The Thing About Police Unions

Adeshina Emmanuel

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke stands trial in Sept. 25, 2018, for fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Despite video evidence that McDonald was walking away when he was shot, Chicago's police union vehemently defended Van Dyke to the end.

Most unions don’t aggres­sive­ly shield their mem­bers from account­abil­i­ty for mur­der. Police unions are anoth­er story.

As pro­test­ers press elect­ed offi­cials to defund police depart­ments across the nation, they’ve also railed against police unions for pro­tect­ing vio­lent cops. 

Some observers on the Right, in turn, have lever­aged the upris­ing for a broad­er attack on pub­lic-sec­tor bar­gain­ing, sug­gest­ing that the prob­lem with Amer­i­can law enforce­ment isn’t cops, but unions.

But police unions are a spe­cial beast, and police aren’t your aver­age worker.

Most union­ized work­ers expect labor unions to secure high­er pay and bet­ter work con­di­tions, pro­tect their com­mon inter­ests, and defend them from unjust dis­ci­pline or dismissal.

But when offi­cers make a mis­take at work or defy the rules, that slip might amount to a gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned extra­ju­di­cial killing. And when they get away with abuse and mur­der, often with help from their unions, it rein­forces a deep-seat­ed cul­ture of author­i­tar­i­an­ism and impunity.

Police unions in my home­town Chica­go have a his­to­ry of defend­ing vio­lent police like for­mer Chica­go Police Depart­ment (CPD) com­man­der Jon Burge, who tor­tured or approved the tor­ture of more than 100 peo­ple — most of them Black — from 1972 to 1991, and offi­cer Jason Van Dyke, who in 2014 fatal­ly shot Laquan Mcdon­ald 16 times as the 17-year-old walked away. From their begin­nings, police unions have also damp­ened police reform efforts, using both col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments and polit­i­cal clout. Pro­tec­tions enshrined in their con­tracts are often rein­forced by state laws that these unions have lob­bied for or essen­tial­ly writ­ten them­selves, such Illi­nois’ police bill of rights.”

I began research­ing how police con­tracts influ­ence account­abil­i­ty in 2015, after the police killing of Laquan McDon­ald, when the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment was first tak­ing shape. Oth­er jour­nal­ists, activists and researchers had already iden­ti­fied police unions as a sig­nif­i­cant road­block to change.

In 2017, I teamed up with In These Times, Injus­tice Watch, the Invis­i­ble Insti­tute and City Bureau to anno­tate the Chica­go Fra­ter­nal Order of Police con­tract and explain how the pro­vi­sions sti­fle account­abil­i­ty. Here’s a look at some of the more prob­lem­at­ic ones:

  • Chica­go police have at least 24 hours after a shoot­ing inci­dent to give a state­ment to inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tors. They are allowed to speak with col­leagues and super­vi­sors dur­ing this time. In a 2017 report that capped a year­long inves­ti­ga­tion of the CPD, the Jus­tice Depart­ment warned that this pro­vi­sion enabled offi­cer col­lu­sion,” cit­ing the gang of cops who fal­si­fied reports about the Laquan McDon­ald shooting.

  • Offi­cers under inves­ti­ga­tion may then amend their state­ments after view­ing the video or audio evi­dence against them.

  • The con­tract restricts the inves­ti­ga­tion of anony­mous com­plaints, which the union defends on the grounds that offi­cers need pro­tec­tion from friv­o­lous accu­sa­tions. But as the Jus­tice Depart­ment report not­ed, Giv­en the code of silence with­in CPD and a poten­tial fear of retal­i­a­tion, there are valid rea­sons a com­plainant may seek to report police mis­con­duct anony­mous­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly if the com­plainant is a fel­low officer.” 

  • The con­tract, like many around the coun­try, allows for the destruc­tion of police dis­ci­pli­nary records after a cer­tain time, a pro­vi­sion that elect­ed offi­cials have (to their cred­it) defied and which the Illi­nois Supreme Court has just over­turned. Account­abil­i­ty experts argue that these records help uncov­er pat­terns of mis­con­duct and flag prob­lem­at­ic officers.

  • And then there’s the so-called Burge rule,” a five-year statute of lim­i­ta­tions on inves­ti­gat­ing inci­dents of police mis­con­duct with­out spe­cial per­mis­sion from the police chief. The Fra­ter­nal Order of Police lob­bied for the rule after noto­ri­ous Chica­go police com­man­der Jon Burge was fired in 1993, and put up a hell of a fight after the city final­ly began inves­ti­gat­ing Burge’s tor­ture ring of white offi­cers and even­tu­al­ly called for his job. 

Those are just some of the trou­bling pro­vi­sions, and the con­tract is only one piece of the police union puzzle.

The Fra­ter­nal Order of Police, the nation’s biggest police union, has for years reigned as one of the most pow­er­ful and volatile polit­i­cal forces in Illi­nois. The Chica­go chap­ter has a lega­cy of exclud­ing and alien­at­ing Black offi­cers, per­pet­u­at­ing false nar­ra­tives about police killings of Black peo­ple, and pro­tect­ing abu­sive cops from over­sight and accountability.

