The police are an integral part of our communities, representing what many consider to be one of few legitimate roles of government: protecting rights and ensuring liberty through the enforcement of laws designed to keep the peace. They are public servants who have sworn an oath to serve and protect their community, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves. While the calling is a noble one, few people would choose the day-to-day work of a police officer for themselves or their children. We should always be grateful that men and women in our nation are willing to do this job. We must focus on who they are and what they represent as we consider any policy or legislative action that would affect them. We should also beware of those who claim to speak for them.
Though I retired from law enforcement several years ago, the police are still my heroes. My father was a police officer, and after being hired at the age of twenty-one, I spent most of my adult life as one. There is no group I identify more with; no profession I find more honorable; and no greater pain I feel than the loss of a brother or sister in the line of duty. I do not need to have known the officers personally to know what they were about. Very few professions share this kind of intimacy on a universal basis. Police officers share the same values, go through much of the same training, experience similar events, and see things that we would prefer to forget. We would risk our lives for each other or for a stranger. The badge tells me most of what I need to know about you if you are wearing one.
I say all of this in order to establish my authority for what I am about to critique. I was a member of a police union as a patrolman. In Illinois, that choice was made for me and the dues collected for my membership were compelled by law. I currently research policing policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation because I am passionate about preserving and improving a profession I adore and not as some outside abolitionist seeking to tear down the institution, of which there are many. Every policy recommendation I make considers the community and the police, from a perspective that only a former cop can have.
I recently read an op-ed from the Texas Municipal Police Association (TMPA) directed at the incoming 86th Legislature, claiming to discuss “public safety issues.” The article frustrated me. It frustrated me as a citizen, a voter, and as a former cop. In order to understand why, here is a little tutorial on police unions (or associations as we tend to call them in right-to-work Texas).
A police union is no less a labor union than those found in other professions. It is singularly focused on one thing: membership. A union rarely concerns itself with the cost to the employer, the quality of products or services, or any of the other things that the employer must consider to stay in business. Anything that negatively affects the membership numbers is opposed; anything that might limit or diminish future membership is opposed. This is not a criticism, that is their function—and they do it well. Where it becomes frustrating is when they pretend to speak for their membership as individuals or for the profession at large.
The right-of-center leanings of the law enforcement profession often collide philosophically with the left-leaning politics of unions, making a police union an oddity in itself. This relationship highlights the contrast in union priorities from the priorities of individual members because they are sometimes in opposition to one another. The union supports legislation that will increase membership and opposes legislation or legislators that might threaten it. Because union issues and conservative issues are almost never the same, political endorsements by the union tend to run contrary to the voting preferences of many police officers. This would not be problematic in and of itself, except that the union is often mistakenly looked at as representative of the membership.
The article by TMPA illustrates how this misunderstanding can leveraged. The author writes: “To our new Texas Legislators: Congratulations on your election!” as the opening sentence, leaving no doubt who they are lobbying. Just in case those legislators were inclined not to listen, the author then notes that TMPA has 28,000 members and is the largest law enforcement association in Texas. What does the author say are the union’s concerns this session? Keeping Texas safe of course. Let’s examine how the union proposes legislators can help with this.
According to the union, the first thing that must happen to ensure the continued safety of Texans is…protecting police officer benefits. The second most important is…protecting police pensions. That’s correct, the first two things the union prioritizes are a redundancy in benefit protections under the admonition that it is a public safety issue. Do not ask how this is a public safety issue, the union proclaims it is so.
The third demand actually does get into a policing issue. The author states:
“Ensuring the law continues to side with the innocent and law-abiding, rather than the guilty and corrupt, is also critical to our success. It is in this spirit that we oppose reductions in arrest authority for class C misdemeanors.”
For the uninitiated, legislation to disallow police officers from taking physical custody—i.e. handcuffed, taken to police station, processed, post bond, etc.—of a person who committed an offense that would not have jail as a possible punishment if convicted was proposed last session and is again proposed this session. It is opposed by the union. The custodial arrest of someone for a crime that carries a fine-only punishment is more punitive than the courts could impose if the person were later convicted. This stance seems quite incongruous with the author’s proclamation later in the same article that:
“We have no issue with the current movement to reduce penalties for nonviolent offenders, because we want to successfully reintegrate these offenders into society. But those who are a threat to our safety and the public should not receive reduced penalties.”
The police enforce the laws that the legislators give them, it’s as simple as that. That they might have some vested interest in those laws resides solely in their capacity as interested private citizens and members of the community, not in their official capacity as law enforcers. If this is viewed in its proper context, then what is the union’s interest in such a prohibition on handcuffing and transporting citizens for minor offenses? The answer is simple: the union will reflexively oppose anything that could create a potential disciplinary situation for its membership. Telling the police they can’timplies a potential consequence for them if they do, something that could affect the unions’ membership (police officers tend to stop paying their union dues if they get fired). The concern is not about public safety, it is about the preservation of membership.
Last legislative session, HB 603 would have required a fitness standard for hiring police officers and continuing standards met throughout their careers. The only testimony in opposition of the bill came from the police unions. Why? It could affect the membership by disciplining or firing officers who can no longer physically do the job—meaning the union’s concern was not for the safety or fitness of the officer but for the continued employment of those paying dues to the union. Consider the union’s opposition in light of the fact that a fit officer uses less sick time, is more likely to feel secure in dealing with the public (which can also reduce or minimize use of force incidents), and is better able to perform the most demanding aspects of his or her job. When union issues and public safety collide, the union takes the side of the union—every time.
Next item on the union’s agenda? Civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which government accuses one’s property of involvement in criminal activity, seizes the property, and keeps it. The process is heard in civil court, where the burden of proof is much lower than a criminal court. Ending civil asset forfeiture as it is currently practiced has only been proposed by replacing it with of criminal asset forfeiture, which means that the owner must be convicted of an actual crime before the government keeps his or her property. Not content with limiting the government’s ability to take an individual’s property, the author states:
“This only helps the drug cartels that are exploiting our porous border and wreaking carnage in our cities. It is clear the asset forfeiture law that allows law enforcement to seize vehicles and other property of criminal drug gangs reduces crime in our cities.”
Have you noticed the reduction in drugs, gangs, cartels, and carnage that has been the result of taking property without convicting anyone of a crime? Pardon my skepticism, I just do not see the connection. What I do see is that some agencies and prosecutor’s offices have become dependent on a steady flow of forfeiture money as part of their budgetary requirements. Any limiting mechanism on that income might affect the unions’ membership through an inability to hire more officers or get better benefits (recall their number one priority for public safety, according to the article). Property rights be damned, the union needs an employer with more resources for its members’ benefits.
Keeping in mind that the author states that all of these demands are for the safety of Texans, the unions’ final concern is to make sure that payroll deduction of an officer’s union dues is “protected”. Unions do not want police officers to decide every pay period if they want to continue contributing to the union by paying them directly, leaving the collection of union dues out of the hands of government. Without this, the author says the union could not “continue to support Little League Baseball & Softball programs, Blue Santa and many other charitable causes within their communities.” It is all about the children, you see. No union dues means no Santa, no public safety.
In closing, I ask only that police unions be seen for what they are and what they represent. I have been critical of police unions only where they veer outside of their lane. They bring voice to our police officers’ concerns for working conditions and protection from arbitrary and unfair discipline—and for that they are to be commended. However, they should not be confused with representing law enforcement officers as individuals or public safety in general, and the unions’ concerns should be viewed through a clear eye for what they seek and not clouded by platitudes or misrepresentation.