Police Unions in America
The first thing we have to understand is that without the law, we have nothing. It turns into a situation of savage against barbarian, of the powerful against the powerless. It turns into a situation of dog eat dog, unrestricted, without restraints or consideration of anybody’s humanity.
– Dr. Harry Edwards, POPSspot Sports Radio Interview, August 22, 2014
Police union spokespersons often suggest that media coverage of police actions is invariably negative. Where are the reporters when a cop performs a good deed? Whether or not the media is truly biased against members of law enforcement is debatable, of course, but as noted sociologist Harry Edwards points out, “without the law, we have nothing.” Given the penchant for many professional social commentators and activists to jump onto the latest anti-police brutality bandwagon with unequivocal pronouncements, Dr. Edwards’ measured response is helpful.
There are a lot of reasons that common criticisms of law enforcement are simplistic at best, if not unfounded. Those concerned about the militarization of law enforcement might have a different opinion if they were to contemplate a situation where armed gangs had no superior force to deter them. In a nation that is armed to the teeth, a nation where with a few permits, almost anyone can own a semi-automatic high-powered rifle or a .50 caliber sniper’s rifle, it is naive to think that law enforcement is not going to require bigger guns and thicker armor. Because without the law, we have nothing.
Similarly, while criticism of law enforcement rates of pay is a valid part of a difficult, necessary discussion regarding financial sustainability and economic fairness, it should not be waged out of context. And the context is this: We have higher expectations of law enforcement than ever before in history, and overall they have delivered on that expectation, with crime rates at all time lows in the United States. At the same time, crime itself has become far more sophisticated, with the necessity today for law enforcement to contend with cyber criminals, global terrorists, and drug cartels with almost limitless sources of cash. Finally, we value life more than ever; we value personal security more than ever. For all these reasons, law enforcement requires highly trained, sophisticated personnel who are also willing to risk their lives. As a result, the premium that society should pay law enforcement is higher than ever, and it should be.
If you want to criticize the critics of law enforcement, examples abound. For example, it is true that the actual statistics relating to law enforcement indicate it is far safer than many other dangerous professions. There are about a million sworn police officers in the United States, and on average each year about 100 of them die in the line of duty. This death rate, about 10 per 100,000, is significantly less than the death rate for many professions including roofing, fishing, logging, mining; even liquor store clerks have a higher on-the-job death rate than police officers. But this misses the point for two reasons.
First of all, members of these other professions aren’t standing between the average citizen and, as Dr. Edwards puts it, “a savage, barbarian, dog-eat-dog situation of the powerful against the powerless.” Even more significant, while statistically, police do not have nearly the riskiest jobs out there, they live with the knowledge that at any moment, a catastrophe that dwarfs the average mishap could befall them during their shift. Another 911 terrorist attack, or natural conflagration, or industrial accident that spirals out of control could, in one awful moment, take down hundreds of them who are standing their ground, protecting society. As they say in investment finance, “past results are no indicator of future performance.”
Critics of law enforcement also point out, as they should, that technology now enables the surveillance state, that members of law enforcement now have unprecedented ability to look into our private lives. While this is true, and a valid concern worthy of vigorous debate, it is again necessary to ask: Who will enforce the law, if only criminals – including criminal regimes – have the ability to hack? In past centuries, a lone madman might kill dozens, at most hundreds of people with their diabolical schemes. We now live in an age of asymmetry, where one mad scientist can conjure up a weapon capable of killing thousands, if not millions. In such an age, privacy is not only less feasible, it’s less important.
Which brings us to the issue of police brutality, police killings of unarmed citizens. This issue isn’t going to go away, because just as the lives of police officers are valued now more than ever, so are everyone else’s lives. It is worth pointing out that because police must react to situations, meaning that an aggressive citizen bent on doing harm always has the element of surprise, there will be mistakes made by police, in accordance with their training, that have fatal, tragic consequences. Nonetheless, many training protocols must change in order to reduce incidences of brutality and needless killing, and some police are indeed bad apples. What else can we do to prevent tragic, obviously avoidable deaths at the hands of improperly trained or genuinely malicious police officers? Notwithstanding more recent examples, how do we prevent another death like that of Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, mentally ill homeless man who in 2011 was beaten to death by six police officers in Fullerton, California, because, in a panic, he attempted to flee? Why weren’t any of these officers convicted of wrongdoing? Why couldn’t these officers simply hit Thomas in the legs with their batons, rendering him unable to flee? Why did they have to hit him repeatedly in the head? Who defends training protocols that permit police to perform what, in the opinion of many who watched the video, was a cold blooded, sadistic murder?
And here is where the question of police unions comes into play. Because police unions, like teachers unions, are using far too much of their substantial influence to protect bad apples. Police unions also play an overly aggressive role in negotiating pay, and, especially, benefit packages for police officers that are simply not affordable, no matter how much they might actually deserve them. Police unions, along with firefighter unions and other local public employee unions, exercise far too much influence on elected politicians who are dependent on them for campaign support.
Reform is inevitable, both in terms of requiring police to wear body cameras, and in terms of downsizing their defined benefit formulas so their pension funds can remain solvent. The march of technology, the power of activist citizens, and unavoidable financial realities guarantee these reforms will occur. The real question is at what point will America’s citizenry recognize that public sector unions – most definitely including public safety unions – are fighting to protect their power and privilege at the expense of human rights and taxpayer rights?
President Kennedy once said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Here in America, we are all Kelly Thomas. If this homeless, marginalized individual can be brutally killed by police officers merely for the crime of attempting to flee when he was in fear for his life, then none of us are safe. There is law in such a nation, but there is no humanity.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.
How Police Unions and Arbitrators Keep Abusive Cops on the Street, Atlantic Monthly, December 2014
Government Employee Unions – The Root Cause of California’s Challenges, June 3, 2014
Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014
How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014 (The Kelly Thomas Story)
How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda, June 18, 2013
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