Pinkerton: In Defense of Police Unions

New York Police Benevolent Association President Mike OMeara and representatives from other NYPD and law enforcement unions holds a news confenece at the Icahn Stadium parking lot June 9, 2020 to address the "current anti-law enforcement environment" in New York. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY …
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

It seems that virtually all the groups on the political spectrum—conservatives, libertarians, liberals, and progressives—are converging together to crush police unions. And that’s a shame, because the rights of policemen and women, as workers, should be fully defended. 

Let’s take a closer look at who seeks to crush those rights. Speaking for familiar conservatism, the Washington Examiner editorializes its critique: “Police unions have become a powerful machine that defends officers against investigation, discipline, and dismissal, even when they deserve it.” 

In particular, the Examiner is upset that Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, has been working with both defense and labor lawyers to secure the rights of the four cops accused of involvement in the death of George Floyd. We might point out that the four are now ex-cops, in serious legal peril; in other words, Kroll and his union aren’t that powerful; helping the defendants with lawyers isn’t the same thing as winning their cases.

Speaking of cases, let’s stipulate something important: Initial opinions we might hold about the four cops’ actions should not be a factor in the formal adjudication of their cases. That is, the fundamental rules of fairness and due process—including the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial—do not allow for a formally preconceived notion of guilt or innocence. In any given matter, the goal of the legal, as well as political, system is to guarantee a fair procedure, as opposed to a predetermined outcome.  

And yet the Examiner took the view that the presence of a police union makes the legal mechanism unfair: “The principle of equal protection under the law is looking increasingly irreconcilable with the aims of the organizations representing police officers in the workplace.”  

Let’s think about that statement a bit: The four Minneapolis ex-cops are being confronted by the combined mass of prosecutors in Minnesota, the Main Stream Media, and the entire Establishment—and the problem is that the cops have a single small union? Really?  

Meanwhile, over at that citadel of libertarianism, Reason magazine, Peter Suderman blared his point in a blunt headline: “It’s Time To Bust Police Unions.”   

We can note, of course, that most conservatives, and all libertarians, have long opposed unions. Snow the Minneapolis case has provided both groups with an opportunity to push toward the goal that they’ve long pushed for—no unions. 

On the other hand, liberals have traditionally been pro-union. And yet in the case of police unions, that commitment is changing. William Galston, of the left-of-center Brookings Institution, opined recently, “Although Minneapolis has had its share of reformist police chiefs and elected officials, change has come haltingly.” 

The obstacle, Galston sighed, is the power of the Minneapolis police union, “which has protected its members against discipline and dismissal.” Aside from noting, once again, that the four cops have already been dismissed, and are facing heavy court trials ahead, we might recall that a major mission of a union is to protect its members as best it can—including the rights of those accused.

This concept is enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, which declares that national policy should be the “encouragement of the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and . . .  protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.”  

And for all the decades since, liberals have supported such worker protections, as part of their avowed commitment to fairness and due process in the workplace. Yet now, for the police, not so much; Galston concluded, “Police unions should be deprived of the power to thwart needed disciplinary action.” Once again we can declare: protecting due process is not the same as thwarting disciplinary action: The four Minneapolis cops have, after all, already been fired, and could well be facing long prison sentences.

Meanwhile, those to the left of the liberals, the progressives, were traditionally even more militant about unions. And yet Huffpost quoted a former AFL-CIO official, Carmen Berkley, as saying, “My hope is that Americans know that American trade labor unions are different from police associations. Police associations are a dangerous group that need to be defunded.” In other words, organized labor should pick and choose the rights of workers, according to political ideology—that’s not exactly solidarity forever. 

So if we step back, we can see the confluence of two forces: first, the right’s traditional hostility to labor unions; and second, the left’s traditional hostility to the police. Bottom line: Police organizations, as well as the police, are being squeezed. Hard. 

And the impact of this confluence is already being felt. Just on June 10, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo declared that he will withdraw from contract negotiations with the police union. So who, now, will look out for the police and their interests? The Minneapolis city council? The Minneapolis Star- Tribune? The ACLU? CNN? 

Moreover, Axios reports that back in Congress, Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats have shelved the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, a bill aimed at improving the ability of public-safety employees, including the police, to bargain collectively for wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. In the last session of Congress, the bill boasted 225 cosponsors, almost all of them Democrats—including Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus—but now, it’s legislatively dead.

As Axios explained, “The change of heart shows how Democrats are grappling with the changing politics of police unions—and making distinctions between them and the other public-sector unions they’ve traditionally supported.” The story then quoted one House Democratic leadership aide: “Police unions are very different. They’re very conservative, a lot of them are even Republican. They don’t have the same progressive beliefs.” 

Of course, this hardening of the Democrats’ partisan stance against the cops is not limited to their organizations. As we know, the movement to “defund the police”–supported by, to name just one influential Democrat, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—is gaining momentum.  

