clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How police unions became so powerful — and how they can be tamed

Over about half a century, police unions have become one of the most powerful lobbies in local government.

LAPD Chief of Police Michel Moore speaks with protesters in Los Angeles on May 30.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by now-former Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officer Derek Chauvin, few have been inclined to defend Chauvin or his colleagues who stood by and watched as he suffocated Floyd to death. Few, that is, except Bob Kroll.

In a letter to membership, Kroll — the president of the MPD’s police union — referred to protesters outraged by police brutality as a “terrorist movement” and defended the officers who killed Floyd and were subsequently fired, arguing they were “terminated without due process” and lamenting, “What is not being told is the violent criminal history of George Floyd.” (Floyd had a criminal record, but mostly for nonviolent drug and theft charges.)

Kroll’s statements illustrate a central challenge in American efforts to transform policing: Police unions, the groups that represent police officers, are a powerful force that stands in the way of holding police accountable. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told the New York Times that Kroll and his union are a major reason it’s hard to bring order to the Minneapolis Police Department, saying they create a “nearly impenetrable barrier” to reform.

It’s not just in Minneapolis. Around the country, as protesters take to the streets to condemn police violence and demand change, police unions have emerged as the protesters’ most vocal and implacable foe.

A man holds up a sign reading “Kroll Must Go” in Minneapolis on June 6. There have been calls for Minneapolis Police Union chief Bob Kroll to resign in the wake of the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by MPD officers.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In Buffalo, the city’s Police Benevolent Association president John Evans has actively defended officers who pushed 75-year-old protester Martin Gugino to the ground. When the officers who pushed Gugino were seen leaving their arraignment on felony assault charges, a large crowd of police union members and sympathizers was seen cheering them on. In New York State broadly, police unions led opposition to newly signed legislation that prevents police from hiding misconduct complaints and criminalizes chokeholds.

These are hardly aberrations. Police unions in general have become the most vocal interest group opposing criminal justice reforms and especially reforms to police discipline and use of force. Historically, they have, unlike most unions, been profoundly conservative institutions that uphold a particular white ethnic, “law and order”-focused variant of right-wing politics. They have been among Donald Trump’s most fervent allies; Kroll spoke at a Trump rally in 2018, and the International Union of Police Associations has already endorsed Trump for reelection.

The foregrounding of police unions’ role in the warping of American law enforcement has also prompted some difficult conversations on the left. The presence of a segment of a union movement that’s unapologetically right-wing and hostile to Black communities has tested the limits of solidarity from more left-wing unionists.

As long as police forces exist, police unions will exist in some form as well, even if just as political pressure groups. It is therefore natural to think that reforming police unions in some way must be part of the broader agenda of changing policing in America. They are among the biggest stakeholders in the way the system works now; without addressing their power, other reforms may never get off the ground.

A brief history of police, unions, and police unions

The creation of police unions was a somewhat ironic twist in American labor history, University of Minnesota labor historian Will Jones tells me, given that the creation of urban police forces was largely spurred by a desire to contain union activism and protest.

“The whole creation of the police force in the late 19th century was largely in response to labor conflict,” Jones says. Police departments emerged and evolved as adjuncts to the sheriff’s departments and private detective agencies (like the Pinkertons) that bosses typically enlisted to fight union activists.

The (rough) anniversary of the Haymarket affair of 1886, a protest against anti-union violence by police in which an unknown assailant threw a bomb at Chicago police and a firefight broke out, is still commemorated on May 1 as International Workers’ Day in numerous countries worldwide. Union demonstrators and police would square off repeatedly in ensuing decades: in Cleveland in 1894, Philadelphia in 1910, Minneapolis in 1934, Chicago in 1937, and Hilo, Hawaii, in 1938, among many other incidents.

People walk near the Haymarket Memorial in Chicago, Illinois. The memorial marks the spot of the Haymarket affair of 1886 where police fired on a crowd of labor demonstrators.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The anti-union role of police began to ebb in the first half of the 20th century with the coming of the New Deal and the Great Migration of Black workers from the South to Northern cities, says Aaron Bekemeyer, a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard whose dissertation documents the emergence of police unions in Philadelphia and nationally.

