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Sorry, but police unions are just as troubling as other public-sector unions

If Police Unions Were Abolished and Police Associations Were Restored

Earlier this month the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “When Police Unions Impede Justice.” They make the point that collective bargaining agreements for police employees often make it very difficult to hold police officers accountable for misconduct. When you have nearly 1.0 million sworn police officers in the United States, you’re bound to have a few bad apples. According to the NYT, these collective bargaining agreements discourage citizens from lodging misconduct complaints, micromanage investigations, and minimize disciplinary sanctions.

This isn’t news. It’s one of the reasons collective bargaining agreements for police officers are especially problematic. The other big problem with collective bargaining agreements for members of public safety are the often excessive and unaffordable benefit packages they’ve “negotiated” with the politicians whose careers are made or broken by these same unions. So what if police unions were abolished?

One may argue that abolishing police unions in favor of police associations – which could not engage in collective bargaining – would actually benefit all parties. An immediate benefit would be greater accountability for police officers. Why wouldn’t greater individual accountability be supported by the overwhelming majority of police officers who are conscientious, humane, compassionate members of the communities they serve? In turn, why wouldn’t greater police accountability foster rapprochement in neighborhoods where mistrust has developed between citizens and law enforcement?

With respect to pay and benefits for police officers, the risks of abolishing collective bargaining may be overstated. As it is, rates of base pay for police officers are not excessive by market standards. If they were, it would be easier to hire police officers. The primary economic problem with police compensation is retirement benefits, which in California now easily average over $100,000 per year for officers retiring in their 50’s after 25+ years of service. As the unions defend these excessive pensions, younger officers are left with far less generous benefits. The perpetually escalating contributions the pension funds demand – for all public employees – are behind virtually all tax increases being proposed in California. It can’t go on.

So abolishing collective bargaining for police would lead to several benefits (1) more police accountability and improved community relations, (2) minimal impact on base police pay, and (3) quicker resolution of financial challenges facing pensions, which will increase the probability that the defined benefit will be preserved, and will increase the potential retirement benefit available to the incoming generation of new police officers.

Apart from ending collective bargaining agreements, abolishing police unions in no way abolishes the ability of police officers to organize in voluntary associations to pursue common professional and political objectives. Before we had unionized police forces, police associations were very influential in civic affairs and could be again. And there are broader political objectives that may animate these police associations, beyond protecting bad cops and fighting for financially unsustainable retirement benefits. Police and other public safety employees, whether they are part of a union or part of a voluntary association, should think carefully about where the United States is headed. This is especially true in California.

The most dangerous risk of politically active police unions is the fact that whenever government fails, whenever our common culture is undermined, whenever social programs breed more problems than they solve, we need to hire more police officers. And whenever government expands to regulate and manage more aspects of our lives, we need to hire more police officers. Social upheaval and authoritarian government create jobs for police officers. For a police union that wants more members, a failing society and an authoritarian government suits their agenda.

For this reason, police officers have a choice to make. Do they really want to enforce the laws emanating from the climate extremists, the tolerance extremists, the sensitivity extremists, the equality extremists, the multi-cultural extremists – the entire ostensibly anti-extremist extremist gang of elitists who currently control public policy in California? Do they want to deploy drones to monitor whether or not someone got a permit to install a window in their bathroom, or watered their lawn on the wrong day? Do they want to fine or arrest people who aren’t willing to adhere to speech codes, or who refuse to hire less qualified employees in order to fulfill race and gender quotas? Do they want to police a society that has fragmented irretrievably because we continued to import millions of unskilled, destitute individuals from hostile cultures, than indoctrinated their children in union-ran public schools to falsely believe they live in a racist, sexist society?

It’s a tough choice. Will politically active police organizations redirect some of their resources to support policies that might actually reduce the number of police we need? Abolishing collective bargaining may make the right choice easier, because police will then be less immune to the economic and social havoc the elitists are currently imposing on the rest of us.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

RELATED POSTS

Appreciating Police Officers, Challenging Police Unions, July 26, 2016

Public Safety Unions and the Financial Apocalypse, May 17, 2016

The Challenges Facing Conservatives Who Support Public Safety, March 22, 2016

In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement, January 19, 2016

Pension Reform Requires Empathy, not Enmity, October 20, 2015

Public Sector Union Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, June 16, 2015

Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?, June 23, 2015

Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety, April 20, 2015

Conservatives, Police Unions, and the Future of Law Enforcement, January 6, 2015

Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014

Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014

How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014

Appreciating Police Officers, Challenging Police Unions

In the wake of tragic and deadly attacks on police officers, those of us who have never wavered in our support for the members of law enforcement, but have questioned the role of police unions and have debated issues of policy surrounding law enforcement have an obligation to restate our position. Civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives have disagreements with police unions which were summed up quite well recently by guest columnist Steve Greenhut, writing in the Orange County Register. Here are some of the principal concerns:

Police unionization protects bad officers and stifles reform. Lack of transparency into investigations of police misconduct aids and abets the worst actors. Police unions often support laws designed to extract increased revenue from citizens in the form of excessive fines. The “war on drugs” and militarization of law enforcement can further increase the tension between police and the populations they serve. And, of course, police unions fight relentlessly for increases to compensation and benefits, especially straining the budgets of cities.

To have a balanced discussion on these topics, however, it is necessary to revisit why police work has become more controversial and more expensive. Here are some of the reasons:

(1)  The value of life has never been higher. A century ago, when the life expectancy for Americans was 49, tragic deaths were commonplace. Compared to Americans in 1916, Americans today on average can expect an additional three decades of productive life, and premature death is proportionately more traumatic. This means the premium that police officers deserve for their service is higher than it’s ever been, and should be.

(2)  The expectations we have for law enforcement have never been higher. Along with longer lives, Americans suffer less crime. For nearly forty years, in nearly all categories, crime has steadily diminished. While there remains enough crime to generate a daily barrage of lurid local news reports, we enjoy more safety and security than at any time in history. We are getting this service thanks to our police forces, and better service deserves better pay.

(3)  The complexity of crime has never been higher. Crime itself has become far more sophisticated and menacing, morphing into areas unimaginable even a generation ago – cybercrime, global terrorism, financial crimes, murderous gangs, international criminal networks, foreign espionage, asymmetric threats – the list is big and gets bigger every year. Countering these threats requires more capable, better compensated personnel.

(4)  The statistical risk to police officers, even in the wake of recent tragedies, may remain low, but that could change in an instant. In the event of severe civil unrest or well coordinated terrorist attacks such as we saw in Sept. 2011, hundreds or even thousands of officers could find themselves on the front lines of a cataclysm. Statistics are not necessarily predictive, and police officers live with this knowledge every day.

So how do civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives manage their debates with police unions while conveying their respect for police officers? First, by acknowledging the complexity of the issues. Police should make more money than ever before – the debate should start there, not end there. Police have to be armed to the teeth, because in a free republic, the citizens themselves are armed to the teeth. That’s the choice we made, and unless we want to disarm the citizenry, we can’t disarm the police. These are fundamentals where there should be agreement.

Beyond that, it is necessary to appeal to the patriotism and decency that animates the vast majority of members of law enforcement, and ask them: Please work with us to curb the inherent excesses of police union power. Of course we have to get bad cops off the street. Of course we have to come up with effective non-lethal uses of force. Of course we have to figure out how to fund police departments without levying excessive fines. And of course we have to face a challenging economic future together, where police are partners with the people they serve, not an economically privileged class. Is this possible? One may hope so.

There’s more. If police unions are going to be intimately involved in the politics of law enforcement and the politics of police compensation, and they are, they may as well start getting involved in other causes where their membership may find common cause with civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Police officers see first hand how welfare destroys families and how public schools fail our children. So why aren’t they fighting to replace welfare with workfare and why aren’t they fighting to destroy the teachers union? You can say what you will about police unions, but they did NOT turn this nation into a lawless hellhole, quite the opposite. The teachers union DID destroy public education. So help us reduce their influence.

Similarly, police officers need to decide if they really feel like enforcing the myriad environmental harassment laws that are criminalizing everything from installing a window or water heater without a building permit to watering your lawn on the wrong day. The global environmentalist movement – of which California is ground zero – has become fascism masquerading as anti-fascism. It has become neo-colonialism masquerading as concern for indigenous peoples. It was a previously noble movement that has been hijacked by cynical billionaires, monopolistic corporations, and corrupt financial special interests. In its excess today, it has become a despicable scam. Help us to crush these corrupt opportunists before our freedom and prosperity is obliterated.

These thoughts, perhaps, are challenges that civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives might offer up to the police unions of America.

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

RELATED POSTS

Public Safety Unions and the Financial Apocalypse, May 17, 2016

The Challenges Facing Conservatives Who Support Public Safety, March 22, 2016

In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement, January 19, 2016

Pension Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, not Enmity, October 20, 2015

Public Sector Union Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, June 16, 2015

Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?, June 23, 2015

Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety, April 20, 2015

Conservatives, Police Unions, and the Future of Law Enforcement, January 6, 2015

Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014

Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014

How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014

 

 

 

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.