To be sure, top national Democrats, such as Joe Biden, have declared their opposition to defunding; even Bernie Sanders sticks up for the cops: “Do I think we should not have police departments in America? No, I don’t. There’s no city in the world that does not have police departments.”

Yet the bulk of decisions about the police, of course, are made at the local level. And so mayors such as Jacob Frey of Minneapolis, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, and Bill de Blasio of New York City have all vowed to push for budget cuts. And de Blasio, always determined to win the anti-cop derby, has announced that more NYPD-ers will be “disciplined”—even as, of course, the looters and rioters in his city go free. Indeed, all the talk in cities now is that the police, if they can’t be abolished, must be “transformed,” or “reimagined.”  

And here we see that the majority will, in fact, rule. If left-wing cities are truly determined to change, or even abolish, their police forces, neither the cops, nor their organizations, will be able to stop them.

Yet the rest of us might wonder: Amidst all this change, who will speak for the police? Many Republicans will do so, as well as courageous media figures such as Tucker Carlson. And yet on a day-to-day basis, in cities mostly controlled by non-Fox-News-watching Democrats, somebody has to be there, in the trenches, to defend the cops, and their legal and contractual rights. These men and women should be recognized as valued law enforcers on our behalf, and as rightful workers on their own behalf. Policing is, after all, a uniquely dangerous job; last year, 89 police officers died in the line of duty.

So sure, the cops have a big stake in the future debate over policing—as do all of us. Whatever the fate of the police is to be, they should always, everywhere, be able to plead their case.

Indeed, friends of law enforcement might hear the voice of Ed Mullins, president of Sergeant’s Benevolent Association in New York, because he, and his members, have a hard-earned perspective on what works, and what doesn’t, in law enforcement. Today, Mullins warns that the political power structure in his city and state is arrayed against men and women in blue: “In my 16 years, this is, by far, probably the worst I’ve seen from upper management. Honestly, we feel alone out there.” We can add: If the cops feel alone now, imagine how they’d feel without an organization of their own.  

Another voice to listen to is that of Mike O’Meara, president of New York State’s Police Benevolent Association, who laments that the media and politicians have been “vilifying” police, portraying them as “animals and thugs.” 

We might also hear from the Heartland, in the person of Travis Yates, a cop in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Writing for Law Officer, he says of police work, “It’s the only job where the same citizens you risk your life for hate you for it. It’s the only segment left in society where it’s cool to discriminate and judge, just because of the uniform you wear.” Speaking of the critics cops face, Yates adds, “You never get to explain. You can never reason with them. . . . This job is a walking a time bomb and you could get cancelled or prosecuted on the very next call, even if you do everything right.” 

We can observe, of course, that worker organizations, including unions, are created to defend employees against precisely the sort of arbitrariness and unfairness that Yates describes. And so anyone who doesn’t like the idea of essential workers banding together is obligated to think of some better way for them to defend themselves.   

At the beginning of this article, we observed that “virtually the entire political spectrum—conservatives, libertarians, liberals, and progressives—is converging together to crush police unions.” And as we have seen, that’s what’s happening today.  

However, there’s at least one group, or cluster of groups, that isn’t included in that anti-police union litany; that is, populist conservatives, economic nationalists, and pro-police MAGA types. These disparate groups are increasingly coming to be known as National Conservatives. “NatCons” believe that the nation is worth defending, from threats at home, as well as from abroad. Indeed, NatCons believe that the immediate defense of the homeland is the higher priority—indeed, the highest priority.  

And if so, then NatCons should accept that the guardians of safety and security at home need to be supported, both fiscally and politically. After all, as we’re seeing every day in the news. if there’s no domestic security, then the entire nation is at risk. So at the same time, NatCons ought to agree that the duly designated guardians–the thin blue line–should have the right to their voice, speaking as individuals, as well as through organizations of their own choosing.  

The point here is not that the cops are always right, or that their organizations are always virtuous. Instead, the point should be that everyone ought to have his or her day in court—including in the court of public opinion.  

We should have confidence that the truth, as well as the right policy, will emerge from the impartial workings of the judicial system and from the interplay of countervailing societal forces. That’s how pluralism in America should work: Everybody gets a fair and ordered opportunity to advance their interests by working through the system. As James Madison understood when he drafted the Constitution, it’s out of that messy, yeasty process that the public interest is upheld. 

Finally, we might add a practical political point: If the Democrats have abandoned the police, and police unions, then that means that 700,000 police officers across the nation have no ally in the onetime self-declared party of labor. And this presents an opportunity for a new Republican Party—focused on fairness, as well as law and order—to embrace both the police and police unions.

That is, a reformed GOP, eager to validate its claim to be the sturdy and welcoming home of the middle and working class, should embrace the cops, too. (We might add that if the GOP is not the party of the broad middle, then it’s nothing.)

Yes, the police, and their chosen organizations, should be an integral part of a center-right Worker-Soldier-First Responder Coalition. Such a broad alliance would build a majority for the GOP—and also bring security to our nation.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.