The New Deal, especially the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, legalized a lot of union activity, including strikes, and so shunted the task of managing labor conflict from local police to federal bureaucrats. The Great Migration, in turn, gave urban police another population to police, namely Black people. “Policing of Black neighborhoods, drug policing, gang policing become what these big-city police forces do,” Bekemeyer says.

The trend of allowing public sector unions began in New York City, when Mayor Robert Wagner Jr., the son of Sen. Robert Wagner who wrote the National Labor Relations Act, issued regulations that allowed collective bargaining by municipal employees in 1958. Wisconsin followed suit in 1959, and many states came after that. In 1962, the federal government under John F. Kennedy legalized collective bargaining for its employees. The spread of this idea helped fuel the growth of teachers unions, sanitation workers unions, and other public employee unions — including police unions.

The rise in violent crime in the 1960s, riots in places like Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and nationwide in 1968, and the rise of tough-on-crime policing targeted at Black neighborhoods also enhanced the political power of police unions: “The police unions say, ‘Hey, we’re the ones doing this work and protecting you, implied white listener, from dangerous Black people, and you need the gains unions need. Union interests are public interests,’” says Bekemeyer.

While the jobs are very different in obvious ways, the rhetoric parallels arguments that teachers unions under leaders like Al Shanker were making to the public around the same time: that the demands teachers were making would help students and parents too, and thus teachers deserve the public’s solidarity.

“The stakes are very different because the jobs are very different, but it’s useful to see the police union movement as one of the most successful examples of social movement unionism,” Bekemeyer notes.

Police unions and white ethnic conservatism

Police unionism is just a very different kind of social movement unionism than that involved in, say, collaborations between civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin and union leaders like United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther during the postwar years.

Bekemeyer notes that police officers, especially in the Northeast, tended disproportionately in the 1950s through 1970s to be working-class “white ethnic” conservatives: mostly Irish, but occasionally Italian or Polish, too. “It’s a broader white ethnic politics that uses the language of tradition, neighborhood integrity, hard work, etc., to defend segregated institutions that they benefit from, from schools to certain union jobs in the trade to religious institutions,” Bekemeyer says.

This pattern comes through across the country, but Bekemeyer’s case study of Philadelphia is instructive, largely because one specific politician there embodied this identity better than any other American official of the time: Frank Rizzo, who served as Philadelphia police commissioner from 1968 to 1971 and mayor from 1972 to 1980.

Frank Rizzo, seen here with President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1972, was Philadelphia’s police commissioner and later mayor. He vehemently fought integration in housing and education, and oversaw a regime of police brutality against Black citizens.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Rizzo was about as blatant a racist as led a major American city in the modern era. During his 1978 reelection bid, he urged supporters to “Vote White”; he fervently fought efforts to desegregate Philadelphia schools and build public housing in white neighborhoods. In a deposition, he stated he “considered public housing to be the same as Black housing in that most tenants of public housing are Black. Mayor Rizzo therefore felt that there should not be any public housing placed in White neighborhoods because people in White neighborhoods did not want Black people moving in with them.”

This extended to Rizzo’s governance of the police. He once famously declared that his treatment of protesters would “make Attila the Hun look like a fa**ot.” As commissioner, he ordered a raid on Black Panther headquarters in which suspects were publicly stripped in front of photographers, and at least once ordered police to beat stationary protesters with nightsticks.

On this, police unions were mostly a strong ally, echoing the role they would play in many cities as representatives of white ethnic conservative interests in ensuing decades. Alphonso Deal, a Black police officer in Philadelphia who began a separate union for Black officers who faced discrimination from leaders like Rizzo, once tried to run for the presidency of the Fraternal Order of Police local in the hope of breaking the police out of this mold, but Bekemeyer describes this attempt as “quixotic.” FOP was more interested in resisting affirmative action measures that it viewed as allowing officers who hadn’t “earned their place” to get in ahead of the white ethnics the union represented.

The Philadelphia case is especially vivid, but you see examples of this kind of behavior from police unions around the country from the 1960s to the present.

