The Authoritarian Instincts of Police Unions

They condition their members to see themselves as soldiers at war with the public they are meant to serve, and above the laws they are meant to enforce.

A circle of silver police badges standing against a blue background
Illustration by Danielle Del Plato

This article was published online on June 21, 2021 and updated at 11:43 p.m. ET on June 22, 2021.

In May 2020, Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old with a smartphone camera, documented the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Most Americans who watched the video of Floyd begging for his life, as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, saw a human being. Robert Kroll did not. The head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis saw a “violent criminal” and viewed the protests that followed as a “terrorist movement.” In a letter to union members, he complained that Chauvin and the three other officers involved in Floyd’s death had been “terminated without due process.”

Kroll’s response was typical. In the apocalyptic rhetoric of police-union leaders, every victim of police misconduct is a criminal who had it coming, and anyone who objects to such misconduct is probably also a criminal, and, by implication, a legitimate target of state violence. Due process is a privilege reserved for the righteous—that is, police officers who might lose their jobs, not the citizens who might lose their lives in a chance encounter with law enforcement.

In the Floyd case, the effectiveness of this rhetoric, so powerful in years past, was blunted by what Americans could see with their own eyes. Frazier’s video became the spark for what were reportedly the largest civil-rights protests in the history of the United States.* It also led to the trial and conviction of Chauvin and the indictment of the three officers who stood by while their colleague committed murder.

But what if Frazier hadn’t had the presence of mind to record what she witnessed? Floyd might have been remembered by the public as Kroll had described him, and that could have been more than enough to spare Chauvin and the others from indictment. The headline of the police department’s statement on the day of Floyd’s murder—“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”—might have become the accepted version of events.

Like any other type of union, police unions view their duty as protecting the interests of their dues-paying members. Yet these unions are fundamentally different, because their members are armed agents of the state. In practice, this means police unions reflexively come to the defense of men like Chauvin, while opposing any meaningful reforms of department procedures. The most modest attempts at change—banning choke holds or even gathering data on misconduct—are met with fierce resistance.

Americans are presently engaged in a debate about how to reform police departments to prevent the unlawful killing of civilians by officers, as well as other, nonlethal abuses of power. Reining in police unions may not seem like the most urgent response to this crisis. But no reform effort can hope to succeed given their power today. As long as they exist in anything like their current form, police unions will condition their members to see themselves as soldiers at war with the public they are meant to serve, and above the laws they are meant to enforce.

The first efforts to establish police unions, around the time of World War I, were largely unsuccessful. Today’s unions took root in the 1960s and ’70s, in part because of new state laws allowing public-sector employees to collectively bargain. But this was also the moment when the most heavily policed communities in the country sought to turn America into a true multiracial democracy, and this profoundly influenced the growth of unions, and their shape today.

The civil-rights movement was a rebellion against the law. It had to be. And the police were called upon to crush it. Many of the most iconic images of the era were representations of police brutality: the Birmingham police siccing dogs on protesters, Alabama state troopers beating marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Atlanta cops manhandling Martin Luther King Jr. after arresting him at a sit-in. For police, this moment of radical social change proved to be both a threat and an opportunity.

The threat came in the form of attempts to resolve issues endemic to American policing. These weren’t the first such efforts. In the early 20th century, the widespread ineffectiveness and corruption of police departments had sparked a reform movement. In 1931, the Wickersham Commission, appointed by Herbert Hoover, issued a report on “Lawlessness in Law Enforcement,” which documented a range of abuses, including “physical brutality, illegal detention, and refusal to allow access of counsel to the prisoner.” These were particularly common when police interacted with Black people and immigrants.

That initial reform movement was more successful at professionalizing police practices and ending corruption than addressing such abuses. But in the ’60s, as the civil-rights movement brought graphic images of police brutality into the national spotlight, the Supreme Court stepped in. In a series of decisions, the Court compelled cops to inform suspects of their rights, barred the use of evidence obtained through illegal search and seizure, and gave all defendants a right to counsel. These decisions curtailed, even if they did not eliminate, many of the lawless practices described by the Wickersham Commission. Cities began looking for ways to prevent police misconduct, such as civilian review boards.

To many police officers, the reforms were simply pro-criminal. These incursions on their long-standing prerogatives spurred unionization efforts around the country. “The police unionism movement, which emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a reaction to new efforts to bring the police under democratic control,” David Sklansky, a Stanford Law professor and the author of Democracy and the Police, told me.

If the civil-rights movement drew fresh scrutiny to police abuses, however, the backlash to the movement provided the police with new allies and new opportunities. For most white voters, riots and clashes with police in Black neighborhoods in 1967 and ’68 confirmed that liberal efforts to alleviate racial inequality had failed and that overwhelming force was the answer. “Unions discovered that they had a lot of power, that in union contract negotiations, they could play the crime card,” Samuel Walker, a historian of American policing and a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told me.

