How the Police Lobby Impedes Public Safety (ep. 158)

June 3, 2021
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There were only 18 days last year that did not see a police officer kill a civilian in this country. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace Jr, Daniel Prude, and Rayshard Brooks, were among the 1,127 people killed by police last year. And we know that Black people are more than three times as likely to be killed during a police encounter as their white peers.

A year after the murder of George Floyd, systemic, transformative change is still desperately needed at every level of government, but too often police unions and their lobbying efforts obstruct that change.

Joining us today to talk about all this is Dr. William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and the president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association, whose work focuses on the relationship between race and class, as well as on the history of unions and organizing in the U.S.

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MOLLY KAPLAN
From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I’m Molly Kaplan, your host.
There were only 18 days last year that did not see a police officer kill a civilian in this country. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace Jr, Daniel Prude, and Rayshard Brooks, were among the 1,127 people killed by police last year. And we know that Black people are more than three times as likely to be killed during a police encounter as their white peers.

A year after the murder of George Floyd, systemic, transformative change is still desperately needed at every level of government, but too often police unions and their lobbying efforts obstruct that change.

Joining us today to talk about all this is Dr. William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and the president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association, whose work focuses on the relationship between race and class, as well as on the history of unions and organizing in the U.S. Will, welcome to the podcast.

DR. WILLIAM JONES
[00:01:14] Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

MOLLY
[00:01:17] You know, before speaking broadly about police unions and their lobby, I wanted to begin by talking about a really specific example that I think illustrates how powerful the police unions and their lobby are. And that is the example of Breonna Taylor. So here we are, Louisville, Kentucky. The police shoot eight times in her home during a drug raid that found no drugs at all. And the city's mayor warned in the aftermath that disciplining the responsible officers would be a drawn out process because of an agreement with the union. And that proved completely true. Reports also claimed that the police union was negotiating a new contract behind closed doors while last summer's protests were happening. And the contract in the end did not respond to the accountability and transparency protesters were demanding all summer long. Instead, a provision in the contract set limits on how disciplinary records could be kept and used.

So how does this example illustrate how police unions and their lobby can be an obstacle to change?

WILLIAM
[00:02:20] Yeah, that's a great question and a great example, and I think there are a couple of things that I think come out in this example that are important to keep in mind. One is the point that the mayor made in pointing to the drawn out process, being a product of the contract, the agreement with the union. There's a couple of things that I think are important to just pay attention to that. One, it's an agreement with the union. So, it's not a contract that the union wrote up and imposed on the city. It's a contract that the city entered into as a more powerful partner. So one thing I think we need to keep in mind is that these agreements are created through a process of collective bargaining in which both sides, both parties, the city and the union, sit down and negotiate rules for employment. These have to do with wages and working conditions. They also have, particularly with police and other public sector unions, an important part of these contracts is discipline. So I think it's important to really understand the way collective bargaining works, what collective bargaining agreements are, what power they have, and approach this in a way that I think addresses those problems.

MOLLY
[00:03:37] You know, just staying on the collective bargaining point, some of the provisions that you mentioned were about discipline and accountability. Some of the ones that I've been reading about also on that topic were really shocking to me. And previously, I had not been aware of, like specifically bans on investigating misconduct that happened more than one hundred days in the past or getting early review of camera footage around a violent event or even having a sort of wait period where officers have the chance to get their story straight and get alignment there. I think those things sort of stand out as above and beyond what a labor union would normally be doing. Can you explain a little bit more about some of those policies? And also walk us through something that I've heard called the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. Tell us a little bit about that.