In one particularly glaring case, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (since renamed the Police Benevolent Association for gender equality reasons) rioted around City Hall against David Dinkins, New York City’s first and to date only Black mayor, to protest Dinkins’s plan to create a civilian review board to oversee the police. Ten thousand protesters, mostly off-duty cops, appeared, and more than 4,000 broke through police barricades, surrounded City Hall, and took over Brooklyn Bridge. Protesters hurled the n-word and other racial slurs at Black people nearby, including city councilor Una Clarke.

One hears similar rhetoric, albeit with the sharp edges sanded down a bit, out of police unions today. Their rhetoric remains rooted in the notion that police are the one barrier between civilization and chaos. “The scenes we witnessed earlier this month — burning police vehicles, looted storefronts and violent clashes between protesters and police officers — will remain etched in New Yorkers’ collective memory. They are symbols of a breakdown in our social contract that none of us want to see repeated,” Pat Lynch of New York City’s Police Benevolent Association declared in a statement on June 17.

Where police unions fit into use of force problems

It is perhaps not surprising, given both police unions’ historic conservatism and their charge of defending members against unjust or arbitrary discipline, that defending and preventing discipline against police who kill or wound unarmed civilians, particularly Black civilians, has become a major preoccupation of police unions since the Black Lives Matter movement’s emergence.

Tellingly, when the International Union of Police Associations endorsed Trump for president in late 2015, they specifically cited as a root cause what they viewed as the Democratic presidential candidate’s slander of Darren Wilson, the white officer who in 2014 shot 18-year-old Black teenager Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Every top Democrat currently running for this office has vilified the police and made criminals out to be victims,” union president Sam Cabral wrote. “Many of them still refer to the tragedy in Ferguson as a murder, despite the conclusions of every investigative inquiry to the contrary.” (A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson for murder, and the US Department of Justice declined to prosecute him for civil rights violations. However, the DOJ also found a pattern of racial bias and brutality in the Ferguson police department.)

In local cases, this attitude has translated to a defense of officers who kill or wound innocent civilians. The Louisville Metro Police Department has been limited to just announcing its “intention” to fire Brett Hankison, a detective who shot his gun 10 times during the raid that killed Breonna Taylor, rather than actually firing him outright. This limitation is largely because of the city’s contract with the police union, which gives Hankison multiple opportunities to appeal. He is first allowed a “pretermination hearing” with counsel, and then, once terminated, an appeal to the police merit board, of which Hankison himself is a member.

In extreme cases, this resistance to discipline has translated into “depolicing,” in which police forces cease making arrests as a protest against civilian leaders and activists whom they perceive as demonizing police.

The NYPD conducted a work slowdown in late 2014 and early 2015 over perceived disrespect from Mayor Bill de Blasio — though crime actually fell during the slowdown according to a subsequent study analyzing the period (but that might just be because the slowdown was limited to low-level offenses). PBA president Pat Lynch called for another slowdown in 2019 when the police commissioner fired officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner to death five years earlier.

In Baltimore, a police slowdown known as “the pullback” ensued after the district attorney indicted officers for the death of Freddie Gray in 2015; many analysts, like ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, attribute the 62 percent jump in homicides in 2015 at least in part to police just giving up on their jobs.

There is also some limited evidence that police unions themselves make use of force problems worse.

University of Chicago Law School’s Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard McAdams, and John Rappaport looked at a 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision that gave collective bargaining rights to sheriffs’ deputies. They use police departments, which were unaffected, as a control group, and find that in the wake of the decision, misconduct violations rose in sheriff’s offices but not in police departments. That suggests that collective bargaining itself caused a rise in misconduct, perhaps by making sheriff’s deputies feel like they could get away with it.

Another study by economists Rob Gillezeau, Jamein Cunningham, and Donna Feir, which has yet to be published but was discussed by one of its authors on NPR’s Planet Money podcast, used the varying times at which different states rolled out collective bargaining rights to police unions starting in the late 1950s to see if introducing police unions made a difference in police killings.

