The majority of America’s police officers are brave men and women who make sacrifices and take risks every day to keep our communities safe, but incidents of misconduct do occur. Defunding America’s police departments would not solve the issue of police abuse, but limiting the power of police unions would allow for needed reforms.
Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, joins “Problematic Women” to discuss her new piece “Confronting Police Abuse Requires Shifting Power From Police Unions.”
Police unions have made it extremely challenging for police chiefs to fire or adequately reprimand officers for poor behavior or abuse of power. Control of police departments must be taken away from unions, Greszler argues, and placed back in the hands of the police chiefs who know their communities and officers best.
Also on today’s show, we share Rachel del Guidice’s conversation with Star Parker, founder of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education. Parker explains why America is not inherently racist.
Plus, Katrina Trinko joins us for a timely discussion of author J.K. Rowling and her latest tweet that defies political correctness. Enjoy the show!
Virginia Allen: We are joined by Heritage Foundation research fellow Rachel Greszler. Rachel, thanks so much for joining us.
Rachel Greszler: Thank you for having me.
Allen: So, all across America, we are seeing calls to defund police departments. George Floyd was killed at the hands of an officer who was supposed to protect him, and now people are demanding that changes be made so that cases of police brutality cannot continue.
You just published a piece, “Confronting Police Abuse Requires Shifting Power From Police Unions.” So, let’s just begin with the basics. We hear a lot about unions every day, and some of our listeners might even be part of a union. It’s just a form that they filled out when they started a job. What is actually the point of a union, and how do they function?
Greszler: Sure. Thank you, Virginia. And I did just want to first start out this conversation by just expressing the respect and gratitude that I have for police officers, and the overwhelming majority of them are heroes who put their lives on the line, protecting the cities in which they live and serve.
And so, I just want that to be understood first, that while there are some problems that need addressing, just this respect and admiration for those people who are protecting us and keeping us safe.
Allen: Absolutely. We certainly echo that.
Greszler: Thank you. Yes. So, the police unions, in many ways, they function like other unions in negotiating things like compensation packages, but over the years, and it seems that started back in the ’80s, they’ve been given more power over kind of the accountability and the discipline standards of the departments.
And that has led to problems in the departments themselves being able to hold their officers accountable, or to be able to invoke any discipline or even termination decisions because of contracts with the unions that are put in.
And we heard Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey refer to the unions. He said this one nearly impenetrable barrier, which is the union contract and the way it’s set up. And so, we are seeing more and more is there a cause for reform, and certainly efforts have been made over the years, yet there’s a lot of things standing in the way because of these union contracts.
Allen: So, really … those two things are linked pretty closely. And I don’t think I had realized, until I read your paper, how closely police departments worked with unions, but it seems like there’s a continuous, ongoing relationship there.
Greszler: Yes. The unions have a lot of say in, not just the compensation side, but also the way that the departments are run, and where it comes to be a problem is when you have contracts that include provisions that will obstruct discipline, erase discipline records, insert elevated standards of review that end up shielding those rogue police officers.
In some cases, there are instances where officers will be given 48 hours’ notice before they can be questioned. They might require the investigators to provide questions ahead of time to the officers who are accused of misconduct.
They might allow them to amend their statements after they have seen a video or audio evidence. And so, it’s really giving them kind of some time to come up with their stories or to get them straight with others.
There’s cases where they’re banning civilian oversight, destroying past records of discipline, limiting the length of internal investigation. So, there are all these provisions that aren’t really related to the compensation and the things that we typically think of unions helping to negotiate or being in control of, but really getting to the heart of accountability and discipline.
Lauren Evans: So, Rachel, what is the difference between public- and private-sector unions, and why are private-sector unions becoming less common while public-sector unions are becoming more common?
Greszler: Well, one of the big differences is that the public-sector unions don’t really have the two sides at the table. In the private sector, you have the management and you have the workers and the union representing the workers. And those are becoming a little bit less common, I think, because the value is not there as much anymore. They served a real purpose when unions were first established, instituting safety measures, just calming protections, including basic wages that should be paid.
But now, over time, as the law has covered those and provided the things for workers that unions used to be necessary to have, there’s been less unionization in the private-sector side, yet the public sector, we do still see heavy rates of unionization there.
And I think where it comes to be a problem is that taxpayers are really the other side here when we’re talking about compensation provisions, and they don’t have a seat at the table. And so the unions have a much stronger hold over these provisions when we look at the public sector, and actually, [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] was opposed to public-sector unions for that reason.
Allen: So, we know that Derek Chauvin, the officer who pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and who has now been charged with second-degree murder, he had a number of complaints that had been filed against him as an officer.
Is it possible that even if the police chief of the Minneapolis Police Department had wanted to fire Chauvin in the past, maybe months ago, years ago, that he would not have been able to because of unions?
Greszler: Yes, and some of those complaints might not be legitimate complaints. We’ve seen cases where drug dealers will file complaints to get a good and zealous police officer off the streets, on the sidelines, but nevertheless, complaints should be investigated and followed through on.
