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Are unions the prime determinants of police behavior?

To say the obvious, police unions do a lot of awful things, including lobbying for “3 strikes” laws, opposing civilian oversight and body cameras, defending people who shouldn’t be defended, etc.

But it’s a mistake to believe that these things come from police unions, against the wishes of kinder-hearted mayors and governors, or that getting rid of police unions would eliminate a lot of the problems of police brutality. Police are banned from striking, so anything in their contracts is either negotiated with management or decided by a neutral arbitrator.  And while they have some political power, the money of the police union is not enough to elect someone to office, so they don’t control who the mayor or city council is. These things exist primarily because they’re rational for maintaining the social order of our economic system.

As others here have said, the primary function of the police is to protect property rather than people. More specifically, it is to contain and repress the anxiety and anger caused by economic desperation. It is also to clear out low-income areas for gentrification, and broadly to police the borders between higher-income and poor parts of town. As the economy gets more unequal and a growing proportion of people fall into increasingly desperate economic straits, more and/or more aggressive policing is needed to accomplish this goal. There are definitely things that bad police unions add to the equation that are terrible and should be undone. But it’s important to understand what is ultimately driving the hyper-policing we’re seeing.

Understanding this also means looking at police violence not as the result of individual or cultural racism that needs to be undone by education or deep introspection, but as a product of the economic order we’re living in. So, for instance, someone working in the real estate industry can either think “those cops are racist assholes, but I’m committed to anti-racist education” or can think “when I help ‘turn around’ ‘up-and-coming’ neighborhoods, my work is helping create the need for police violence.”

One way to think about the power of police unions is to imagine a counter-factual. Suppose, somehow, there was a very progressive police union in some big city, and in their contract negotiations they proposed that their work should be based on protecting people regardless of income, which would mean they would spend a lot of time making sure that housing projects and trailer parks are safe for the people who live there, and would pull a lot of resources out of downtown and rich neighborhoods. Does anyone believe that police unions have the power to force a contract like this, one that runs against the logic of economic power?

Beyond hypothetical counterfactuals, one can just look at the numbers. There are five states where it is illegal for police to engage in collective bargaining—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. But these states are no better than anyplace else in terms of police repression, brutality and murders. In 2013-2019, police in Tennessee killed 4 people for every 100,000 in the general population, and 5.5 per every 100,000 among black people. By comparison, here are the rates for general population and black people in some states with pretty strong collective bargaining: NY 1.1/3.3; Michigan 1.7/4.2; Connecticut 1.4/2.7. In 2014-2018, Memphis saw a 500% increase in police killings, and Charlotte saw a 400% increase; by comparison, Columbus Ohio was 160%; and Annaheim, Denver, and Portland—all collective bargaining states—saw an increase of about 100%. So there is no correlation between the presence of police unions and the incidence of police brutality. Police brutality exists primarily because it is functional for the dominant economic and political class.

Finally, it’s important to note that, while I would be fine with the AFL-CIO kicking the police unions out, a lot of what’s being said on the left now echoes the lines from the right, such as this piece from the umbrella corporate lobby, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which quotes MLK, says government is the source of racism, points to charter schools as a positive example of combatting racism through privatization, and calls for reining in or abolishing police unions. Here the people who oppose minimum wage, sick leave, Medicaid expansion, public transportation, or the right to sue over race or sex discrimination on the job now appear as the champions of the victims of police brutality, in rallying everyone against police unions. Of course the fact that one’s beliefs may be echoed by those on the right for nefarious reasons doesn’t mean they’re wrong—but it’s a cautionary note to think about where we’re putting our political energy in addressing racist police violence.

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