Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?
“We thought were inappropriate to be employees of the city.”
– Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks (ret.), in reference to the termination of corrupt police officers, Rampart scandal (late 1990’s)
About a year ago we published an editorial asking this question, “How much does professionalism cost,” using as an example the tragic death of Kelly Thomas. In that case, six police officers repeatedly struck with batons and tased an unarmed man, who died a few days later of his injuries. Since that tragedy back in 2011, numerous cases of police misconduct have surfaced, many of them with equally tragic consequences. The latest one, while inexcusable, is more farce than tragedy, involving a team of Santa Ana police officers who recently raided a marijuana dispensary in that city.
The misconduct didn’t involve murderous violence, but it did involve blatantly unprofessional behavior. Once the officers secured the dispensary and ejected the staff and customers, they proceeded to disable the security cameras, and, at least according to the video recording from the camera they neglected to destroy, some went on to gobble up marijuana “edibles.” Watch this video and make up your own mind whether or not these individuals are engaging in conduct appropriate for employees of the Santa Ana police department.
Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, on his radio talk show, has frequently discussed the issue of police misconduct. He makes an observation that bears repeating – in a population of over 1.0 million police officers in the United States, it is inevitable that you will have bad apples. It is statistically impossible to have a group of humans that large, where every single individual will be beyond reproach. There will always be a percentage of crooks and thugs who slip through. It can’t be helped.
Critics of police fall roughly into two camps – those who are concerned about police respecting civil rights, and those who are concerned about excessive police pay and benefits. While there’s overlap, these are very distinct concerns. But those who are concerned police overstate the risks of their job in order to justify increasing their pay are often the same ones who overlook the fact that police misconduct can also be overstated. Critics can’t have it both ways. Police fatalities are rare. Police misconduct is also rare.
What can be helped, however, is how police who do cross the line are held accountable.
According to a source at an Orange County blog that covered the pot bust, the supervising officer on the scene was Alex Sanchez, a police sergeant with the city of Santa Ana who in 2013 made $107,952 in regular pay, $27,205 in “other pay,” $16,184 in overtime pay, and earned employer paid benefits of another $68,820. In other words, this officer earned pay and direct benefits during 2013 of $221,162. This rate of pay is not unusual. Take a look at the pay for Santa Ana city employees – note how nearly all of the high paying positions are for police officers.
Citizens have a right to expect better behavior from a police officer who makes this much money. And a police officer who makes this much money should be prepared to be held accountable. In the corporate world, on-the-job drug use, vandalism, or insults directed at a member of a protected status group are all grounds for instant termination. And in the corporate world, despite repeated claims to the contrary by government union propagandists, total compensation packages in excess of $200,000 per year are very unusual. Notwithstanding that incessantly cited handful of rapacious and untouchable Wall Street bankers, corporate managers and executives who make $200,000 or more per year have little or no job security, and are held accountable, and terminated, for transgressions of far less import.
There’s more. When critics of police conduct say police should not consider themselves above the law, they’re right, but they don’t go far enough. Police should not merely obey the law, they should be role models. By their words and deeds they should inspire the rest of us. The destruction of cameras, the needless vandalism, the profanity, and the insults undermine respect for law enforcement, which is the human face of the laws we must obey.
Police unions not only highlight the risk officers face as the reason they deserve excellent pay and benefits, they highlight the professional requirements of the job. Police perform an incredibly difficult job that goes well beyond the physical risk they live with. Every day, they have to deal with uncertain, volatile situations, with agitated individuals and groups, with hostility and disrespect, and with violent criminals. Police work in 2014 America requires more professionalism than ever. That’s why they’re paid like professionals. But with professionalism comes accountability.
Police officers depend on the trust and solidarity of their colleagues. That is a necessary and proper element of an effective police force. But police unions overlay onto that solidarity an us-vs-them mentality, as well as a layer of protection against individual accountability, that at the least may be described as problematic. Police unions, like teachers unions, may consciously proclaim their commitment to the broad public interest, but their organizational agenda invariably pulls them away from the people they serve.
* * *
Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.