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Step Number One: Fix the Goddamn Police Unions

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | June 4, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | June 4, 2020 |


In Boston, Massachusetts, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins came under fire this week for this tweet.

The Boston patrolman’s association is upset, claiming that Rollins put the lives of Boston police officers at risk. In a letter, the union took issue with Rollins’ “reckless statements labeling all police officers ‘murderers’” that “undoubtedly incited violence” against police.

“White fragility is real people,” D.A. Rollins responded.

The Boston community outside of the sleazy conservative Herald was quick to show support of D.A. Rollins.

The friction here between Rollins and the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association highlights one of the biggest obstacles to dismantling systemic racism within the nation’s police forces: Police unions. Medaria Arradondo — the Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department — faces the same hurdle. He is as aware of racism within that department as much as anyone: He sued his department for racial discrimination in 2007 and won, and he was promoted to the head of the Internal Affairs Unit before taking over as Chief. But he, like every other reform-minded police chief in the nation, is blocked from taking action by the police unions. Men and women like Chief Arradondo can hire new, better-trained cadets, but they can’t fire the bad officers.

Thanks to the power of police unions, it is nearly impossible to get rid of a corrupt, racist, or abusive police officer, regardless of how bad his or her conduct is. Flying a Nazi flag won’t get you fired. Firing off a series of racial slurs on camera? That won’t get you fired. Remember the cop who stood behind his cruiser for 10 minutes while a gunman killed 17 kids at the Parkland High School in 2018? Many may remember that he was fired, but most probably don’t know that he was reinstated … with backpay.

According to the Washington Post, over 1800 police officers have been fired since 2006 for offenses ranging from cheating to unjustified shootings; thanks to police unions, a quarter of those officers (450) were reinstated. Police unions regularly and proudly put bad cops back on the streets, and yet no one has been willing to address this obstacle. Republicans won’t confront the police unions because they are the “law and order” party, and Democrats won’t confront them because they are the “union” party. Even for President Obama, police unions were a huge blindspot.

Unfortunately, police abuse cannot be curbed without fixing police unions. We can appoint people like Medaria Arradondo to lead police departments, and we can vote in people like Racheal Rollins to be the top law enforcement officials in their respective jurisdictions, but it doesn’t do a damn bit of good if they aren’t given the tools necessary to clean up their police departments. Hell, the police union in Minneapolis is already trying to get the four officers involved in George Floyd’s murder rehired after Arradondo fired them.

Unions are not inherently bad and it’s not necessarily that the police unions need to be entirely dismantled, but it is necessary to separate disciplinary measures from other forms of labor protections. As it is, those union contracts are designed to ensure that police officers escape accountability, as Peter Suderman writes on “The Police Union Contract Project, which collects and compares police union contracts across the country, notes that the agreements are generally designed to make it difficult to hold police accountable, in part by giving them privileges that are not afforded to the broader public.” In other words, taxpayers are paying police officers more to help cops escape disciplinary measures.

There are no repercussions for being a bad cop. Derek Chauvin had been written up 19 times in his career, and faced only two written reprimands — basically, wrist slaps. It’s the same across the country, where, again, 25 percent of cops fired for misconduct are reinstated. As the Globe writes, “police unions have figured out how to use the collective bargaining process to create an alternative justice universe — one that protects cops and ultimately empowers them to do what they want, with little fear of discipline or career consequences.”

The solution, however, is not to get rid of police unions — unions are good! — it’s to take discipline out of the collective bargaining process. Cities cannot trade lower salaries and fewer benefits for less accountability. It is absolutely insane that we live in a country where political leaders like Rachael Rollins face accountability at the voting booth, but it takes five years to fire police officers like Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who choked Eric Garner to death. Meanwhile, out in Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti has vowed to redirect $100 to $150 million from the LAPD budget to communities of color (still leaving the LAPD with an almost $1.7 billion). Not that it will miss that reduction, but if the LAPD wants to make up its budget shortfall, one easy cut might be to stop spending millions of dollars fighting to keep bad cops on the job.

Reforming police unions is number one. Number two? Get rid of qualified immunity.

Header Image Source: WBGH