Conservatives, Police Unions, and the Future of Law Enforcement

Conservatives in America are at a crossroads. They face a choice between greater freedom or greater security. While striking this delicate balance has required ongoing policy choices throughout history, recent events involving law enforcement have brought these choices into sharp focus. Here’s how Patrik Johnson, writing last month in the Christian Science Monitor, described the choice:

“Police forces nationwide are being pulled between two opposite trends: more empathetic, community policing and an increasingly militarized response to crises.”

How conservatives, on balance, weigh in on this choice has far reaching consequences. On one hand, conservatives can support suggested reforms that embrace the value of empathy, minimize violence, alleviate tensions, and pave the way for 21st century policing appropriate to a free republic. Here is a key reform advocated by the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in reaction to the tensions in that city following a police shooting:

“A comprehensive review by the Department of Justice into systematic abuses by police departments and the development of specific use of force standards and accompanying recommendations for police training, community involvement and oversight strategies and standards for independent investigatory/disciplinary mechanisms when excessive force is used.”

Conservatives may scoff at some of the other demands – such as guaranteed “full employment for our people,” which, for starters, goes well beyond police reform. But conservatives better think twice before deciding there is no merit to any of the concerns of activist groups who have been animated, across the nation, by alleged excessive use of force by police.

Because there is a dark, shamefully pragmatic alternative course for conservatives. They can choose to fan the flames of racial animosity and fear, secure in believing that excessive force may never touch their communities. But excessive use of force by police is not primarily a racial issue. Ask the families of Kelly Thomas, or David Silva, or Kevin Hughey, or hundreds of others.

The issue, bigger than race, is this: Are we going to evolve into a nation where police are trained to use nonlethal force, trained to practice “empathic, community policing,” or not? And are we going to be a nation where police are held accountable if they cross the line, or not?

Which brings us to the fact that most law enforcement agencies in the United States today are unionized. These unions are politically active, and they tend to lean conservative in their political contributions. The practical choice conservatives face is stark: Do they want to take money from police unions not just in exchange for ignoring the serious financial challenges caused by their excessive pension benefits, but also in exchange for ignoring calls to better regulate use of excessive force?

Challenging the agenda of police unions will not only cost politicians their financial support. In some cases it can even earn their active retaliation. A troubling article by Lucy Caldwell, in a National Review article entitled “Police Unions Behaving Badly,” documents how a local politician in California was harassed after standing up to them in contract negotiations. And as Caldwell notes, “police unions are able to operate with absolutely no transparency because they are classified as private entities not subject to public-records laws.”

There are many reasons government unions, especially law enforcement unions, are problematic in a democracy. But when the teachers union in California went on record deploring the education reforms upheld in the Vergara decision – everyone, liberals and conservatives alike, saw them for who they are – a lobbying group that is more concerned about protecting bad teachers than they are about educating children.

Members of law enforcement themselves, perhaps even more than teachers, ought to be, and usually are, highly motivated to make a contribution to society. They have a strong sense of right and wrong, and justifiably feel there is a moral worth to the jobs they do and the profession they’ve chosen. So why are they letting their unions fight reforms that will weed out bad cops, and implement training and oversight programs that will result in fewer lives lost and lowered tensions in the communities they serve?

Conservatives can seize this opportunity to find the strength of their most enlightened convictions. They can join with liberals to reform and evolve law enforcement in the U.S. And in so doing they can help liberals to see how the agenda of government unions is in inherent conflict with the public interest – in law enforcement as well as in education. And they can start to work towards broader reforms as part of a powerful new coalition.

Alternatively, conservatives can revert to an ugly, divisive, racially tinged, belligerent message, endorsing security at any cost. They may reap short term political and financial gains from such a strategy. But they will further divide this nation, and in the long run, discredit themselves irrevocably.

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

RELATED POSTS

Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014

How Police Unions and Arbitrators Keep Abusive Cops on the StreetAtlantic 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

Should Police and Firefighters be Exempted from Union Reforms?

Advocates of public sector union reform point to fundamental differences between unions in the competitive private sector vs. those unions that organize government workers. Briefly stated, private sector unions must moderate their demands or the companies they bargain with will go out of business; private sector unions exercise little influence over who is going to run the companies and sit opposite them at the negotiating table; members of private sector unions do not operate the machinery of government, or have the power to enrich themselves by raising taxes on the rest of us.

