Common demands for police reform include chipping away at long-established police protections: make complaints against officers open to the public, tighten and enforce use-of-force rules, and reform the disciplinary process.
Those demands have met fierce resistance from police unions, which sometimes use their power and political influence to thwart efforts their members oppose, reports Cronkite News Service/News 21.
“Many police unions put themselves forward as kind of like the base of opposition for a lot of police reform efforts,” said Jorge X. Camacho of the Justice Collaboratory, a research center at Yale Law School. “Not all the time, not always, not for every effort, but much of the time.”
“Police unions have become public enemy number one for commentators concerned about race and police violence,” Colorado professor Benjamin Levin wrote in the Columbia Law Review.
Joe Clure of the Arizona Police Association, who has worked with unions throughout Arizona, said police unions and most officer don’t have a problem being held accountable. A balance must be struck with the union’s role of protecting officers.
“You look around across the country, politicians, particularly on the left, have villainized police officers,” said Clure, whose association represents more than 50 law enforcement agencies. “They demonized police officers.”
Like other public-sector unions, police unions exist to protect and advocate for their members. What differentiates police unions from other public-sector unions is the influence they’ve cultivated over time.
Law enforcement has a unionization rate of more than 60 percent – second only to firefighters, according to the Cicero Institute, a Texas think tank. In comparison, the union membership rate for public-sector workers nationally was about 34 percent, according to 2021 union member data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With so many members, many police unions have built strong positions in communities: They can negotiate protections into their contracts. They can use their money and influence to lobby legislators and support political candidates. They can hire attorneys to fight policies – and people – they don’t like.
However, police unions do not have “real power,” Camacho said. They can’t strike or prevent a police department from doing what it wants.
Public perception may differ. Gallup has asked U.S. residents about a variety of police reform efforts for several years. In May, the public opinion survey showed 44 percent of the 12,000 U.S. adult respondents thought police unions should be eliminated. However, that’s a decrease from the two previous surveys.
As the public pressure mounts to reform policing, examples have cropped up that indicate the power dynamic with some police unions has shifted – whether by choice or force. Some union leaders have taken up reins to try to lead change, and others have made concessions after facing public backlash. And some unions are fighting to maintain their power as outside groups try to strip them of their control.
Kevin Robinson, a former assistant chief with the Phoenix Police Department, said unions can have a tremendous impact on reform efforts.
“How they do that is by telegraphing to their membership that misbehavior of any sort – any kind of nonprofessional behavior – will not be tolerated,” said Robinson, who teaches criminology at Arizona State University, “not by the citizens of the community they represent, not by the police department and certainly not by the police union.”
Police unions and associations have spent more than $48 million to lobby at the state level and gave nearly $71 million to state-level candidates and committees in the past decade, according to OpenSecrets.
It’s not unusual for Black, brown, women and LGBTQ+ police officers to form their own police associations. The Guardians Association in New York, the Black Shield Police Association in Ohio, Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers Inc., New Haven Guardians and others have formed to better represent issues that concern officers of color, women, gays and trans people.
In St. Louis, the Ethical Society of Police – a predominately Black and brown police association – has pushed for accountability for officer misconduct and brought attention to the culture of police unions and the lack of reform unions have implemented.
Nationwide, white officers have predominantly made up union leadership and law enforcement, according to a 2020 analysis by The Marshall Project. Of the 15 largest U.S. police departments with a majority of officers of color, only three had union presidents of color.
Community leaders are leveraging the public’s anger to gain concessions during labor contract renegotiations between police departments and their unions.
One expert said unions are more likely to make incremental changes.
“If what is imagined or desired in terms of policing reform is something fairly modest or moderate, maybe different types of training, maybe different types of officers deployed in different places, things like that,” said Benjamin Levin, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Then I think there’s reason to be optimistic about unions as a tool for reform.”