Book cover image: 'The Cruelty Is the Point' by Adam Serwer, from which this article is adapted.
One World

As they sought maximal leverage, police unions brazenly linked crime with race. In New York City in 1966, for instance, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association promoted a ballot measure that would bar civilians from serving on an oversight board. Supporters of the union ran an ad showing an anxious white woman exiting the subway alone, onto a deserted street, with the words “x … Her life … your life … may depend on it.” The group’s president at the time warned, “You won’t satisfy these people until you get all Negroes and Puerto Ricans on the board and every policeman who goes in front of it is found guilty.” The police union and its allies won in a landslide victory.

Among the unions’ most ardent champions in the tumult of the ’60s was the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, a Democrat. “The police in this country are a beleaguered group,” Wallace said in an interview republished by The New York Times in 1967. They deserved “praise” for beating civil-rights marchers in Selma—or, as he put it, for shutting down the “unlawful assembly” there. In a speech before the convention of the Fraternal Order of Police that same year, Wallace drew a standing ovation as he called for a literal police state: “If the police of this country could run it for about two years, then it would be safe to walk in the streets.”

Wallace lost his 1968 bid for the presidency, but his racist populism proved potent; both Richard Nixon’s winning “law and order” strategy and a new penchant among Democrats for declaring themselves “tough on crime” were products of his campaign.* These messages resonated because crime and violence were not merely white concerns. As the Yale Law professor James Forman Jr. writes in Locking Up Our Own, Black political leaders in the ’70s and ’80s pushed for strict anti-crime measures with the strong support of their constituents. (They also sought more government aid to fight poverty and discrimination, but those approaches to crime prevention had fallen out of favor among white voters.) Americans who would never have personally identified with Wallace tacitly took a version of the trade that he’d offered: Give the police impunity, and they will give you order.

Police unions found that they had new leverage at the bargaining table. In contract negotiations with cities, they sought not merely higher pay or better benefits, but protections for officers accused of misconduct.

At this, they proved remarkably successful. Reviewing 82 active police-union contracts in major American cities, a 2017 Reuters investigation found that a majority “call for departments to erase disciplinary records, some after just six months.” Many contracts allow officers to access investigative information about complaints or charges against them before being interrogated, so they can get their stories straight. Some require the officer’s approval before making information regarding misconduct public; others set time limits on when citizens can file complaints. A 2017 Washington Post investigation found that since 2006, of the 1,881 officers fired for misconduct at the nation’s largest departments, 451 had been reinstated because of requirements in union contracts.

For many police unions, enacting and enforcing barriers to accountability became a primary concern. In 2014, in San Antonio, the local police union was willing to accept caps on pay and benefits as long as the then–city manager abandoned her efforts to, among other reforms, prevent police from erasing past misconduct records.

The damage that these types of provisions have done is hard to overstate. In one recent study, the economist Rob Gillezeau of the University of Victoria found that after departments unionized, there was a “substantial increase” in police killings of civilians. Neither crime rates nor the safety of officers themselves was affected.

The provisions do more than simply protect bad actors. They cultivate an unhealthy and secretive culture within police departments, strengthening a phenomenon known as the code of silence. In a 2000 survey of police officers by the National Institute of Justice, only 39 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “Police officers always report serious criminal violations involving abuse of authority by fellow officers.”

In the same survey, more than eight out of 10 “reported that they do not accept the ‘code of silence’ ” as an “essential part of the mutual trust necessary to good policing.” Yet even officers who might not believe in the code adhere to it. From their perspective, they have little reason to speak up, and plenty of incentive to ignore their conscience while on the job. Those who do speak up can become pariahs, while the misconduct they report goes unpunished.

Michael Quinn, a retired Minneapolis police officer and the author of Walking With the Devil, told me, “The whole problem with the code of silence is not so much that cops don’t want to report misconduct, but that there’s no accountability for the officers that are involved in misconduct. And if a department’s not gonna hold them accountable, why should they step up?”

This is not a system ruined by a few bad apples. This is a system that creates and protects bad apples by design. Most people who become police officers enter the profession because it is held in high esteem and because they wish to provide a public service. But individual good intentions cannot overcome a system intended to render them meaningless. Being a good cop can get you in trouble with your superiors, your fellow officers, and the union that represents you. Being a bad one can get you elected as a union rep.

In 2014, amid protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, The Washington Post published an op-ed by a former police officer. The headline stated plainly, “I’m a Cop. If You Don’t Want to Get Hurt, Don’t Challenge Me.” The author went on to enumerate the perfectly legal behaviors that he viewed as a “challenge”: “Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.”

Such a mindset poses a mortal risk to people encountering the police, but it also poses a risk to democracy itself. In democratic societies, the use of state-sanctioned violence is meant to be constrained by the rule of law. Instead, led by their unions, the police in America have become a constituency with a strong interest in the ability to dispense violence with impunity. Such a constituency will have a natural affinity for authoritarianism. And having leveraged a racist backlash to establish their grip on power, such unions will inevitably attract the support of those who see the preservation of racial hierarchy as paramount.