And it definitely can be the case and has been in many instances where police chiefs will have multiple complaints, and some of them will be credible, and they might even go so far as to not just discipline that officer, but to dismiss them. And yet, they have been forced in instances to rehire them.
So in 2017, The Washington Post published an article called “Fired/Rehired.” And they had collected the records from 37 large city police departments that had collectively fired 1,881 officers. And yet, nearly 1 in 4 of those officers, a total of 451 of them, had appealed, and the departments were forced to rehire them.
So, this creates a problem here. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus had actually been forced to reinstate one officer, not just once but twice. And he explained that when you overturn these disciplinary and dismissal decisions for reasons other than just factual errors, you’re undermining the chief’s authority, and you’re ignoring their understanding of what serves the best interest of the community and the department.
Evans: So, what is it that kind of switched or moved along that pushed unions to have so much power and so much control over these police departments?
Greszler: It seems that there was a shift sometime around the ’80s, and one police chief described it as being during recession, when the city wouldn’t have enough money to give higher compensation and wages, that instead, they would give the union management rights in lieu of money.
And that’s when the trouble really started to build up there. And it wasn’t just a one-time thing, but an incremental [one] over the decades. And so, year over year as you get these small provisions into contract, and then suddenly, there’s all these hoops there, and it’s very hard for the chief to be able to sustain the discipline that they need to.
And so, I think it’s been this shift from what are the traditional things that you bargain for in union contracts to giving them, really, management rights and allowing them in some ways to operate the police departments by putting so many constraints and restrictions on what they can do, that you really take the control out of the actual local law enforcement and those police chiefs, and even the local and state lawmakers and put it into the hands of the union.
Allen: Wow. I mean, it’s just kind of nonsensical. It’s really wild. Rachel, you wrote in your piece that despite widespread evidence that police unions play a role in police injustices, most reform efforts have failed to confront the unions as part of the problem. Why is this?
Greszler: I’m not quite sure, because you can weed through and find these instances, whether it’s the American Civil Liberties Union, or groups, Republican, Democrat, on both sides of the aisle, that have found out that this is a real problem.
Academic studies, as well, looking at collective-bargaining rights leading to about a 40% increase in violent incidents of misconduct among sheriff’s offices, or talking about how those union contracts, when they investigate the provisions of them, these attorneys looking at them saying that they really just frustrate the accountability officers and kind of hamstring them.
And yet, when you have things like President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing that is trying to tackle these problems, and yet they don’t mention the unions as being a problem. All they mentioned them as is needing to have a seat at the table, but yet we’ve seen time and time over that when they are given a seat at the table, they actually take away from the accountability and the discipline that we’re trying to get more of.
And so, I think this is one of the big issues. [Minneapolis] Mayor Jacob Frey referred to the unions as the elephant in the room that needs to be discussed here. And so, I hope that as all of these efforts are coming to bring about reform, that there will be a recognition that the unions have a significant role in this, and that they need to be addressed and that they cannot be the ones that are in charge of running the department and particularly be in charge of that accountability and discipline.
Evans: It’s frustrating because it seems like this could be one thing when everyone is so divided that could really bring people together and bring about change.
Greszler: It is. It’s really the key in there, no matter what is done around the edges or whatever reform Congress at the federal level might implement, or even at the state level.
Those will be for naught if you don’t address what really seems to be the root of the problem that is in the unions. Even just looking at some of the proposals that have been put out there in the last couple of days, they’re enacting reforms doing something like creating a national registry of misconduct and complaints.
That makes sense to be able to have that as public knowledge, whether it’s widely public, or at least within the policing community to know those things. But if the union prevents those misconduct claims from ever seeing the light of day, they’re not going to go to the registry.
And so in many instances, it can’t just be that you implement these widespread policies that make sense if there are going to be places where the contract prohibits those policies from actually having any effects.
And that’s what’s been shown in some cases, where the federal government has stepped in, in communities where there have been violations of civil rights, it’s called issuing a consent decree, and they come in and try to change some of these things.
And yet, it’s been proven that the collective-bargaining agreements present a roadblock to achieving the reforms that they actually set out in those consent decrees, just saying that the unions are watering down the measures that contradict their contracts, and then they’ll even launch legal challenges. And those might not be successful, but nevertheless, they delay the implementation of them.
And so, it’s really part of the big issue here that we need to be looking at. Whatever is done at the federal level, you really have to get down to those local department-by-department contracts and have certain, whether it’s the federal government setting standards that should be in there or certain provisions that shouldn’t be allowed to be negotiated in union contracts.
At a minimum, those local and city officials should be renegotiating their contracts and taking away any of the provisions that are preventing them from being able to enforce accountability and discipline.
Allen: So, let’s talk about two kind of different outcomes, two different scenarios. What would happen if police departments were actually defunded, as we’re hearing calls for, versus what would happen if unions’ power was drastically cut back and police chiefs truly held that hiring and firing power and, really, the power that they should hold as bosses over their officers?
