivers or the police’s impaired ability to solve the murders that have Black victims (Washington Post, “There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof.” 09.18.2018). This is of course only the tip of an iceberg that doesn’t even account for the racism of disproportionate sentences between whites and Blacks for the same crimes, laws like the 1994 crime bill—designed to advantage white people—or the still-current denial of suffrage to millions of criminals who, because of the systemic racism of the U.S. legal system, are disproportionately Black (Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019,” 03.19.2019).
Prison guards and employees, who are also unionized, veer further from outright racism than the regular police. But they fill that void with cruelty and incompetence. Suicide among prisoners is rampant. Inmates are subject to beatings, lack of care and horrible living conditions. I don’t care to recount some of the most horrible events, but I will say that in these situations guards were watching and laughing as people died in extremely horrible ways (The Atlantic, “Thirty-Two Short Stories About Death in Prison,” 08.13.2019).
You already knew all of this before you started reading this article (I hope), so why does it matter that police and prison guards are unionized? Consider that unions, for all intents and purposes, have a dual mandate: increase wage per hour and provide benefits to membership.
The first prong, increasing wage per hour, is most helpful in the private sector where a company that’s underpaying its workers is forced to cut from its profits to pay a more equitable wage. In public sector unions, such as police or teacher unions, for instance, the government has no profit incentive. Instead of striking for lower company profits, public sector unions in effect strike for higher taxes. This is neither here nor there, nor is it the most egregious use of police union powers, but it is important to remember that even the best use of a police union is lobbying for getting paid for doing less work, i.e. literally just decreasing the efficiency of your tax dollars.
Putting money aside, unions also focus on member benefits. Almost all unions fight for better health care coverage, better
compensation for injuries and increased job security. Police unions are no exception. However, the implications of benefits for police officers are downright evil. What do police officers want? For one thing: job security. What does this imply? That unions make it extremely hard to punish officers for misconduct.
Take former Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi’s response to two officers being charged with a double murder and evidence tampering: “If you’re the ones that are out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, just know all we’ve got your number now, we’re going to be keeping track of all of y’all” (Houston Chronicle, “Divisive rhetoric by police union president undermines confidence in HPD [Editorial],” 02.20.2019). Yes, in response to a botched drug raid where the police killed innocent civilians, the Houston Police Officers’ Union leader circled the wagons and threatened everyone who wanted the officers held accountable.
I wish I could say this type of self-serving response represents only a vocal minority of police unions. But that would be a lie. Gamaldi is now the Vice President of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union. I bet that in nine out of every 10 cases of a police officer shooting someone and going unpunished, that lack of punishment is due to police union-supported legislation or because of institutional pressure from a police union.
It took five years to fire the police officer who killed Eric Garner, even with a video clearly showing Garner gasping out his dying words that he couldn’t breathe as the officer continued to choke him.
The Police Benevolent Association strongly opposed the firing and released a statement that read, “We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job” (NBC News, “Police union suggests work slowdown after NYPD officer is fired in Eric Garner’s death,” 08.20.2019).
When four Chicago PD officers were fired for covering up officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, The Fraternal Order of Police opposed the firing and stated that “These officers served the citizens of this city with courage, integrity, and adherence to the rule of law” (ABC News, “4 Chicago police officers fired over alleged cover-up of Laquan McDonald shooting,” 07.19.2019).
Make no mistake: Police union benefits are only a thin veneer for a blank check to inflict violence and suppress civil rights on a mass scale.
For every terrible thing the police do, behind them is the police union, ever present, ever willing to cover up and sweep under the rug.