What’s Wrong with Police Unions?

By Benjamin Levin
Columbia Law Review (forthcoming)
January 24, 2020

Abstract

In an era of declining labor power, police unions stand as a rare success story for worker organizing—they exert political clout and negotiate favorable terms for their members. Yet, despite broad support for unionization on the political left, police unions have become public enemy number one for academics and activists concerned about race and police violence. Much criticism of police unions focuses on their obstructionist nature and how they prioritize the interests of their members over the interests of the communities they police. These critiques are compelling—police unions shield officers and block oversight. But, taken seriously, they often sound like critiques of unions in general, not just police unions. To the extent that public-sector unionism remains a social good because of concerns for economic inequality and worker power, wholeheartedly embracing these critiques seems like a risky proposition.

This Article examines the strange case of police unions and asks how they are (and are not) representative of U.S. unionism. More pointedly, this Article asks what increasingly common critiques of police unions should mean for policing reform and the future of public-sector unionism. In an effort to construct a more nuanced picture of police unions’ functions, I situate the role of police unions within two disparate scholarly debates: (1) the literature on policing reform; and (2) the literature on public sector unions. How are police unions different from other public-sector unions, and how might critiques and defenses of police unions apply to other public-sector unions?

Ultimately, I argue that the challenge in articulating a theory of what makes police unions different highlights both the problem with police and the problem with the way scholars think about unions. If police unions are objectionable because of their views and the conduct of police, this concern speaks to a problem with police—full stop. The problems with the unions are only issues by extension. If the unions are objectionable because of their commitment to their members’ interests over those of the public at large, though, the critiques are properly understood as undercutting public-sector unions generally.

Keywords: policing, police unions, criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal justice reform, policing reform, labor law, unions, race, police abolition, abolition, public sector unions