For Any Meaningful Police Reform, We Need to Curb the Power of Police Unions

By Abe Nelson 

Months after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, calls to transform the systemically racist criminal justice system continue across the United States. The grassroots movement to reduce police violence against marginalized groups, especially Black people, has been the driving force behind dozens of cities and several states instituting policies to constrain police power. The movement also yielded success on numerous ballot measures like Proposition E in San Francisco, which eliminated a minimum police department staffing requirement, and helped elect reformist prosecutorial and sheriff candidates in 2020. 

Despite this surging movement, police killed over 1,000 people in the U.S. in 2020 (including a disproportionate number of Black victims), just as they have annually for years. Moreover, although COVID-19 yielded unprecedented social isolation measures, fatal police shootings continued at the same rate in the first six months of 2020 as they did in the same period from 2015 – 2019. 

This begs the question – why, amidst a global pandemic, an enormous movement for racial justice, and widespread criminal justice system scrutiny, do U.S. police continue to kill far more civilians than officers in other industrialized countries

One key reason is the insidious power that police unions wield to squash accountability for officers while simultaneously crushing political opposition. Criminal justice reforms that advocate for change, whether divesting funds from police budgets to invest them in social services, or simply increasing accountability, can be undermined by these powerful entities. Unless police unions’ clout is curbed, specifically the means they use to thwart reform via collective bargaining, lobbying, and bullying, no number of marches or government task forces will be able to meaningfully reduce police violence. 

The most immediate issue with police unions is contractual provisions negotiated to shield accountability in misconduct cases. As the Washington Post summarized, “officers in unionized police forces are more likely to be the subject of an excessive force complaint, but more likely to beat the allegations in disciplinary hearings.” Moreover, a 2003 Florida State Supreme Court decision allowing sheriff’s deputies to unionize led to a 40% spike in violent misconduct cases amongst unionized forces.

The abuse of protections afforded by unionization alone does not explain oppressive police behavior, but it does help limit discipline when misconduct occurs. A 2017 Duke Law Review article found that nearly 90% of inspected contracts have at least one provision allowing complex appeals processes or independent arbitration to overturn or reduce discipline instituted by police departments. Such shields help explain why 45% of officers fired for misconduct between 2006 – 2017 were rehired on appeal. Additionally, fired officers can use companies like Law Enforcement Move, which offers the chance to “escape anti-police cities, and live in America, again,” to find new jurisdictions where their records may not block them from patrol.

To ensure that cities continually negotiate contracts that include accountability-squashing provisions, police unions pour millions into campaigns and lobbying. Notably, the Guardian identified $47.3 million worth of federal donations from police unions in NYC, Los Angeles, and Chicago in recent election cycles on top of $87 million worth of donations in state and local lobbying over the past two decades. 

Donations have granted unions substantial political clout which can be reinforced with bullying. In 2008 the magazine Police Beat wrote an article telling police unions to, “make their [politicians’] lives a living hell. . . . Get dirty and fight to win.” This tactic has manifested countless times in recent years. For example, on top of portraying Black Lives Matter protestors as a leftist mob, NYC’s Sergeants Benevolent Association doxed Mayor de Blasio’s daughter when she was arrested at a protest and called a city council member a “first-class whore.” Elsewhere, a St. Louis, MO police union rep called their circuit attorney a menace who should be removed “by force or choice” while the St. Paul, MN police union leader blamed the city’s first Black mayor for contributing to gun violence when firearms were stolen from his home. 

This forceful blend of cash and cruelty helps police unions keep policymakers in line. Their influence explains why their contracts often include clauses shielding police unions from financial accountability, such as requiring cities to pay for misconduct settlements. The 20 largest U.S. cities have spent $2 billion on police misconduct costs since 2015 while some have had to use millions of tax dollars for interest payments on costly bonds issued to cover misconduct bills.

To be clear, police officers deserve the right to unionize and collectively bargain. However, to say that enjoying fundamental worker protections allows police union members to avoid consequences when they brutalize the citizens they are supposed to protect and serve is to cower behind an erroneous version of labor solidarity. Collective bargaining rights do not grant a free pass to break the law. For example, unions that historically excluded immigrants or people of color received pressure to become more inclusive. Police unions should be similarly pressured to surrender contract provisions that allow unjustified, often racially-biased, violence to go frequently unpunished. 

Enshrining real police accountability in law and doctrine will require policymakers eliminating problematic provisions from expiring police union contracts and revising or repealing ‘Law Enforcement Bill of Rights’ laws which can limit discipline statewide. Momentum is underway. A 2020 U.S. Conference of Mayors report pinpointed reforming police departments through union contract collective bargaining. This approach has been embraced by police chiefs in cities like Cincinnati as a means of increasing departmental disciplinary control and Minneapolis where the chief broke off negotiations with the local union for blocking reform and eroding community trust.

Ultimately, true reform will require persuading politicians that a majority of their constituents view police unions as a central piece of criminal justice reform. Unless they take on police unions directly, neither painting Black Lives Matter on a street nor offering thoughts and prayers, will be sufficient to quench advocate demands. For their part, advocates should recognize that, whatever reforms they call for on poster boards at marches, systemic change necessitates police union reform. Failing that, these entities will continue to frustrate progress. 

Reigning in police unions is a meaningful step in any criminal justice reform-related campaign’s theory of change. Advocates would be wise to center it and employ strategies that undermine the immense political power police unions enjoy.


Abe Nelson is a second-year MPA student at NYU Wagner, staff writer for NYU Wagner Review, and Co-Director of NYU Vote 2020. At Wagner he has worked as a graduate student intern with the ACLU’s National Political Advocacy Department and as a research assistant on the data team at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy. Prior to enrolling at Wagner, he interned on the cultural engagement and research teams at Everytown for Gun Safety and worked as a program associate in the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Kenyon College.