By Walter Katz
Police unions rose in power partially in response to the civil unrest in urban neighborhoods in the 1960s. As unions gained political power, critics argue that they have frequently stood as obstacles to accountability-related reforms. One vehicle of the exercise of such power is through collective bargaining agreements negotiated between unions and public bodies representing cities and counties. Contracts that civilian policymakers negotiate with police unions shield officers from accountability for misconduct and excessive force. Through a lack of political will, expediency, and a lack of public transparency during negotiations, civilian leaders agree to contracts that, for example, erect obstacles to the filing of complaints, enact artificial time limits on investigations, and make it difficult for the public to have insight in whether and how officers are disciplined. The impact on poor Black, Brown and Indigenous communities can be profound. The members of such communities already face more aggressive policing yet are also distanced from the negotiations and political processes that shape labor agreements that shape those practices. Community members from such environments are deeply distrustful of not only law enforcement, but also government. Labor contracts negotiated by policymakers which shield officers from being held accountable for actions taken during the very exercise of the more aggressive policing visible in poorer communities do so at the cost of the marginalized public’s well-being. This paper proposes that members of low-income communities that experience high crime and over-policing have a meaningful role in a police union bargaining process that actively foments dialogue and participation. The aim could be brought about by narrowing the scope of bargaining, adopting steps to render the negotiation process more transparent, or by creating mechanisms that require the participation of community members in negotiations. More research is needed to test these potential solutions in these areas of participatory democracy and labor negotiations.
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Walter Katz, Beyond Transparency: Police Union Collective Bargaining and Participatory Democracy, 74 SMU L. Rev. 419 (2021)