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Why the Police Need Unions

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You can disagree with the police unions’ political positions. You don’t have to support their ideas or their positions. You don’t have to respect the police. But I refuse to accept arguments from the left that the police should not have unions. Jeff Spross has more on why the police need unions.

Cops are workers, too. They are workers put in an almost impossible position. And they need a union to stand up for them.

Go down the standard list of proposed police reforms — more accountability for bad cops, body cameras, demilitarization, more federal monitoring, civilian oversight, transparency, and so on. They’re all worthy, but what they all have in common is getting police to behave better within the role of “police” as we already conceive of it; namely, as the state’s enforcers of law and order, whose primary tools are the threat of violence and the ability to throw people into cages.

What these reforms don’t deal with is the possibility that our society has rendered this role an impossible one to pull off in any sort of successful, functional, or healthy manner.

Cops must deal with everything from gang violence to drug addiction to mental illness to domestic abuse to helping single parents to broken taillights and speeding cars. They respond so often with violence and incarceration because those are the tools we train them to use. They are no more immune to racism than any other human institution in American society. And of course the well-being of cops themselves often resembles what you’d find in veterans from a war zone.

Meanwhile, America’s long history of racism has left many black American communities deeply damaged. And poverty and crime go hand in hand. So when cops are shoved into the role of what is often privileged white society’s sole institutional interaction with black Americans’ world, and left with nothing but violence and incarceration as their tools, of course racism still permeates the way they operate.

Our society has pulled out of supplying the resources, the institutions, and the personnel that could support cops in handling this societal breakdown. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” said an exhausted David Brown, Dallas’ police chief, in the aftermath of the killing of five cops at a protest march. “Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems.”

Can anyone be surprised when police unions bristle and revolt at reforms aimed at drawing even greater virtue out of cops in the course of performing very difficult tasks? Cops wield an immense amount of power in our society. But that abstract privilege does not change the lived experience of being a cop, which is what the police and the unions that represent them draw upon when deciding how to defend themselves. We can’t just keep trying to make the police better-armed saints in the very places where the injustices of U.S. society collide the hardest. Nor can we assume that combating racism is merely a matter of enlightening individual cops or their departmental culture.

Getting rid of police unions will do precisely nothing to solve any problem with the police the left has. All it will do is make the lives of the police worse and make these problems harder to solve. If you believe that unionbusting is the answer, you need to examine where you are coming from on this. And you need to answer the question of how this will solve the problems of police brutality and racist violence.

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