Unions are designed to create power, using a variety of tools that can only be achieved with collective action: the threat of strikes, lawsuits, bad press, boycotts, etc. Police unions function differently because their members already hold power individually, as armed agents of the state.
All government is based, whether directly or indirectly, in the threat of physical force. Max Weber defines the state as “that human community which (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory.” In the most direct manifestation of this monopoly, police officers are the workers and safety is the public good being produced.
Theoretically, in a democracy it is supposed to be citizens who have the ultimate say in managing and benefiting from government workers. So why does it seem like civilians have little control over a body designed to take care of them? I argue that police unions are an overpowered anti-democratic force, distorting citizens’ access to information and what the “rule of law” actually is.
The power asymmetry that unions try to repair has two main causes: 1) asymmetry in resources and bargaining power, and 2) the difficulties involved with collective action. None of these are relevant for police unions.
To start off, both police and police unions are well funded, relied on by politicians seeking to look “tough on crime,” and have violence as a bargaining chip. This makes it relatively easy to threaten people into compliance already. Although American police officers are not allowed to strike, they regularly use work slowdowns (these are also technically illegal). These carry the threat of actual violence in the form of delayed responses to 911 calls.
This bargaining power is clear when you look at the unmatched depth of their union contracts. They get to limit the public’s access to information. In a 2017 review of 82 active police-union contracts in major American cities, a Reuters investigation reveals most “call for departments to erase disciplinary records, some after just six months.” Some even require the officer’s approval before making information about misconduct public. Many give police officers power to influence their own discipline by allowing them to look at complaints or charges against them before being interrogated, giving them time to get their stories straight. They often aren’t even required to have a vested interest in the community they serve. The P.B.A, a major police union, has prevented the reinstating of the N.Y.P.D’s residency requirement.
They also don’t meet the second need for a union. While they have the same challenges with collective action as any large organization, their “bosses,” the people, have an even bigger population. The people suffering from police violence in particular are widespread, vulnerable, and have little time/resources to organize. Police unions are centralized and benefit from having strict, long standing community norms that keep them sticking together. The hierarchy of police doesn’t fix this, since it also benefits the people at the top. The only checkback is the people they’re policing.
Giving a union’s power to such an already powerful organization has dire consequences, especially when their job is violence. A recent study found that after police departments unionized, there was no impact on crime rates or officer safety, but there was a “substantial increase” in police killings of civilians. Death is the worst harm to people’s agency.
There are ways to make police unions more conducive to democracy. Suggestions include limiting collective bargaining to non-disciplinary matters, mass firings after illegal slowdowns, opening bargaining sessions to the public, encouraging departments to have multiple unions, and federal prosecutions for persistent obstruction of justice. But the question remains – does the arm of state need another weapon?