They found it did, Gillezeau told NPR:

We found that after officers gained access to collective bargaining rights that there was a substantial increase in killings of civilians — 0.026 to 0.029 additional civilians are killed in each county in each year, of whom the overwhelming majority are nonwhite. That’s about 60 to 70 per year civilians killed by the police in an era historically where there were a lot fewer police shootings. So that’s a humongous increase.

Another study by Oxford’s Abdul Rad found that police union contract provisions protecting police are correlated with greater police abuse, though the study warns that it’s hard to prove the relationship is causal.

Another way to look at this question is to examine the text of police union contracts. In 2018, Stephen Rushin, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago, examined 656 police union contracts and found that “the vast majority of these departments give police officers the ability to appeal disciplinary sanctions through multiple levels of appellate review. At the end of this process, the majority of departments allow officers to appeal disciplinary sanctions to an arbitrator selected, in part, by the local police union or the aggrieved officer.”

Rushin notes, “While each of these appellate procedures may be individually defensible, they combine in many police departments to create a formidable barrier to officer accountability.”

Rushin has found similar problems examining provisions of police contracts not related to the appeals process, including, for instance, rules giving officers a heads-up that they will be interviewed by internal affairs detectives or other investigators in a few days about a case of potential wrongdoing. “Most people, including myself, would say if you provide officers with delays telling them we’ll interview you in two days, that probably is a barrier to accountability,” Rushin told me.

“Notifying that you’re about to talk gives them time to compare stories” and potentially come up with fake alibis or other lies. It’s a subtle matter, however: Notification that enables an officer to obtain legal representation seems like an essential due process provision, but notification long enough to enable cover stories goes too far.

Much of the difficulty in studying police unions is in how to think about these kinds of provisions, Rushin told me. “One thing I’ve learned going through this process is what one person calls due process, another person calls a problematic provision,” he says. “A lot is in the eye of who’s doing the coding.”

Police unions pose unique challenges for the labor left

Beyond the difficulty police unions present as a state and local policy matter, they pose a particularly grave challenge to the labor movement at large.

The American left and labor have been close allies for more than a century, and often the struggle for racial equality and labor rights went hand in hand (see, for instance, A. Philip Randolph, whose Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organized Black passenger train stewards to fight for both Black equality and economic gains).

Some on the left want to abolish both police and the unions who organize them. Kim Kelly, a labor journalist and vocal activist within Writers Guild of America, East (of which I am also a member), led the charge to push police unions out of the labor movement in a New Republic article. Activism from her and others led WGA-E to call on its parent federation, the AFL-CIO, to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations.

Some veteran labor lawyers and academic labor activists are also opening up to the idea of sharply limiting police union power, recognizing this as an unusual case.

A group of faculty at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school — Ifeoma Ajunwa, Virginia Doellgast, Shannon Gleeson, Kate Griffith, and Verónica Martínez-Matsuda — argued in a public statement that the labor movement “must also acknowledge that contemporary police unions have contributed to racism.” Benjamin Sachs, the Kestenbaum professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School and a leading voice in labor law debates, published a blog post suggesting openness to limiting what issues police unions can legally bargain over, perhaps excluding from bargaining matters like discipline for police who beat or kill civilians.

“The consequence of police abusing [collective bargaining] power is that people end up dead,” Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law and a member of the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama, told me. “That is happening at a significant rate and that’s just a completely different context from the rest of the public sector” or unionism generally.

So far, these efforts have come to little. The AFL-CIO itself has firmly resisted calls to disaffiliate, and no limitations on police unions were included in House Democrats’ call to reform policing.

Moreover, there are many in the labor movement who think calls for purging or outlawing police unions go much too far and risks endangering other public sector workers, like teachers, whose collective bargaining rights have been threatened in recent decades.

“If you look back at prior incidents in American labor history where labor groups kicked out other labor groups over fundamental disagreements about strategy, about priorities, it generally didn’t turn out well for the cause of labor,” Catherine Fisk, a law professor at UC Berkeley and a prominent voice on labor law, told me.

Ideas for fixing the police union problem

There are two extremes on the police union debate. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the attitude of local police union leaders like Pat Lynch and Bob Kroll, who state they are open to reform while in practice they fight almost every measure, even mild ones, meant to rein in police misconduct.

