Police Reform part 3: Police Unions are a big hindrance to accountability

It would be amiss to talk about all the things that are wrong with the police system and leave out police unions. For a long time, police unions have remained as one of the biggest hindrances to reform.

Generally, like any other union, police unions play an important role “in establishing working conditions, labor relations, and the improvement of wages and benefits”. This would all be good and well if Unions reserved their efforts to those issues. But unions also have a reach into broader areas: they spend to elect public officials, can testify on changes to the criminal justice system, and can defend members accused of improper behavior on the job.

To an extent that they have such overreach, any efforts that they gear towards resisting policy, training, and discipline reforms usually bear fruit. This turns problematic in instances where reform is geared towards improved public safety outcomes, better police-community relations, and safer communities for both the public and police.

Police Unions put their members first

Like all unions, the most important thing unions care about is their members, the police officers. Therefore, their own existence is to essentially oppose any reform that present a threat to their member, regardless of its overall impact in the community. In the words of Thomas Nolan, a criminologist at the Merrimack College of Massachusetts:

“I think police unions are always going to default to the position that the officers are blameless in instances where they use deadly force…. Even though internally unions and union officials might express reservations among themselves, at least publicly the position is always going to be that the officer feared for his life or feared for the life of another person and that his use of deadly force was entirely warranted. That’s textbook”.

Unions have a number of mechanisms through which they manage to impose their will and protect their members. Most of their mechanisms however translate to leaving police departments so hamstrung that they are unable to discipline or fire officers for misconduct. In the event that an officer is fired, unions are able to renegotiate and often repeal the sentence and get them reinstated.

Unions provide provisions that make it harder to discipline or fire officers for misconduct

Unions have the power to negotiate contracts for their employees. Through these contracts, police unions may put in provisions that intentionally increase the procedural burden or burden of proof that departments have to show before they can discipline or fire officers.

It has been found out in the aftermath, that the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck had already had 18 complaints against him. And one of the other officers, Thao, had been a subject of a lawsuit regarding unreasonable use of force for someone who was not a suspect. These are clearly people that should have already been fired, but they were not.

Some unions provide provisions that undermine or counteract any disciplinary effort. For instance, the Minneapolis current police contract has a provision that allows police officers accused of on-the-job-misconduct to go on a paid administrative leave. The amount of time can range from weeks to months, which technically sends a message that anyone caught of misconduct will not face consequences. “In one notable case, an officer who was initially suspended for improper behavior spent nearly 10 months on leave and was paid $54,450.53, before being fired, city records show”.

Unions have power over Disciplinary Hearings

Police Unions nationwide have negotiated control over disciplinary processes creating a corrosive culture. Unions may also have provisions that delay interrogation of officers suspected of misconduct, provide access to evidence before the interview, limit anonymous complaints a department may accept against an officer, and limit civilian oversight. All of this restricts the jurisdiction that departments have over officer discipline.

According to CNN,

Decades of collective bargaining has resulted in police forces where department chiefs have little control, and the unions have set the terms for internal investigations. Even if an officer is formally punished, nuances in the contract often help officers prevail on appeal, Serpas said.

For instance, some police union agreements have outlined how long police leadership must wait to investigate an incident, how they can ask the police officers questions and what they can ask, and how quickly the department must complete an investigation.


Arbitration is one of the instances where unions wield a lot of power. Some states, like Minnesota, have a binding arbitration clause in their contract that require government employers to allow all discipline to be appealed to binding arbitration. In the case that an officer is fired and can repeal, unions can legally represent police officers in arbitration and negotiate for a reduced sentence like suspension. In other instances, where an officer was not fired, they can get their disciplined sentence reduced.

Being able to appeal is a good thing for anyone fired wrongly. But arbitration usually ends up helping cops who have been fired for egregious behavior.  By appealing to labor rights instead of public safety, unions are able to place excessive proof of burden on police departments to prove their employees are unfit for a job.

This essentially gives the message that no cop, regardless of what they have done, can be terminated.  Statistically speaking, arbitrators reinstate fired cops a little under half the time. Often times officers with an especially positive history are more likely to be reinstated to their job during arbitration.

But this gets especially problematic in departments where unions have provisions requiring departments to remove some records of misconduct. The Minneapolis Police Department has this provision.

This raises the probability that an incompetent officer would be reinstated on the grounds that their work history is positive. After all the history has been wiped clean of any misconduct. Some provisions even prohibit the use of an officers history as a factor determining the kind of disciplinary sentencing they would get.

What all this does is increase the likelihood that officers are less likely to take precautions when dealing with individuals. Studies have confirmed a correlation between collective bargaining and police violence. Rob Gillzeau, and his team found that collective bargaining leads to a substantial increase in police killings of civilians. “The protections that their contracts allowed shifted the incentives such that, when there was a swift decision to shoot or not, those protections pushed the decision to fire.

Unions resist reform

As already explained, a unions job is to protect its members. So, for police unions that may mean resisting any type of reform that presents even the most minimal threat to their members. For instance, when Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey moved to ban warrior style training last summer, he was met with opposition from the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. The police union moved even further as to offer their own free warrior style training in response.

Minneapolis is not the only city where the police union presents a hindrance.  The city of New York, for instance, is moving forward with a series of measures to address police misconduct. One includes repealing the state law commonly known as 50-A which prevents the public from seeing disciplinary records for officers, including those who kill civilians. The police union has expressed this will erode the privacy of police officers.

In 2014, the Miami police union tried to block the initiative for police officers to wear body cameras on them citing that “will distract officers from their duties and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations …”.