For these reasons, it is possible to be critical of private sector unions, but to be far more concerned about public sector unions. If public sector unions have acquired too much power, and they have, the consequences impact everyone. In California, the average public sector worker makes twice as much in total compensation as the average private sector worker. Because direct personnel costs generally consume over 70% of local government and public education budgets, and over 60% of the much smaller state budget (once pass-through funds are eliminated from the denominator), it is obvious that unsustainable pay and benefits are a primary reason for California’s budget deficits. But thanks to a powerful alliance between public sector unions and financial institutions – pension funds and bond issuers – instead of lowering pay and benefits, we increase taxes, increase borrowing, and cut government services.

If you dig deeper into municipal budgets, however, it doesn’t take long to see where most of the money is being spent. Bypassing the misleading data on the State Controller’s pay tracker website, where part-time employees are included in the denominator when calculating averages, and many categories of employer pay and benefits are missing, the California Public Policy Center evaluated the payroll of three cities in California, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, and San Jose. Using accurate and comprehensive data provided by the payroll departments from each of those cities, here is a summary of their findings:

Average Annual Total Compensation – Three Select California Cities:
Anaheim: Police = $171K, Fire = $194K, Other = $123K
Costa Mesa: Police = $182K, Fire = $208K, Other = $104K
San Jose: Police = $179K, Fire = $203K, Other = $120K

Notwithstanding the fact that most of us would be thrilled to work for any one of these cities in the “other” job classification, the disparity is not subtle. Police and firefighters earn annual total compensation that averages well over $150,000 per year, and they earn nearly twice what their colleagues earn in local governments. In case anyone might consider these three cities to be outliers, using state and local census bureau data from 2009 for base pay, combined with overhead percentages for employer paid benefits derived from the three cities analyzed in detail, here are averages for California (not taking into account how much employer paid pension contributions are probably going to have to increase):

Average Annual Total Compensation – State and Local Government Employees in California:
Police = $152K, Fire = $183K, Other = $98K

While public sector union spokespersons regularly remind voters how many concessions their members have already made in attempts to help balance budgets, the fact is the numbers reported here have not changed much. And the most sensitive, difficult topic to address is the compensation and benefits for public safety employees, who even Governor Brown acknowledged during his campaign against Meg Whitman, create challenges for local budgets that are disproportionate to their numbers.

In other states where public sector union reforms are actually happening, the prevailing pattern is to exempt public safety employees from the legislation. In March of 2011 the state of Wisconsin enacted reforms that limited the ability of public employees to collectively bargain for benefits, but excluded police and firefighters. In December of 2012 the state of Michigan enacted a right-to-work law, but excluded police and firefighters. The state of Missouri is currently debating a paycheck protection law, one that affects all public employees except for police and firefighters.

What’s going on?

It is undeniable that public safety employees should receive a premium for the risks they take. And this premium should be bigger than it was historically because we have higher expectations and get better results from our public safety personnel than ever before, and also because we place a higher value on human life than ever before. Those who risk their lives today to protect the public should receive a generous premium for their work. The real question is how much is too much? And is it really possible that reformers of public sector unions are blind to the fact that unions of police officers and firefighters are wielding just as much inappropriate political power as any of the other public sector unions who they have successfully targeted?

A more likely explanation is that conservative reformers of public sector unions know that members of public safety are generally more conservative than, say, public school teachers, social workers, or environmental protection bureaucrats. Fair enough. But this is a dangerously short-sighted strategy. Members of public safety are trusted with authority that goes well beyond that entrusted to any other domestic civil servants. They are sworn officers, in many respects more akin to members of the military than to their fellow bureaucrats. Shall the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines unionize? Shall a shadow government of union bosses intercede in national military strategy and tactics, enforce work rules, negotiate compensation? Where’s the difference?

The powers that public safety unions wield go beyond that of other public employee unions because of the nature of their work, and the consequences of this power go beyond just making it hard to negotiate reductions to their pay and benefits. Police in the United States should be politically neutral. They should enforce the laws, not make them. They can work through strictly voluntary associations to advocate their political agenda and improve their profession.

When considering whether or not unions representing public safety employees should be subject to the same reforms as unions representing other government workers, one should return to a primary reason unions in the public sector are different: They operate the machinery of government. In the case of police, this includes unprecedented new opportunities to employ technology – surveillance, micro-drones, remote sensors – to enforce unprecedented new laws – environmental, national security, tax enforcement, code enforcement. All of the reasons we may fear the power of public sector unions, who have turned our public servants into a privileged elite, are magnified in the case of public safety. It isn’t just about the money.

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UnionWatch.org is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at editor@unionwatch.org