Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?

“We thought [the employees we fired] 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.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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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How Much Does Professionalism Cost?

When discussing the sensitive subject of public employee compensation, there are several important dimensions that must be considered – can we afford it, is it appropriate and fair, how does it compare to the private sector (if comparisons can even be made), what are the additional costs for employer paid benefits, and how do we estimate the annual employer payments required to fund future retirement pensions and healthcare?

When discussing public safety compensation, there is an additional layer of complexity – how do we adequately value the premium that public safety personnel deserve as compensation for the risks they take in the performance of their jobs? These are tough questions that have been explored here and elsewhere. These discussions are healthy and necessary. But there is another question that is worth exploring, for all public employees but especially with respect to public safety employees – if they are to be highly compensated, than what expectations may the public have regarding their professionalism, and how may they be held accountable for their conduct?

Before going any further, it is important to add the following points: Public safety jobs require higher levels of education and job skills than they ever have, for a variety of reasons. Crime itself has become far more sophisticated and menacing, ranging from cyber crime to terrorism to the emergence of global organized crime organizations. At the same time, we expect more from public safety – and they have delivered. Almost everywhere in the United States, crime rates are at historic lows. You get what you pay for. Moreover, the value we place on human life is higher than ever, meaning that what may have constituted an acceptable risk premium for working in law enforcement fifty years ago is not nearly enough today. Fair enough.

None of this, however, exempts public safety from an ongoing public discussion regarding police conduct. It is our obligation as members of a democracy, as opposed to a police state, to have this discussion, to ask tough questions, and to resist unfounded suggestions that to question some law enforcement tactics or training somehow equates with a lack of support for law enforcement personnel or the tough jobs they do.

The brutal, tragic demise of Kelly Thomas, a mentally disturbed man who managed to get himself severely beaten by six police officers in Fullerton, California back in July, 2011, brings this question into focus – he later died after lapsing into a coma for several days. The reason the Thomas case is worth bringing up is not because these police officers were “bad apples,” who used excessive force. The reason is because the two officers who, apparently, were most responsible for this beat down were acquitted in January 2014, by a jury that deliberated for less than two hours. Apparently these officers were doing exactly what they were trained to do.

Which brings us to the video. Watch this heartbreaking 33 minute video, and ask yourself if this is how we should be training our police officers to behave. Watch the whole thing, weep if you have a heart, and wonder how we can’t come up with training that might avoid what happened that night in Fullerton.

The Kelly Thomas case is rare, but not unheard of. Unarmed citizens, often mentally disturbed or intoxicated, or emotionally overwrought, may end up severely beaten or dead if they aren’t immediately respectful and compliant with police officers. But sometimes it’s hard for someone who is mentally disturbed, or intoxicated, or emotionally overwrought, to be immediately compliant. Their reason is impaired. Should they die? Is that a capital offense?

The point of all this isn’t to second guess the police, who are out on the streets day and night, and who have insights that a civilian can only try to appreciate. The point of this is to ask one simple question: What does professionalism cost? Because saying “they’re [fists] getting ready to f— you up,” is not something that a police officer should be saying to anyone, ever, including Kelly Thomas (transcript, top of page 13, video at 15:20). Because the sacred duty of police officers in a free society is to enforce the law with equanimity, using deadly force as a last resort, and never with malice.

If you review the rates of pay for Fullerton police officers, or for public safety employees throughout California’s cities, you will see that on average they collect pay and employer paid benefits of about $170,000 per year – median pay is actually a bit higher. And these averages do not take entirely into account the rising costs for unfunded liabilities for retirement pensions and health care which certainly represent additional costs that accrue, and legitimately belong in any calculation of average compensation. To make that kind of money in the private sector requires someone ascending to the upper, if not elite, strata of business. It is a sum of money that merits high expectations.

The surveillance cameras that caught on video the death of Kelly Thomas represent the bright, transparent side of the era we’re entering, where everyone shall watch everyone, where nothing will be secret. There is a price to pay as we lose our privacy, but there is also a benefit. Beat downs like the one that befell Kelly Thomas will be increasingly viewed by the public, and hopefully as a result, changes will come to the training manuals that will hopefully preclude officers beating an unarmed man in the head with a baton, when he’s on the ground and going nowhere.

Respect for the dignity of all citizens isn’t something that we should only reserve for the polite, the professional, and the law abiding. That’s easy. Along with firm justice, we must offer abiding respect for the troubled, the sick, the destitute and homeless, the angry, the desperate, and yes, even the disrespectful and the criminal, because they are also human beings. How else can we hope to remain a free people?

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center