WILLIAM
[00:04:30] Right. So, yeah, I mean, it's true, and this gets at another thing that I think you said in the opening question, which is about the way in which police union contracts are often sort of negotiated in the dark of night. There's not a lot of oversight. So a lot of these provisions that have to do with sort of putting bars on looking at past discipline cases, giving police officers access to records and things, the logic that police officers come to the bargaining table that result in those policies is that they often feel that they're unfairly sort of targeted, that people will say will sort of make up complaints against them as a way of sort of retaliating against maybe an arrest or that they feel a sort of unfair public scrutiny of their jobs. And so they feel that they need to protect themselves from a sort of unfair discipline, which, you know, a really central part of all collective bargaining for all unions, for all workers is really is the concepts of due process that if you're charged with misconduct, you have a fair procedure for defending yourself and sort of vetting the evidence against you and speaking to your accusers and all of these things that are, you know, I think pretty standard for union contracts. But you're right that with police officers, these things often go way beyond what other unions negotiate for and what I think what a reasonable person would think of as a fair process. Often what happens with police and negotiations actually with a lot of collective bargaining for public employees is that cities hold the line on sort of economic issues. So they're like, we're coming to the table with a wage cut or not a wage increase or a benefit change or, you know, and we're really going to hold the line on those economic issues. And we might give something in exchange which often leads to these things that are, I think looking at it from the surface, it seems like a really unfair protection against any accountability rather than a sort of a protection from unfair discipline.

MOLLY
[00:06:45] So money seems like a really key factor in this, right? Money coming in through the lobby in political donations and political influence and then money during the negotiation process as being a sort of hold line that politicians are under pressure to have a balanced budget and as a result may give away a little too much on accountability and discipline areas in order to save the money. Is that correct?

WILLIAM
[00:07:10] Absolutely true. And I don't think it's a mistake that we've seen, actually, a dramatic increase in the power of police unions and in the sort of protections that the union contracts give to police at a time over the past 50 years of really intense austerity in American cities righ? So one result of that is that police are given more responsibility for things that used to be handled by social workers and by hospitals and by you know schools and a whole array of other public services that have been cut back. So police are taking on more responsibility. At the same time, they're often in the position of sort of saying, well, we won't take a wage increase. We won't get better retirement policies or health care policies. But in exchange, we're going to ask for more rigorous protections from their point of view, it's more rigorous protections from unfair discipline. I think in a lot of cases, I think many people would look at this and say this is they're actually asking for sort of unfair protections from any discipline. But that, I think we should look at it from that dynamic of often economic gains are given up in exchange for protections.

MOLLY
[00:08:30] And just to make sure that everyone knows, collective bargaining in this circumstance is the ability to bring two parties to the table and negotiate. Is that correct?

WILLIAM
Right. I mean, it's essentially the right to it through a democratic process, to designate a representative of the majority of a workforce so that they can then be represented collectively and negotiate collectively as opposed to individual negotiations one employee at a time. It was initially in states that did not have collective bargaining laws for public employees, police often pushed for what are known as police officer bills of rights. So these are actually laws that are passed at the state level in some respects in lieu of a collective bargaining process. And they just legislate things that were often in collective bargaining agreementS.

MOLLY
[00:09:24] Is there an example where these Bills of Rights in some way protected police officers in a way that I think many in the public, particularly right now, would find offensive or problematic?

WILLIAM
One of the things that is often in these bills of rights are limitations on civilian oversight of police. I think it's another example of the way in which the police have a lot of political power. And it's not just because they're organized into powerful unions. It's also because police have a lot of political support. There is a significant segment, perhaps a majority of the population who do believe that police should have a great deal of power to use force, and there's support for the idea that police should have sort of a great deal of leeway over the use of force. And so I think that, you know, part of this problem is related to this sort of direct political power that police have sort of both at the bargaining table, both in the sort of electoral process. But it's also a fact that we live in a society that tolerates a great deal of police misconduct and in some ways sort of supports that. And I think we need to think about that as part of this process.

MOLLY
[00:10:40] How much of the political support that police officers get do you think is related to a fear on the politicians side of being perceived as soft on crime or not serious about law and order?

WILLIAM
[00:10:55] Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, there's this phrase ‘the thin blue line’ which was actually coined by a police chief in Los Angeles in the nineteen seventies. And it's actually a very I think it's a very effective line. Right. It's saying you might not like what we do. You might not completely agree and support what we do, but we are the only barrier standing between what they sort of portray as sort of law abiding citizens and the rest sort of anarchy. And if you get rid of that thin blue line, then you're going to come face to face with the other side.