On the other is abolishing police and police unions, as advocated from the left by labor radicals like Kelly, or simply abolishing the unions, as advocated by many right-wing opponents of public sector unions generally. If police still existed in this world, they would of course be allowed to form organizations that advocated for their interests. But police departments would not be obliged to negotiate with those organizations on pay and discipline, as they are in most unionized jurisdictions today.

Pat Lynch, president of the NYC Police Benevolent Association, has fought reform measures that seek to rein in police misconduct.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Most police union experts I spoke with, though, fell in the middle: They believe that police unions can be usefully reformed without being abolished.

There are a number of possible models for this kind of reform. The organization Campaign Zero, co-founded by activists DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe, has been a leader in pushing for police union contract transparency; much of the research above relies on contracts they’ve surfaced publicly.

They recommend a bevy of contract changes, most of which involve removing provisions included in many union contracts or state laws known as Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights (LEOBRs), which provide similar protections to police officers as contracts do but are implemented as state legislation instead. Problematic provisions in contracts and LEOBRs include mandates that delay interrogations of officers (as Rushin highlighted), the ability to appeal to an arbitrator partially chosen by the police union, and bans on investigating misconduct that happened more than 100 days in the past.

Rushin has proposed allowing the public to observe collective bargaining between the police and state governments. That way, the public can exert pressure on city leaders not to yield to police union demands about discipline. A 2017 Reuters investigation found that in a number of cities, such as San Antonio, city leaders have given police unions concessions as an explicit trade-off for not offering high pay or limiting pay cuts. “If that trade-off is publicly visible, that our failure to compensate is causing cities to give significant concessions on discipline,” Rushin notes, then public pressure might force the city to increase police salaries rather than reducing accountability.

L. Song Richardson, the dean of UC Irvine School of Law and an eminent criminal law expert, and Berkeley’s Catherine Fisk have proposed a system of “minority unionism” for police departments. The idea is to use the increasing racial diversity of many police departments to push for useful reforms by enabling the creation of groups like, say, a Black Lives Matter organization within a police department that also has the right to bargain around disciplinary issues with the department.

Multiracial coalitions opposed to the current police union leadership could also form and gain power; Richardson and Fisk note that PBA president Pat Lynch faced energetic reelection challenges in the wake of his inflammatory statements about Eric Garner’s killing, suggesting a real minority within the NYPD was dissatisfied with his leadership. Black police officers, in polling data, seem to have vastly different political beliefs and are much more sympathetic to claims of racial discrimination than white officers. Pew Research Center found that while 92 percent of white officers say the US has “made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites”; only 29 percent of Black officers agree.

Beyond minority unionism, Fisk has another idea to better align cities’ incentives in bargaining: using Congress to partially overrule Monell v. Department of Social Services, a relatively obscure 1978 Supreme Court decision that among other holdings found that local governments cannot be forced to pay up in civil suits due to the actions of their employees.

Suppose that a FedEx deliveryperson pushed you onto the sidewalk, causing a head injury when you fell. The deliveryperson would be liable in a civil suit, and so would FedEx. But it’s different with government. Qualified immunity generally protects police officers and other public employees from lawsuits; meanwhile, a principle called “vicarious liability” protects police departments and city governments from such lawsuits. Fisk argues that Congress should reverse Monell and allow governments to be held liable for police officers’ misconduct.

The most dramatic reform, short of outright abolishing collective bargaining rights for police unions, is one that Harvard’s Sachs suggested sympathy toward and the Boston Globe has editorialized in favor of: limiting police unions to simply bargaining on wages and hours, not on discipline. This change is already the law in Massachusetts. (Fisk argues this would go too far. “There’s two sides to the contract; why are we focused only on what unions are asking for rather than focusing on what cities are asking for?” she says.)

Reforming police unions is hardly the only important task in efforts to reform the police generally. But there is an emerging consensus that something significant has to change in these organizations. If not, they will remain unaccountable lobbies that frustrate even mild efforts to reform police departments and save the lives of unarmed civilians.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.


1 winner and 3 losers from Fox’s dud of a second GOP debate


The second GOP debate: September 27, 2023


The Republican debate is fake

View all stories in Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.