In defense of police unions

Cops are workers, too

Police Unions are necessary to stand up for the rights of police.
(Image credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

While many conservatives love police, and many liberals love unions, you won't find many people on either end of the political spectrum who proclaim their love for police unions.

On the left, police unions are often seen as the rotten apples in the labor movement — capitalism's enforcers of class and racial oppression. And heterodox conservatives often argue that police unions are just as bad as other public-sector unions, defending sclerosis and incompetent workers at great taxpayer expense and to the detriment of reform and the greater social good.

But this odd convergence of the hard left and the reformist right might be a hint that they've just stumbled into the same blind spot.

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Cops are workers, too. They are workers put in an almost impossible position. And they need a union to stand up for them.

Go down the standard list of proposed police reforms — more accountability for bad cops, body cameras, demilitarization, more federal monitoring, civilian oversight, transparency, and so on. They're all worthy, but what they all have in common is getting police to behave better within the role of "police" as we already conceive of it; namely, as the state's enforcers of law and order, whose primary tools are the threat of violence and the ability to throw people into cages.

What these reforms don't deal with is the possibility that our society has rendered this role an impossible one to pull off in any sort of successful, functional, or healthy manner.

Cops must deal with everything from gang violence to drug addiction to mental illness to domestic abuse to helping single parents to broken taillights and speeding cars. They respond so often with violence and incarceration because those are the tools we train them to use. They are no more immune to racism than any other human institution in American society. And of course the well-being of cops themselves often resembles what you'd find in veterans from a war zone.

Meanwhile, America's long history of racism has left many black American communities deeply damaged. And poverty and crime go hand in hand. So when cops are shoved into the role of what is often privileged white society's sole institutional interaction with black Americans' world, and left with nothing but violence and incarceration as their tools, of course racism still permeates the way they operate.

Our society has pulled out of supplying the resources, the institutions, and the personnel that could support cops in handling this societal breakdown. "We're asking cops to do too much in this country," said an exhausted David Brown, Dallas' police chief, in the aftermath of the killing of five cops at a protest march. "Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems."

Can anyone be surprised when police unions bristle and revolt at reforms aimed at drawing even greater virtue out of cops in the course of performing very difficult tasks? Cops wield an immense amount of power in our society. But that abstract privilege does not change the lived experience of being a cop, which is what the police and the unions that represent them draw upon when deciding how to defend themselves. We can't just keep trying to make the police better-armed saints in the very places where the injustices of U.S. society collide the hardest. Nor can we assume that combating racism is merely a matter of enlightening individual cops or their departmental culture.

There are plenty of necessary reforms that police unions will oppose. But other reforms are possible, too: There's nonviolent neighborhood mediation, forms of restorative justice, and of course building our society's ability to help and aid the mentally ill, not just ignore them or lock them up. Support for decriminalization is not unheard of among cops, as well. The unions could be amenable to reforms that relieve them of burdens, and that lessen the contradiction that it's extremely easy to both under- and over-police poor minority communities at the same time.

And remember: The purpose of any union is ultimately to collectively agitate for the interests of the specific workers they represent, precisely because no one else will do it. Those interests are not just purely material, but are also a matter of how those workers understand their place in the American social fabric. In the absence of that agitation, there is a power imbalance at the bargaining table of employment. And that is a problem, because at the end of the day, cops are workers, too.

If some workers seem to be a pernicious force in society when they organize to make their fears and concerns and interests heard, we should stop to ask ourselves if that says something about the nature of the labor we ask those workers to do. That's as true for cops as it is for anyone.

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Jeff Spross

Jeff Spross was the economics and business correspondent at He was previously a reporter at ThinkProgress.