MOLLY
[00:11:35] And part of that argument also seems to be this larger narrative that you've portrayed of let us keep everything in the shadows, like we'll take care of this side of society that you want nothing to do with anyway. And in return, don't ask, don't pry, don't ask. We don't want your input. Let us do it the way we do it.

WILLIAM
[00:11:55] Yeah. And you probably don't want to know, right? I mean, that's another part of the line is that you have no idea how bad it could get and what we confront on a day to day basis and you really don't want to know. And so let us deal with it. And it requires a certain amount of sort of leeway on our part. Right. The idea and that's you know, that's where you see these arguments about we have to make split second decisions like life and death decisions and in a sense, you shouldn't second guess right because if you second guess us, then it's going to prevent us from doing our job. We see this in the response to calls for police reform in the wake of George Floyds murder, where police are saying, well, we can't recruit officers. We have these sort of mass resignations. And the idea that that reform is really just getting in the way and gunking up the process and we need to just have this leeway. And that's a you know, I mean, I think that that is a an extremely difficult position to accept, right. I mean, if we think about these public servants, these are people who we employ to protect us. And so the idea that they're saying, look, leave us alone and let us do our job is very deeply problematic and undemocratic.

MOLLY
[00:13:17] Well and the consequences have been catastrophic. One might say.

WILLIAM
Exactly. I mean, I think it's been a really important part of this continuation of extreme of violence and and murder on the part of police officers who often can have no accountability for this.

MOLLY
[00:13:33] And there have actually been studies that police violence actually goes up among the civilian population relative to these contract negotiations and the passage of new contracts, whereas the pay gains for police officers are minimal and the benefit for communities is also minimal in terms of like the lowering of crime rates. Is that something that you also pay attention to?

WILLIAM
[00:13:57] Yeah. I mean, I think this is a fairly new field of study but there's pretty good evidence that in looking at there's been a number of studies that have looked at cases where either the collective bargaining rights have changed — rights of police officers have gained them. Or, one study in Florida looks at a case where police officers who are employed by municipalities had collective bargaining rights, but sheriff's departments — so usually employed by counties — did not. And so this sort of set up a really good experiment and they looked at what happened when the sheriffs actually got collective bargaining rights and you did see an increase in police violence. You saw an increase in the racial disparity in police violence. So I think deserves more study. These are initial studies, but I think there's pretty good evidence. I think another issue that we're confronting, though, is that this occurs in the context of a politicization of policing that also facilitates that sort of both the unaccountability and the sort of the what in some political circles is a sort of a legitimization of police violence. I mean you saw that under the Trump administration, where the president was openly saying police need the right to use violence. And that is a political line that goes back to the 1970s. This sort of that remains, I think, very powerful and very potent.

MOLLY
[00:15:30] Well, in York Times article from last June actually said that as Democrats in the House were pulling together legislation to respond to the uprisings, the leader of the police lobby was meeting with the president and attorney general at the time bar and basically getting assurance that that wouldn't go through the Senate, which is sort of a shocking notion.

WILLIAM
[00:15:51] Right. And I mean, I think it's you know, I think that there's in part this is a reflection of the broader political divide that I think on one hand, I think there's a very strong political will mostly among liberals to address police violence. Among conservatives, there's not so much, and in some ways I think you see this to push back.

MOLLY
[00:16:12] And interesting enough, you know, it's not as Democrat or Republican an issue because in many cases, the lobby gives money to Democrats, too. And many Democratic leaning cities like New York have incredibly strong police unions which is an interesting point.

