Mises Wire

Do Public Unions Make Police More Dangerous?

Of all the factors that contribute to police brutality and misconduct, one that has been relatively neglected but has received a growing amount of attention is police unions. Their influence became harder to ignore after all of the anecdotes of police unions making it more difficult to investigate and discipline misconduct.

Notable examples include Pittsburgh officer Paul Abel, who, after being sucker-punched through his car window while driving under the influence, took off in pursuit of whom he thought had punched him, pistol-whipped him and accidentally shot him in the hand while doing so. He was fired but later reinstated through arbitration as allowed by his union contract. Oakland officer Hector Jimenez shot and killed two unarmed men on separate occasions, one of them in the back. Even though Oakland paid a $650,000 settlement and Jimenez was fired, he was reinstated by an arbitrator, who also decided he should be given back pay. The Baltimore officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray, according to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights which unions successfully lobbied for, could not be interrogated in the five business days after the death occurred. Obviously, this is very different from how any non-police officer is treated in the course of a homicide investigation.

While these stories may be anecdotal, more systematic research is supporting the idea that police unions contribute to greater amounts of officer misconduct. Earlier this month, Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard McAdams, and John Rappaport of the University of Chicago Law School provided an early draft of their research suggesting that collective bargaining among police agencies is associated with increases in the number of citizen complaints.

They exploited a legal change in Florida that provided a natural quasi-experiment to measure the effect that allowing collective bargaining among policing agencies has on complaints against the police, among other things. Prior to 2003, sheriff’s deputies (but not municipal police officers) in Florida were prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining, as they were considered appointees rather than employees. This changed with Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association v. Williams, where the court decided that sheriff’s deputies do have the right to engage in collective bargaining, any prior statute or legal decision notwithstanding. Thus, Dharmapala et al. had a treatment group (sheriff’s offices) that was affected by this legal change to compare with a control group (police departments) that was not affected.

The Williams decision led to substantial unionization among sheriff’s offices within three years, after which it stabilized. Using a difference-in-difference estimation lagged for three years and controlling for agency and year fixed effects, as well as an extensive set of other controls, Dharmapala et al. found that collective bargaining rights led the typical sheriff’s office to have a 27% increase in the number of complaints received.

The magnitude of this result is notable, given that Florida has a Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), which already provided substantial protections to sheriff’s deputies, and Florida is a right-to-work state, thus requiring unions to rely on voluntary dues from members. Florida’s LEOBOR provides officers and sheriff’s deputies a number of protections, including a 180-day statute of limitations on internal affairs investigations, a requirement that officers be provided all of the evidence against them prior to an interrogation, delays such interrogations until all other witnesses have been interviewed, limits the number of interrogators to one, prohibits that interrogator from using “offensive language” or threats of discipline or promise of reward, and prohibits civilian participation on complaint review boards. With such privileges, how can collective bargaining have such a large effect on misconduct?

Dharmapala et al. suggest that a possible causal mechanism is that some of Florida’s sheriff’s offices’ collective bargaining agreements go beyond Florida’s LEOBOR by providing sheriff’s deputies the ability to appeal disciplinary action to an arbitrator, thus decreasing management’s ability to discipline officers. As well, some collective bargaining agreements require that disciplinary records be expunged after a certain amount of time. This can be crucial, as arbitrators consider an officer’s work history when making their decisions on whether to uphold or overturn disciplinary actions.

Given the anecdotal evidence we have seen regarding the ability of arbitrators to allow police officers with demonstrably questionable decision-making ability to keep their jobs, perhaps it should not be surprising that they found collective bargaining agreements to have such a large effect. Those hoping to reform policing ought to keep this in mind. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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