FOP’s lob­by­ing has ensured that many of the prob­lem­at­ic con­tract pro­vi­sions are also enshrined in state law and that major reform efforts die on the vine. When Illi­nois law­mak­ers tried pass­ing a law to estab­lish inde­pen­dent over­sight of police sex­u­al abuse cas­es, for exam­ple, the Chica­go and Illi­nois chap­ters of the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police deployed pow­er lob­by­ists in efforts to cur­tail the law so it passed with­out includ­ing Chica­go cops.

Oth­er unions, even large and influ­en­tial ones, can’t boast the same treat­ment. Con­sid­er the Chica­go Teach­ers Union: For some 25 years, the state has barred its largest teach­ers union from nego­ti­at­ing over non-eco­nom­ic issues, such as class sizes and staffing lev­els, with­out per­mis­sion from their boss, the mayor.

Teach­ers faced a con­cert­ed attack from those in pow­er. The 1995 Chica­go School Reform Amenda­to­ry Act, which estab­lished may­oral con­trol of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools and put in place the ban on non-eco­nom­ic bar­gain­ing, was backed by then-May­or Richard M. Daley and the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty and passed by a Repub­li­can-led leg­is­la­ture. In 2011, Daley’s suc­ces­sor, for­mer May­or Rahm Emanuel, backed an edu­ca­tion reform bill that barred teach­ers from nego­ti­at­ing over the length of the school day or school year and was intend­ed to lessen the chances of a teacher strike. Emanuel, who picked a fight with the CTU as soon as he took office that cul­mi­nat­ed in a his­toric 2012 strike, con­tin­ued to over­see the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pub­licly fund­ed, pri­vate­ly-run char­ter schools, lay­offs dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ing vet­er­an Black edu­ca­tors, and mass school clos­ings (of most­ly Black schools) in 2013 as Daley had before him, much to the teacher union’s chagrin. 

Yet in 2014, after those clash­es with teach­ers, elect­ed offi­cials trum­pet­ed a more har­mo­nious rela­tion­ship with the police union. When the city approved the last FOP con­tract, Emanuel applaud­ed FOP lead­er­ship and City Coun­cil (includ­ing alder­men crit­i­ciz­ing the union today) gave then-union pres­i­dent Dean Ange­lo Sr. a stand­ing ova­tion in coun­cil chambers.

If the CTU’s expe­ri­ence shows any­thing, it’s that col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights are not set in stone. Where there is polit­i­cal will, there is a way. Elect­ed offi­cials could take a page out of Daley and Emanuel’s teach­ers union play­book and lean on state law­mak­ers to amend state labor laws and take cer­tain issues off the bar­gain­ing table for police. State law­mak­ers would also have to repeal police bill of rights statutes that enshrine trou­ble­some con­tract pro­vi­sions, and then rewrite or abol­ish the con­tracts themselves.

As Ben­jamin Sachs notes at OnLa­bor, a bevy of research shows the racist harm that police unions have inflict­ed. 2018 study found that grant­i­ng Flori­da sher­iffs’ offices col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights increased vio­lent inci­dents. Anoth­er 2018 study, of the nation’s 100 largest cities, found that pro­tec­tions against inves­ti­ga­tion and over­sight in police con­tracts cor­re­lat­ed with slay­ings of unarmed civilians. 

Still, despite that evi­dence of harm, some on the Left and in the labor move­ment remain hes­i­tant to rebuke and expel police unions. I’ve spo­ken to labor experts who wor­ry that dis­avow­ing police unions is a slip­pery slope to enabling polit­i­cal attacks on oth­er pub­lic sec­tor work­ers. Some fear that if law­mak­ers are encour­aged to under­mine police union con­tracts, oth­er pub­lic-sec­tor union con­tracts will follow.

Most pub­lic work­ers, how­ev­er, don’t clock in with a gun on their hip, a badge on their chest, broad lat­i­tude to use dead­ly force, and a union will­ing to back their actions at all costs. 

So, where does the labor move­ment stand?

Richard Trum­ka, head of AFL-CIO, the nation’s biggest fed­er­a­tion of unions, has reject­ed calls for police unions to be expelled from the fed­er­a­tion (the FOP is not a mem­ber, but the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Police Asso­ci­a­tions is). So far, just one AFL-CIO affil­i­ate, the Labor Fed­er­a­tion of King Coun­ty, Wash., has bro­ken ranks and vot­ed for expul­sion.

Trum­ka and oth­er labor lead­ers have con­demned sys­temic racism and police vio­lence and even declared that Black lives mat­ter. Despite those ges­tures, they have hes­i­tat­ed to crit­i­cize the robust col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments pro­tes­tors char­ac­ter­ize as tools of state-sanc­tioned impunity. 

What­ev­er the case, this much is clear: 

Any push to reform, defund or abol­ish the police means wrestling with police unions, whose lead­ers are dig­ging in their heels even as their coun­ter­parts in labor demand an end to police violence.

This analy­sis was pub­lished in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Injus­tice Watch

Adeshi­na Emmanuel is an edi­tor at Injus­tice Watch, a non­prof­it jour­nal­is­tic research orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to expos­ing insti­tu­tion­al fail­ures that obstruct jus­tice and equal­i­ty. He is a for­mer reporter for DNAin­fo Chica­go, the Chica­go Sun-Times, the Chica­go Reporter and Chalkbeat.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue