Police Unions Do Not Protect Bad Officers

Much is being made recently about the role police labor organizations have played in officer discipline and other political activity. Most of the claims are anecdotal and part of the ongoing attempt to smear and disparage the American police officer. Being ignorant and uninformed is no justification for criticizing law enforcement agencies for retaining an officer because of the discipline process that is codified in law.

The same politicians taking cheap shots at agencies for retaining an officer with a lengthy record of complaints fail to inform the public that the process for disciplining an officer is codified in collective bargaining agreements that politicians themselves, including the mayor, signed onto. None of these agreements can occur without city approval. So if there is displeasure with how difficult it is to terminate an officer, the politicians should look in the mirror.

Much was made over the fact that the Minneapolis Police Department officer directly involved in the video that depicted him with his knee on the neck of George Floyd has 18 conduct complaints. I was interviewed extensively on cable news about this, to which I responded, “So?” Unless I know the particulars of each case, it is irrelevant to me.

Several things are noteworthy here. As former sheriff of Milwaukee County, I was responsible for the good conduct of my officers. After a personnel investigation was conducted, I ruled on what an appropriate disposition was. It ranged from unfounded, retraining, a suspension or termination. I had to consider all of these before my decision and I would have to defend the decision in the appeal process if the employee appealed my decision to a county personnel review board. State law creates these tribunals. These boards are all in on what is called progressive discipline. In other words, is there a lesser discipline that is appropriate. Termination is a severe recommendation. It has legal implications. After this step, the case can be appealed to state and federal court and in rare cases could end up back in the US Supreme Court like the Cleveland Board of Education v Loudermill case did. It applied due process rights to public sector employees in disciplinary cases.

The other thing that is noteworthy is that no other public sector employee is exposed to people on a daily basis like a police officer is. That contact is usually under less than pleasant circumstances. Not only that, no other public agency encourages and solicits complaints from people like police agencies do. In fact, they advertise it. No other public employee faces that. The teachers union is probably the largest public sector entity. School officials and school boards do not encourage parents or students to make complaints against teachers even though they probably should.

For this reason, it is totally understandable for cops to have representation from a labor organization for alleged complaints made against them. Uninformed blowhards like to claim that police unions make it impossible to fire a police officer and that they protect bad cops. That is a bunch of uninformed BS. Again, the law comes into play. Officers have what are called Weingarten Rights, a 1975 case that guarantees them union representation during an investigation. The US Supreme Court established this right and cops are entitled to it. In fact, if a union does not represent the employee, the employee, who by the way pays union dues for this representation, could sue the union for failure to represent. In other words, the union is doing what it is required to do by law. The unions don’t get to pick and choose which officers they will aggressively represent.

Ironically, the same agenda-driven people, many of whom despise police, who think it should be easy to fire cops, are the same ones who support leniency for criminals, support second chance programs for people with lengthy criminal histories and want to get rid of jails and prisons. Are they suggesting that police officers should be treated like second-class citizens?

It was the United States Supreme Court where in a landmark decision (Loudermill v. Board of Education) ruled that a public sector job is a property right and as such, a person cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property (job) without due process. It was a game changer. Due process is a staple of our individual rights under the US Constitution. Any freedom-loving American who has a problem with that is not a defender of ordered liberty.

I reject the claim that police unions protect bad officers. The union’s role is to ensure that officers accused of misconduct get all the rights afforded to them. Think of them like a defense attorney. Do people believe that a defendant in a court of law should not have representation or other due process rights? The union after all does not make the final decision in serious cases of misconduct. A separate entity does. Blame them. A better remedy to taking away officers’ rights is for the agency to put forth a better case to terminate. Sometimes these cases are haphazardly put together. That’s not the officer’s fault.

The beauty about the US Constitution is that the founders put in a mechanism to change it any time we the people want to. There is a process involved that has to be followed. One avenue is to go back and petition the US Supreme Court to reverse themselves on the Loudermill and Weingarten decision that gave public employees due process rights. Cop haters know that is an uphill climb and instead want to take short cuts.

I support the expansion of individual rights in this country, not taking them away no matter how unpleasant we may find it.

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Sheriff David Clarke Jr. is former Sheriff of Milwaukee Co, Wisconsin, President of AmericasSheriff LLC, Board member of the Crime Research Center, author of the book Cop Under Fire: Beyond Hashtags of Race Crime and Politics for a Better America. To learn more visit www.americassheriff.com

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