The Power of Police Unions

In my last post, I discussed the downfalls of the phrase ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards). The point is that it distracts from the real problem of policing– police unions. The issues don’t come from each individual cop, but rather from the system that enables them to act without consequence. But what is a police union? What rights do American cops get, that other citizens don’t?

Police unions are exactly what they say they are– trade unions for police officers. Just like other labor unions, they’re a way for officers to band together to fight against low wages, long hours, and tough working conditions. At least, that’s how they started out. Today, police unions do a lot more than ask for raises.

First, let’s go into the simplest of topics: the Blue Wall of Silence. This is the unofficial rule that cops don’t tell on each other. You see your buddy doing something he shouldn’t, you stay quiet or face the consequences. Snitches get stitches, right? The Blue Wall is heavily enforced by– you guessed it– police unions. Cops don’t hold each other accountable, so bad behavior is swept under the rug rather than punished.

Another strong shield cops have against consequences is qualified immunity. Hasan Minhaj put it best by comparing qualified immunity to applying for your first job. Employers often ask for previous experience, but how can you have previous experience when you haven’t had your first job? Similarly, suing a cop requires that you prove they violated a right that was clearly established. Here’s the thing– a right can’t be considered “clearly established” unless a different cop is successfully sued for infringing on that specific right.

Here’s an example: In 2014, Shaniz West was living peacefully in her Idaho home when police arrived, looking to arrest her ex-boyfriend. He wasn’t there, but West gave the police a key to her house, allowing them to enter and search. Rather than use the door, officers destroyed her home by smashing the windows and throwing enough tear gas canisters inside that her house was unlivable for two months– even the walls and ceiling were damaged. But were the officers fired? Sued? No, of course, not, because no one had ever allowed cops to enter their house and had to watch as they broke the windows and drowned it in tear gas. So, technically, there was no right for that not to happen. See the problem?

There’s a third issue: the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. This varies from state to state, but the goal is to give cops “extra protections when they’re investigated for abuse of force” (Washington Post). Let’s pretend I’m filing a complaint against Officer Smith. Here are some of the rights granted to him as a cop, but not to me as a public citizen:

  1. If the department decides to pursue the complaint, they must first tell Officer Smith and his union. This gives him a heads-up and a team to back him. If I want someone to help me with the case, I need to pay out of pocket for a lawyer.
  2. He also gets a “cooling off” period before having to undergo questioning. Wouldn’t this give him (and the union helping him) extra time to get his story straight, portraying him as the good guy? If public citizens get arrested, they get questioned right away.
  3. Officer Smith can only be questioned at a “reasonable” time. (Compare that to anyone else– if you’re arrested for assault at 1 AM, you’re being questioned at 1:30.)
  4. This one stands out the most to me– if Officer Smith is threatened during interrogation, nothing he says after that can be used against him. However, cops are able to threaten other suspects with legal action in order to get a confession. Pretty big difference, right?

Those are the Three Musketeers of preventing police accountability: the Blue Wall of Silence, qualified immunity, and the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. Surprise surprise, police unions are the common denominator that had each implemented. But does it end there? No, of course not.

Police unions also make sure that cops don’t have to pay a single dime in court. So when officers appear before a judge, who takes care of the payouts and legal fees? Taxpayers. Chicago citizens in 2018 picked up a check of over $113 million for the police– $85 million of that went into misconduct lawsuits, and the other $28 million went to outside lawyers used to defend their cases. Meanwhile, the officers being charged paid nothing. So as they were defended by the Blue Wall, qualified immunity, and the Bill of Rights, their pockets enjoyed protection as well. This is far from rare, though– taxpayers in America regularly foot the bill for the same police departments who hurt them.

Police unions need to be subject to some form of checks and balances. Just as each branch of government is held accountable by the others, police officers also need to be prevented from gaining too much power over citizens. With too much power, what stops the badge meant to protect from becoming a bullet meant to harm?

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