WILLIAM
[00:16:29] Yeah I mean, I think I think you have seen in New York and other places where police unions have gained a lot of power over the past 50 years, a fraying of that relationship. So the relationship between Democratic mayors in New York or Philadelphia, San Francisco, I think some has really shifted. I think actually I mean, getting back to the issue of collective bargaining, however, I think this is a particular issue where we need to understand the what's at stake with collective bargaining. So last spring, there was a law introduced by Democrats into the House that would have significantly strengthened federal protections for collective bargaining by public employees. This is a perennial issue for public employee unions since the nineteen thirties when they were excluded from the federal law, they have been pushing for collective bargaining rights that are more similar to the rights that private sector workers have. And they haven't been able to get them. They've only made progress at the state level where some states have given those rights, often with really very, very strict restrictions. So the most common example is that public employees generally are not allowed to go on strike. They can lose their jobs for going on strike. They can face significant fines and jail time even for going on strike. This is true in New York state, like one of the most liberal states in the country; if public employees go on strike, their union leaders go to jail and they're fined millions of dollars. So there's been an ongoing effort to pass federal protections. And this has become more important as there was a series of Supreme Court rulings in the past several years really constraining the rights of public sector unions. And so there's been a stepped up effort to pass this kind of federal law. This law was introduced into the House last spring with overwhelming support from Democrats in the House. It looked pretty clear that it was going to pass and it was introduced a few days before Breyonna Taylor was killed. After that happened, most of the sponsors of that law withdrew their support on the grounds that this law would strengthen the ability of police unions to protect officers from discipline. So here you have a very clear example of what's actually, I think, an ongoing problem, which is the fact that the rights of police officers to bargaining collectively is deeply wrapped up in the rights of all public employees to bargain collectively. And so that relationship, I think, is really critical to understanding in this case. I think it's particularly important given the fact that for most public employees, the people who are most in need of collective bargaining are low wage people of color. The exact sort of groups of people, communities, neighborhoods who are targeted by police violence and who are, you know, have the highest stake in controlling police violence and increasing accountability for police. So on one hand, those same communities need collective bargaining rights for public employees. They are nurses, they’re teachers, they’re sanitation workers. At the same time, you know, they don't particularly have an interest in giving police carte blanche to terrorize their communities. And so, this tension in figuring out how do we protect the collective bargaining rights of public employees in general without eliminating any accountability for police officers, I think, is one that people who care about the union movement in general like most of those Democrats who ended up withdrawing their support after the murder of Breyonna Taylor, they need to figure out how to balance those two in some ways, competing interests.

MOLLY
[00:20:44] And I think it's really important to understand that police unions have some similarities with the larger labor movement, but there are some very important distinctions that separate them from the rest of the labor movement and labor unions generally. Can you talk about some of those distinctions? I mean, the one that is the most obvious to me is that they have government issued weapons that have the possibility of lethal force like that is very different from a teacher or sanitation worker.

WILLIAM
[00:21:14] That's exactly right. I mean, and that's actually I think the place in which there’s the most possibility for reform is to look at reforming the discipline around the use of force. And that's something that you could actually do without restricting it to police officers right? I mean, any public employee who the use of force is part of their job right? That's a very it's not just police officers, it's prison guards, for example. So if you are disciplined for violating use of force policy, the procedures under which you are disciplined, your appeal rights are more constrained than if you are disciplined for faking a sick day. And again, those things could apply equally to a teacher or to a police officer. It's just that the use of force is going to be more relevant with police officers. So I think it's important to look at the nature of policing and think about ways in which the nature of policing opens up instances of abuse that need special measures of accountability. I think in some ways I think, as we talked about earlier, police collective bargaining contracts actually provide protections that are are not available for most public employees anyway. So just bringing police in line with the norms would, I think, be an important start. But also in some ways, I think police need more discipline in certain cases when it has to do with the use of force.

MOLLY
[00:22:55] So what I'm hearing as someone who seems like a labor advocate, is not that the solution here is to eliminate police unions, but just to have nuance in how we address police unions as having sort of being a separate situation from other members of the workforce of the public sector workforce. Is that accurate? And also, like, what is the downside of, for example, for those who are like just get rid of the unions, they're no good. What would be the downside of that?

