Police associations, also known as police unions, maintain power and influence for police in local cities.
What are police unions? Do they act the same as other work unions?
Police unions are associations that advocate on behalf of cops in four major areas: police contract negotiations, disciplinary proceedings, politics, and shaping the public perception of police.
Because of their classification as public sector unions, police associations benefit from state laws that determine which public workers have the right to collectively bargain, dictate what unions are allowed to bargain over, and what happens when both sides can't come to an agreement. A significant amount of their power and legitimacy stems from the public’s conflation between police associations and actual labor unions. Yet scholars, activists, and labor academics have all urged the public to confront the reality that police associations and labor unions are two different entities.
How do police contracts protect cops?
Police unions represent cops in employment contract negotiations with government officials. When confronted with any threats to police power and authority, police unions run the gamut of legal, political, and media strategies to protect policing. By threatening things like work slow downs and mass resignations, police unions use these negotiations to create unique protections for cops that make it difficult to discipline officers. They do so by including contractual terms that:
- Disqualify complaints against officers submitted too many days after an incident
- Keep police from being interrogated immediately after an incident and detail how, when, or where they can be interrogated
- Give officers access to information that civilians don’t get prior to being interrogated
- Require cities to pay costs related to police misconduct including giving officers paid leave while under investigation, paying legal fees, and/or the cost of settlements
- Prevent the retention or disclosure of past misconduct records
- Create grievance and arbitration rules that let police challenge, and potentially overrule, any disciplinary action they might be subject to
How do police unions protect officers from discipline?
Law enforcement can rely on police unions to cover any expenses they accrue when subject to discipline, including lawsuits, by paying monthly or annual fees to a police union. In turn, police unions provide officers with the financial and legal support they need to guide them through any disciplinary proceedings and avoid liability.
In what ways are police unions influential?
Police unions spend millions of dollars on political activities like lobbying and campaign fundraising to influence criminal legal policy. They support electoral campaigns for tough on crime prosecutors (who are less likely to prosecute police for misconduct), advocate for state and federal laws (like local Law Enforcement Bill of Rights legislation that add to police impunity or Blue Lives Matter laws that perpetuate the myth that police are the real victims of violence and discrimination ), and more. Police unions also directly sue government bodies that pass legislation weakening police power and impunity, using any arguments they can to prevent these policies from being enacted.
Police unions fund and provide officers resources like “killology” trainings that reinforce the narrative that police are necessary guardians operating in “war zones.” Police unions also use fear mongering techniques to villanize social movements and victims of police violence in the media. They openly referred to groups like Black Lives Matter as terrorist organizations, have threatened work slowdowns after officers like Daniel Pantaleo (who murdered Eric Garner in 2014) were fired, and make comments like “act like a thug, you’ll be treated like a thug,” after 12-year Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer.
How do Police Unions Impact Local Organizing?
As communities across the country have begun thinking of new ways to create community safety and address harm without police, police unions have challenged their efforts at every turn.
- In the summer of 2020, Los Angeles County residents passed Measure J. Approved by 57% of voters, the measure directed the county to invest 10% of its unrestricted funds into alternatives to policing and incarceration. After a lawsuit from a coalition of law enforcement unions, and despite intense opposition from activists and county officials, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge found that the measure interfered with the county supervisors’ budgetary discretion and declared Measure J. invalid.
- In 2020, the city of Austin, Texas voted to cut police spending from 40% of its $1.1 billion general fund to approximately 26%. The Austin police funds were set to be reallocated to emergency medical services for COVID-19, community medics, mental health first responders, and other services. In response, The Texas Municipal Police Association created highway billboards displaying the words, “Warning! Austin Police Defunded, Enter at Your Own Risk” and “Limited Support Next 20 Miles,” in an attempt to perpetuate the idea that cuts to police lead to increases in violence.
- In 2022, the Washington D.C., Fraternal Order of Police launched an advertising campaign to “raise awareness of the public safety crisis in the District of Columbia and the responsibility that elected officials have for making it worse.” In their campaign materials, including videos on social media, the police association claimed city council members and their efforts to defund the police led to a crime wave in the city.