Police unions should be illegal — Column

September 20, 2021 6:00 am

Police prepare to open fire with tear gas and non-lethal rounds on a group of demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Imagine in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal or the massacre at My Lai, the union representing American soldiers sent out virulent statements of support for the accused officers and enlisted men. Picture the leadership of the soldiers’ union going on TV to defend the actions of their union brethren, warning Americans that the only thing standing between America and the bad guys is the soldiers’ union.

Wait, what? There’s no such union, you reply.

And you’re right. The very idea is absurd. It would threaten the chain of command and dangerously politicize the military. You can’t have armed agents of the state forming their own power center that stands in opposition to both senior officers and the duly elected leaders of our democratic republic.

And, yet, that’s what we have in nearly every city and state in America: Armed agents of the state who have formed politically powerful unions that protect their prerogatives, including the use of investigation, detention and violence in the prosecution of their duties.

I speak here of police unions.

I’ve been a member of two different labor unions and as editor of the Reformer have published many guest commentaries from union members, standing up for their rights as workers.

The reason: I believe the country is gripped by a gross imbalance of power. Owners have it. And workers don’t.

Correcting that unjust imbalance requires the influence of unions, whose members can be powerful together even as they are powerless alone.

Police officers, by contrast, do not lack power. If anything, they have too much of it. They are granted wide latitude by their superiors, prosecutors, judges and the public to confront citizens, search their persons and homes and cars and computers. They can haul you in on the thinnest bit of justification and then lie to you during an interrogation.

And surely another sign of power is the ability to act as you please without consequence.

They have been known to lie in court without sanction. When they commit misconduct, they are rarely prosecuted.

In fact, as Reformer reporter Max Nesterak and contributor Tony Webster reported last year, they are rarely even disciplined. And when they are disciplined, the sanctions are often overturned by arbitrators. On average, Reformer reporter Rilyn Eischens found, the Minneapolis Police Department took 539 days to resolve disciplinary cases.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey have frequently blamed the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis and the arbitration process for protecting bad cops and standing in the way of reform.

Fine: Strip them of their collective bargaining rights and let Arradondo fire the 3-6% of cops that are bad, which is the estimate given by former Deputy Chief Art Knight. I suspect it’s higher.

Given retirements, resignations and disability claims, the department is now badly understaffed, but a recent investigative report from Reuters suggested that the department isn’t doing much of anything:

“In the year after Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, the number of people approached on the street by officers who considered them suspicious dropped by 76%, Reuters found after analyzing more than 2.2 million police dispatches in the city. Officers stopped 85% fewer cars for traffic violations. As they stopped fewer people, they found and seized fewer illegal guns.”

Dump the union, and Arradondo could fire as many as he needed and start over, creating a reformed department they claim to want. And, the union could no longer serve as an easy excuse for not overhauling the department.

Frey has spoken a lot about changing the arbitration process; officers who are terminated are reinstated a little less than half the time through arbitration.

He seemed open to the idea of removing officers’ right to unionize when I talked to him last week.

“The resistance to many forms of important reforms and willingness to cultivate a culture defined as us v. them is pernicious,” he said. “I am open to any mechanism to allow us to get further accountability.”

The solution, which occurred to me while reading this cogently argued piece from Adam Serwer,  is so clean and simple that you probably wonder why we haven’t done it.

The answer is politics. Specifically, state politics. I often say people ignore the Legislature at their own peril.

The Legislature, which created the right of public workers to collectively bargain in 1971, would have to exclude peace officers from the statute.

Republicans may hate public sector unions, but they love the police union, which now furnishes them with endorsements and burnishes their old-is-new-again, law-and-order playbook.

As for Democrats, their allies in the other public sector unions may not love the police unions, but they are unlikely to accede to their dissolution. I sent emails to Education Minnesota, the Service Employees International Union, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Only AFSCME replied, saying in part that “that all workers are encouraged to join together in a union.”

The AFSCME statement continued: “Union membership is not a shield for injustice, rather, it is a critical way in which we all can ensure accountability and due process of staff and management.”

The unions don’t want even a whiff of this proposal on the agenda, a Democratic operative told me.

After all, if we ended police unions, they’d come for the teachers next.

This classic slippery slope argument, which is just about the weakest around, is somehow always central to every debate at the Legislature. But it’s foolish. Cops are different than teachers, not in degree but in kind. Teachers don’t carry guns and handcuffs.

My message to the other public sector unions and their Democratic allies: Do what’s best for your members and the state of Minnesota by excising this malignancy.

Malignancy: A strong word, but appropriate.

Set aside the fact that police unions — by definition — will nearly always protect their worst members and fight like heck in negotiation to protect the brutal status quo.

The graver danger — in this time when America is already on the brink of authoritarianism — is the political mobilization and power of police unions.

Let’s return to the days following the murder of George Floyd, when then-Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll, who just months earlier stood on a stage at a rally for then-President Donald Trump, sent a letter to union members in which he called demonstrators a “terrorist movement.” He attacked “politicians on the left” for “allowing … and encouraging” the riot.

Most sinister of all, he suggested a back channel to then-Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka:

“I gave a detailed plan of action including a range of 2000 to 3000 National Guard, their deployment allocations throughout our city and St Paul, in a phone meeting with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. The Senate was going to try and run the actions that the governor displayed he is clearly incompetent to do.”

Gazelka, who is now running for the Republican nomination for governor, contradicted the account.

Regardless, what’s on display from Kroll in that letter is someone whose belief in his own impunity was so pure that he presumed he had the authority to undermine the duly elected governor of the state of Minnesota.

(Recall what I said at the top about the absurdity of a military union; Kroll seemed to think for a moment that he led one.)

The proof of his impunity arrived in short order. He faced no sanction.

Kroll is gone, retired earlier this year, but the danger remains, as long as this powerful union is in our midst.

Former labor leader and current DFL consultant Javier Morillo published an essay in the Reformer after Floyd’s murder in which he listed seven reforms for loosening the grip of the police union.

My view of the situation, however, to paraphrase the police abolitionists, is that the union can’t be reformed. It must be abolished.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children