Police Unions: What Role Do They Play in Police Violence?

As we continue our discussions of police violence, one policy objective we should be focused on is how to critically assess and evaluate the power held by police unions.

One week after the murder of George Floyd, Bob Kroll, the President of the Minneapolis Police Union released a statement claiming that the four officers responsible for the death of Mr. Floyd had been fired without due process. In response, the Minneapolis AFL-CIO – the Minneapolis labor union, made up of 175 local, affiliate unions, put out a statement condemning the murder, and calling for the resignation of Bob Kroll.

As we’ve all been witness to over the past several weeks, we have now seen the largest racial equality protests in American history since the killing of Dr. King in 1968. Each year more than 1,00 people are killed by police. This number is extremely high for a developed country. For example, an American citizen is 60x more likely to be killed by a police officer than is a resident of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, a Black American is 3x more likely to be killed by a police officer than their white American counterparts.

In a recent study, researchers found that as police unions began to form in the 1950s, .026 -.029 additional people would be killed by the newly unionized police force. This translates into an additional 60-70 people per year, per police force. Police officers argue that despite these numbers, the real purpose of these protections granted by the union is for officer safety. However, when examining officers killed in the line of duty, there seems to be no change when comparing unionized police forces vs. pre-unionization. Similarly, crime rates see no change as a result of the local police force being unionized.

Police Unions often operate by bargaining for protections that other unions don’t offer. Several examples include:

  • When a use-of-force incident takes place, unions often bargain for legal representation
  • When a use-of-force incident takes place, unions bargain for an extended amount of time between the   incident and when the officer must make a statement for the record
  • When a use-of-force incident takes place, unions bargain for special conditions under which questioning occurs, including how often the officer is allowed to stop and take breaks
  • When a use-of-force incident takes place, unions bargain for special conditions that restrict public access to footage from the scene
  • When a use-of-force incident takes place, unions bargain for restrictions on an officer’s record being released, despite the fact that the victim is often smeared by releasing prior criminal history and/or substance or mental illness history

Police unions answer to local and/or state governments. As a citizen, you have power over the police union via your vote. Ask your candidates these questions. Vote for candidates with plans to critically assess and evaluate the power held by police unions. The systems are in place to create change, but we must be diligent in our efforts to utilize them.

For more information, be sure to check out NPR’s Planet Money episode on the topic.

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