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All Cops Are Bad. And They Should Still Have Collective Bargaining Rights

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Martin Malin and our friend and frequent LGM commenter Joseph Slater have an essay noting that police unions are not the problem in dealing with racist cops and that the left turning into unionbusters over workers they don’t like is a very slippery slope.

The contract doesn’t satisfy many progressives and activists, who want to restrict or eliminate police collective bargaining. We don’t discount the real problems that exist, but gutting collective bargaining rights will not solve them.

The arguments often made that police unions make it impossible to fire bad officers sound disturbingly like the calls from conservatives to eliminate collective bargaining for all public employees. Conservatives argue that public employee union contracts block needed innovation and reform, and prevent employers from firing bad employees.

Some say police collective bargaining institutionalizes racism. But that same charge is made by conservatives against teacher unions. They claim teacher unions impede reforms that would benefit poor children of color in the worst performing schools, and preserve those schools as places to dump teachers who unions render impossible to fire.

Some procedural protections for police may be overly robust, but others attacked by critics are common. For example, police union contracts provide for removing discipline actions from an officer’s file after, typically, one to three years, if the officer has not had any further discipline. This is common in union contracts and provides incentives for employees to correct their misbehaviors.

Unions and arbitrators do not make it impossible to fire bad cops. A leading study found that the rates at which police terminations were overturned among 36 different law enforcement departments ranged from 0 in several to 70% in San Antonio. All told, of 1,881 officers fired for misconduct, just over 450 were reinstated, about 24%.

In many jurisdictions, terminations are reviewed by police commissions or merit boards whose members are appointed by the mayor or county executive. When terminations are overturned by arbitrators, it is often the result of management errors, such as terminating one officer for misconduct after suspending a different officer for the same misconduct. Management should not be given free rein to play favorites when administering discipline.

Critics of police collective bargaining point to a recent University of Chicago study that found a 40% increase in violent incidents where collective bargaining rights were extended to Florida deputy sheriffs. But the 40% increase was due to the baseline rate of violent incidents being so low. The study estimated that bargaining rights for deputy sheriffs would increase violent incidents per agency-year by 0.2. The baseline was a previous mean of about 0.5, making literally a 40% increase. But that means this study estimated that with collective bargaining rights an additional one officer in an average sheriff’s office of 290 was involved in a violent incident every five years.

The rapid willingness of people on the left to simply say that cops aren’t workers or that even if they are they shouldn’t have a union is very slippery slope to unonbusting all around. It also shows the shallowness of support for organized labor when it acts like organized labor acts instead of the fantasy people on the left have about it. Call to defund or abolish the police if you want–I do not really disagree. Policing in this nation is horrible.

But the principle of collective bargaining should be sacrosanct for anyone who is left of center. Moreover, the problem with the cops and their unions isn’t the union. It’s that until two months ago, white people actively wanted cops to arrest and kill Black people, or at least didn’t care either way so long as they didn’t have to see the footage of it. We’ve spent decades electing politicians who were “tough on crime.” And this is what we get. None of this changes if you get rid of police unions.

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