Greszler: Well, first off, if we defund the police forces themselves, and we just have fewer police on the street, everybody is going to be less safe as a result of that.
We need to still have protections, and we need to ensure the safety of our communities, and the police by and large are the people who are out there and who are doing that.
And so, that’s not a legitimate solution to just take money away from those police departments. But what is a legitimate solution is to look at the police unions themselves, and to take away the control from them so that the department can be the ones in charge and that they can hold people accountable when there are these instances of rogue police officers, that they won’t be able to remain in uniform and be the ones who are out on the street.
If we want to have the good cops out there, then you need to have the departments being able to be in control of who’s actually out there and not the unions putting their heavy hand in the bowl.
Evans: So, Rachel, even if we were to defund the police, [as] those who are advocating would say, “look at all this money that we’re freeing up for other programs.” How would the defunding the police really affect city budgets? Are they a major percentage of what cities spend?
Greszler: Yeah, I think they are a significant percentage, and there are certainly ways that state and local governments are looking at COVID-19 shortfalls that you can collectively look at public employees as a whole.
And there might be certain ways to make police departments and other public-sector employee components and compensation more efficient. And so, it’s not to say that there’s no savings that could potentially be had or efficiencies within the police department, but simply taking money away from them and limiting their size is not going to be the way that we get to the positive reforms and the culture change, and see improved safety and protection that people want.
By and large, those changes, as I have said, need to come from the root problems and getting to the percentages themselves. I don’t know exactly what percent these police stations take, whether it’s at the local or city, state level, but nevertheless, we shouldn’t be looking at just saving money.
You have to factor in safety and what provisions would be able to improve the efficiency without losing those safety protections.
Allen: So, Rachel, are you optimistic that we might see some of these reforms to police unions? Because it doesn’t seem like many people are talking about this, but it seems like it’s certainly the most, most practical solution here.
Greszler: On the one hand, I have seen some groups that we normally wouldn’t think of as being critical of unions come out and address this and say that reform needs to be made at the union level.
On the other hand, all the talks nationally and in the news seem to be just focusing on what reforms need to be implemented, what choke holds should be prohibited or no knock warrants being prohibited and kind of just getting around the edges, but not actually addressing the root of the problem.
So I do hope that people will take a deeper dive into this to realize the role that the unions play and that you can do any reform that sounds good, and that everybody will agree is a good thing, but it will not be effective if the unions aren’t on board with that.
Evans: Well, Rachel, I want to just take a second before we wrap up the interview and just kind of see how you are. For our listeners that don’t know Rachel is a Problematic Woman hero, a real American hero, and a mother of six, and we’re now going on Week 12 of quarantine, how are you doing?
Greszler: I’m doing well. On the one hand, it has been nice to be able to spend more time at home with family, but of course, it brings challenges of I’ve got four elementary-aged kids and two who are not yet in school.
And so that has definitely been a new thing to confront, homeschool with four kids getting on different schedules, having to find devices for them, which fortunately, the school provided. And … my husband and I both tried to get work done at home when you have kids running around.
But it is nice to see parts of society reopening and we’re a little behind the rest of the country here in the D.C. area. But nevertheless, I’m encouraged that at least my kids are getting to have certain friends that are willing to play outside more and seeing a little bit more normalcy come back.
Allen: That’s great, Rachel. You’re certainly one of our heroes here at Problematic Women. Don’t know how you do everything that you do. Very impressive.
Greszler: Well, thanks. Thank you. I did just want to say, too, is that issue, thinking about it with my children, we don’t talk a lot about the news with them, but they’ve nevertheless through their classes heard some things and so we were forced to talk about this issue.
But it is concerning having young kids to see the really hurtful and destructive portrayals of police officers that have been demonstrated by certain individuals and groups.
And I do worry that this will take younger generations’ perceptions of the police, or even cause children to fear the officers that they’re supposed to count on. We teach them, call the police officer, walk up to him if you have a problem, they’re there to protect you.
So I hope that out of all this, we don’t gain a whole generation’s perception of these people who truly are heroes who are protecting our safety.
Allen: Yeah, no, Rachel, I think that’s such a critical point to bring up that as parents, as role models to young people, we can’t stop that conversation of discussing. Know that the police plays such a critical role in our society and we are so thankful for them.
And Rachel, I do just want to ask, for people that want to learn more about this subject and are curious and want to do that deeper dive, could you point them toward any good resources?
Greszler: Well, there’s been quite a few articles that I have found—including academic ones and in this area, particularly law journals I’ve found—to be helpful.
I don’t have one place to say to go, but certainly if you Google the issue in police union contracts, you can find a lot in these studies that are out there that have really done a deep dive into looking at dozens of union contract provisions and finding what are the problematic components.
Evans: You know you’re confident about what you say when the answer is “Just Google it, and I’ll be right.”
Allen: That’s great. Rachel, thank you so much. We really, really appreciate your time today.
Greszler: Thank you.