Does Police Union Power Erode Accountability?
The horrific Boston bombings already have led to calls for more security cameras and more police officers, with some Democrats absurdly using this tragedy as a reason to stop the slight sequester-mandated cuts in federal spending growth.
Never mind that police spending primarily is a local matter. The bigger questions that Americans have rarely asked, especially following the 9/11 attacks: Do we really want the government to hire new armies of police officers? Do we really want to pay the price for this?
Knowing my views on the growing public-pension crisis, most readers probably think the “price” I’m worried about the nation’s multi-trillion-dollar unfunded pension liabilities driven largely by the “3 percent at 50” pension deals that cost taxpayers millions of dollars for each “first responder” who retires at 50 after 30 years of service.
That’s a huge problem — the result in part of Americans’ irrational embrace of the “more police” logic after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. But that’s not the main source of my concern. My real concern involves our safety and civil liberties given that police officers, and other groups of public employees, have become a protected class that does not have to follow the same rules as the average citizen.
A few years ago the Orange County Register reported on California’s special-license plate program that puts the addresses and license information of many public employees and their family members in a special database that shields them from getting tickets when they drive on the toll roads without paying the toll. That’s somewhat infuriating.
But a series from the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida found that “professional courtesy” — i.e., the way police allow other police officers to speed, drive drunk, and violate every manner of traffic law provided they are members of the law-enforcement caste — also has dangerous consequences for the general public.
The newspaper series, announced as a winner of a Pulitzer Prize the same week as the Boston bombing, details the tragedies of essentially giving one group free rein to drive in any manner its members choose. In one incident documented by the newspaper, a 21-year-old girl was driving with her 14-year-old step sister and a deputy accelerated from 24 to 87 miles per hour in 24 seconds as he rushed to aid a fellow officer who had pulled over a driver with — get this — a broken tail light. He T-boned the car, injured the driver, and killed the passenger. The 14-year-old girl’s body was found 37 feet from the accident.
The newspaper found police speeding routinely in excess of 120 miles per hour — not on emergency calls, but simply to get to work or for the fun of it. We’ve all seen it on the highways and there are news stories of tragic accidents with police killing citizens throughout the nation. Many times, off-duty officers drive in the same dangerous manner knowing that fellow officers will give them a pass at the sight of a badge.
Here’s the Sun Sentinel, which reported that 21 Floridians have been killed or maimed by speeding cops since 2004: “Speeding cops are often spared severe punishment in the criminal justice system. Cops found at fault for fatal wrecks caused by speeding have faced consequences ranging from no criminal charges to a maximum of 60 days in jail. Inside many police agencies, speeding isn’t taken seriously until it results in tragedy. Even then, some cops are disciplined but stay on the job — and the road. The dead include seven police officers who crashed at speeds up to 61 mph over the legal limit.”
On the last point: Police unions often point to the dangers of their job. But about half of the police on-the-job fatalities are due to traffic accidents, and a large portion of them are no doubt the result of reckless driving by the officers themselves.
Recently, the Sacramento County sheriff was pulled over for a speeding ticket and he made a big deal of telling the public the police do get tickets. Maybe on occasion, but the “professional courtesy” problem is real and it applies not just to speeding but to every sort of police misbehavior.
Meanwhile, in California in particular, police unions have exempted police disciplinary records of misbehaving cops from the state’s public records law so the public never learns about the bad actors in police agencies — the ones who routinely abuse the public or who are involved in multiple car accidents due to their own speeding.
Police unions continue to push for special privileges — not just higher benefit levels, expanded disability pay, and other such benefits, but exemptions from every manner of oversight. Given the power of the police unions among union-friendly Democrats and law-and-order-supporting Republicans, there is no powerful civil-liberties lobby to stand up against this endless drive for more “protections” for those who patrol our communities.
The nation’s crime rates are at 40-year lows. Many studies have been done on the link between more police officers and crime rates and there’s little if any connection between the two. We cannot create a society that is entirely safe — especially from attacks on “soft” targets such as marathons and other such public events.
And we should not blindly embrace the call for more police without first reading the Sun Sentinel series about the potential downside.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity; write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.