President Donald Trump allied himself with police unions; the unions, in turn, proved to be among his staunchest supporters, campaigning on his behalf all over the country. The fact that last year’s Democratic ticket was composed of the author of the 1994 crime bill and a former prosecutor did nothing to temper the hyperbole of police-union officials and their allies, one of whom attacked Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the “most radical anti-police ticket in history.”

In Trump’s apocalyptic warnings about the consequences of liberal political ascendancy, one can hear the echoes of police-union officials arguing that the police are the thin blue barrier between civilization and collapse. “Americans know the truth,” Trump said during the 2020 campaign. “Without police, there is chaos. Without law, there is anarchy. And without safety, there is catastrophe.”

In the shared ideology of police unions and the Trumpist right, that safety is available only to those who refuse to criticize the police. As Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr told an audience of police officers and prosecutors in 2019, communities that protest maltreatment by police “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This is a mockery of free speech and a perversion of democracy.

If there were any doubt about the police unions’ allegiances, it was made plain after January 6, when a white-supremacist mob attacked the Capitol in the president’s name. These ostensible supporters of “Blue Lives Matter” beat and berated any law-enforcement officers who stood in their way. One officer, a Black Iraq War veteran named Eugene Goodman, led a crowd away from the Senate chamber and in doing so may have prevented lawmakers from being lynched. More than 100 of his fellow officers were reportedly injured in the melee.

Afterward, the National Fraternal Order of Police quietly released a letter condemning the mob and expressing sympathy for the dead and injured officers. But there was no parade of police-union officials on cable television labeling the MAGA mob “terrorists” or “animals.” There were no announcements that off-duty cops would refuse to work security at political events supportive of the mob or the lie about a stolen election that motivated it. That kind of rhetoric is reserved for those who protest the killing of Black people by the police, not an assault on cops in the name of white rule. The head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, John Catanzara, told a local news station how much he sympathized with an armed mob that attempted to overturn the results of a presidential election. “It was a bunch of pissed-off people that feel an election was stolen, somehow, some way,” Catanzara said. Forced to decide between defending democracy and maintaining the political alliances that protect their impunity, the unions made the obvious choice.

Police unions are unlike any other form of organized labor. A teacher who pulls out a gun and shoots a student cannot avoid prosecution if the school fails to investigate the incident within five days. A librarian with a tendency to throw large books at visitors who refuse to heed demands for silence will not be reinstated because an arbitrator determined that management failed to properly follow procedure in firing her. And while these professions provide essential services, withholding their labor cannot constitute a threat of violence.

The question is why there should be police unions at all. Because the defining work of police is violence, any police union is bound to eventually want to negotiate leniency for the misuse of violence by its members, and to advocate for policies that guarantee that leniency. Such a guarantee is rooted, in part, in the racial disparities of police misconduct, which also insulate police from backlash. The preservation of such disparities is thus a political interest for police unions.

Some liberals acknowledge that these unions are an obstacle to reform but argue that workers—including police—have a fundamental right to organize for better wages and benefits. Indeed, former officers I spoke with argued that unions helped secure financial stability or protected them from capricious decisions by management.

Yet the military—hardly exempt from questions about fair pay or capricious leadership—lacks a union. This is a matter of tradition, not law, but it reflects an understanding that such an organized political entity would be dangerous, placing the military beyond democratic accountability and civilian control. Instead, the military relies on public support, which means its members must maintain an outward stance of political neutrality—even when a sitting president expects them to interfere on his behalf.

There are some 18,000 police departments across the United States, and the laws governing relations between the departments and unions vary by jurisdiction. Curtailing union power will thus be a local fight. Some cities and states might opt to disband police unions altogether. Others might take disciplinary procedures off the negotiating table, leaving the unions to advocate for overtime pay and pension plans, not freedom from accountability. This spring, in San Antonio, activists succeeded in putting the collective-bargaining rights of the city’s police union on the ballot. The referendum was narrowly defeated at the polls, but both the activists and the union see the confrontation as the first skirmish in a longer fight.

If police unions are eventually deprived of the powers they’ve wielded for the past half century, current and former officers could still, as individual citizens and as part of police organizations, speak out in favor of their politics. But they would lack the leverage to negotiate getting away with murder as a condition of employment, or to withdraw the state’s cloak of protection to citizens who protest their conduct. The existence of powerful organizations that advocate for armed agents of the state at the expense of the public they serve is not simply an obstacle to reform. It is dangerous.

This article is adapted from Adam Serwer’s new book, The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America. It appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “Bust the Police Unions.”

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* The article originally misstated the duration of the video showing George Floyd's death. The article also incorrectly stated that George Wallace sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. Wallace ran as a third-party candidate that year.

By David A. Sklansky

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