WILLIAM
[00:23:25] Well, I think the biggest downside is you think about the current process of collective bargaining allows a negotiation between employees and managers. So getting rid of collective bargaining just puts all of the power in the hands of management. And, you know, I guess I'm not confident that police chiefs or even mayors and city councils that we should put all of the power in their hands to determine discipline policy for police, right? I mean, in a lot of places that would probably lead to even more robust protections for individual officers, right? So, the way to address this, I think actually having a negotiation itself opens up avenues for public oversight. So the fact that the two sides have to come down and sit at the table and sign a contract that becomes publicly available, opens up oversight that would not actually necessarily take place if it was simply a top down process of writing an employment policy. So that in itself, the negotiation, I think is inherently Democratic. I think that's a good thing. But I think also what we can do is change that process to increase public oversight. So mandate that when cities and police officers are going to sit down and negotiate a contract, they announce when that's going to happen. They announce what are the big issues that each side are taking to the table. In some cases, there may be avenues for civilian participation in the negotiations. So rather than having a two sided negotiation, have a tripartite system of negotiation where representatives of communities can actually take part in that negotiation. There's a movement within the union movement that's known as bargaining for the public good. And this has been led largely by teachers who in some ways, you know, teachers faced really similar issues where there was a lot of question about whether teachers were coming to the bargaining table with their sort of narrow economic interests put over those of the broader community. Where there were teachers unions, blocking reforms that would maybe not benefit teachers, but would benefit students. And one response within the union movement has been to say that unions need to come to the bargaining table with the issues of the community — perhaps even more central than the issues of the teachers. And the argument is that the interests of the teachers is actually aligned with that of students and parents. And so they have actually a lot of teachers unions have really welcomed public oversight in their collective bargaining contracts. And this is something I'm not optimistic that police unions are going to adopt this approach. But I think it is actually an approach that collective bargaining law — so these are written at the state level — they can mandate that. They can say we need some public involvement in these negotiations and ways of trying to figure out ways that that community oversight can actually be integrated into the collective bargaining process.

MOLLY
[00:26:55] I’m curious, while we wait for state law to change so that the public can have more of a role in those collective bargaining negotiations, what can people do? Like people who are aghast at the fact that more change hasn't happened in the wake of the protests over the summer? Where is the leeway? Where can we assert pressure?

WILLIAM
[00:27:17] Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the things that so I've been working on a report about changing the collective bargaining process and this is really sort of at the state level, changing these laws. But one of the things that's already happened and in fact, the ACLU has been engaged in this, Campaign Zero another organization has been engaged in this, which is under the existing collective bargaining law there's already ways in which people can demand to access hearings over collective bargaining contracts. They can just publicize the fact that bargaining contracts are being renegotiated — What are the issues? And there's actually been in one of the earliest places this occurred is in Austin, Texas but it's also occurred in Philadelphia, a number of cities. It's been a really intense public engagement in the negotiation process. It's often from the outside. It's sort of done through the media, through protests. It's not often a sort of direct legal avenue for public engagement in the process. But even without those, there's a lot of room for community organizations to study collective bargaining contracts, to understand what's in them, what are the consequences of them. There's actually a really robust set of resources around this. The Campaign Zero webpage has most of the collective bargaining contracts and covering police in the United States on their webpage with analysis of that. So people can look, can understand, what is the contract in their own community and how does that protect police in ways that they don't agree with? When are the contracts coming up for renegotiation? Who's involved in that renegotiation? Who's responsible? So I think it's holding public officials accountable for the fact that they know nothing gets into these collective bargaining contracts without public officials signing off on them.

MOLLY
[00:29:19] Which, by the way, is something that really struck me because as I was reading for this and preparing, what I read was, for example, Greg Fisher in Louisville, Kentucky, was like, my hands are tied. He said ‘if I could do something I would’ in response to a crowd that was yelling at him basically for not disciplining the officers involved in Breyonna Taylor's shooting. And it does seem like if there were more public oversight, that claim that ‘my hands are tied’ would suddenly carry less weight.

WILLIAM
[00:29:49] It would right. Or you would say, okay, your hands may be tied in this case under this contract, but that contract is going to expire, is up for renewal. And so you need to make sure that your hands are not tied in two years or three years. You know, it's a very difficult political process. It takes a lot of engagement and sort of education. But I think it actually is a very powerful way that people can get engaged right now. I don't think you have to wait for the state laws to change. But it takes sort of understanding the collective bargaining process.

MOLLY
Well, thank you so much for explaining some of that collective bargaining process and how we can all get involved. Was really great to have you here.

MOLLY
Thanks so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show. We always appreciate the feedback. Until next week, stay strong.

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