Police Reform, Police Unions, and Human Rights

by Nick Gier

We give police an incredible amount of trust. And they deserve an equally incredible amount of accountability when they break that trust.—Jeremiah Ellison, Minneapolis City Councilman

Officers empowered to protect the public instead have been protected from the public.The New York Times (12/20/20)

December 10 was Human Rights Day, and on this date in 1948 the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris. I draw inspiration from this document every time I read it.

Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Article 2 states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

In the U.S., however, almost twenty years passed before rights concerning race were set into law with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

Article 23.4 assures that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his (/her) interests,” and only after 50 years of labor conflict was the right for private employees to bargain collectively guaranteed by the Wagner Act of 1935.

With every right there is responsibility, and labor organizations have a duty to maintain trust not only with their members but the wider community they serve. It is a sad fact that police unions, especially regarding people of color, have protected many of their members from criminal prosecution.

Tragically, police kill Blacks at 2-3 times the rate as whites. So far in 2020, CBS News has reported that police have killed at least one Black man or woman every week for a running total of 164 deaths.

A University of Chicago study found that violent misconduct among sheriffs’ officers increased about 40 percent after they were allowed to unionize. The authors also conclude that “unionization may increase solidarity among officers and thereby strengthen a code of silence that impedes the detection of misconduct.”

Research done by Rob Gillezeau, an economist at the University of Victoria, showed that the rise of police unions has led to “an increase in civilians killed by law enforcement, mostly among the non-white population.”

A Washington Post investigation revealed that from 2006 to 2017, primarily because of contract protections, “45 percent of the officers fired for misconduct in Washington, D.C were rehired on appeal. In Philadelphia, the share is 62 percent. In San Antonio, it’s 70 percent.”

Of the 800,000 police officers in the nation, 80 percent have joined unions. Primarily because of fear of accountability, only the International Union of Police Associations (100,000 members) has affiliated with the 12-million-member American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

Since the murder of George Floyd this spring, the left-wing of the AFL-CIO has been calling for the disaffiliation of the IUPA. Tensions have been building ever since AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka called for police reform and declared that “racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color.” In June, the King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild for “failing to address racism within its ranks.”

City politicians are an essential part of the problem, because they certify these police contracts. Under the “law and order” banner, conservative leaders are especially complicit. For example, former Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker was successful in limited the bargaining rights of all public employees, but he exempted the police forces.

Over the span of ten years, the city of Portland, Oregon paid out $1 million in legal fees to defend the firing of Officer Ron Frashour, who had shot an unarmed Black man in the back. The city’s efforts failed and he is still on the force. Other cities have not given up on reform and, since May, 2020, 40 officers have been fired for “use of force or racist behavior.”

Some progress has been made. Oregon law now requires officers to report or prevent the misconduct of their peers, and it limits what arbitrators can do to overturn disciplinary actions. Connecticut will take up legislation that will prohibit the payment of officers’ legal fees and strengthen oversight of police discipline of their own.

The New York Times reports that, since the murder of George Floyd, “42 of the country’s 50 largest cities changed police policies or adopted some new kind of oversight.” In Portland, a law was passed that set up a civilian oversight board, which would replace binding arbitration. In the past arbitrators had ruled in favor officers half the time.

Given the number of offending officers who return to duty, labor activist Kim Kelly contends that much more much be done: “Ultimately, police unions protect their own, and the contracts they bargain keep killers, domestic abusers, and white supremacists in positions of deadly power.”

Nick Gier was president of the Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO from 1982 to 2020. Email him at ngier006gmail.com.

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