1997. That’s the year I began my career representing police officers and police unions. To give you some background: I was never a cop. Nobody in my family had been a cop. I’m not enmeshed in the police culture. But I defend cops for a living.
I don’t have any patience for bad cops. And I’ve come across a few over the years. I’m happy to say that as a union leader, it was never difficult to identify the bad apples. And usually we were able to find a way to help them move on from a career they were ill suited for. In other words, we showed them the door.
The last few weeks cops and unions have been receiving criticism from an outraged public. The outrage has been earned. Yet I’m not sure that outrage at unions is properly placed, particularly in a political and social system that has allowed structural racism to rage in our society for centuries. Cops may be the most visible culpable party right now, but let’s be honest with ourselves: Racism abounds in our own communities. As members of those communities, each of us bears responsibility for the society as it exists today.
It’s easier to point the finger at the police force, but they merely represent who we are as a nation.
If we as a society are truly committed to ending racism and the senseless deaths of black men and women, then we need examine how we ask our police officers to do their jobs. Police forces have not exerted sole dominion over racist thought and action; instead, racism is a societal scourge. Racist cops, unfortunately, have served to drag that racism into public light.
And now, rightfully, people are demanding we do something about it.
I know this: there is not a good cop in any union that I represent that polices based on race, religion, or gender. That does not mean that every single one of them doesn’t carry the human and societal biases that we all carry with us.
Just like you and I, cops need to work at recognizing their biases and making the necessary changes to rid our society of racism. Given what many of them have witnessed over the years – they have seen society punish folks based on the color of their skin – the majority of cops are better at understanding and dealing with bias than the rest of us. Most of us get to sit back in our armchairs and pass judgment, not engage with it in the trenches.
Years ago, as a union leader, I began pushing at the bargaining table for more training for our cops to help them de-escalate volatile encounters, and to give them perspective on societal biases. But training costs money, which means that sometimes more and better training would get pushed aside because municipal negotiators didn’t want to carry it on their books.
Today, unions remain a proponent of training that not only enhances the safety of our officers, but also increases the public trust in their efforts.
In that regard, the cops I represent have taken the obligation to utilize body-worn cameras seriously. Not only have the cameras made the public feel safer, but also they have been used as a tool to help officers perform better. The implementation of these cameras was a collaborative effort between police departments and unions, and the effects have been positive.
When I started my career, I could expect to have two to three officer-involved shootings among the unions that I represented each year. In the last five years, there has been one. I credit that to better training and more effective leadership within departments. (Leadership has improved because unions have pushed to utilize testing procedures to make sure that the best candidate for a job gets promoted, not the best connected.)
Some complain that police unions are instrumental in keeping bad cops on the job through the use of grievance and arbitration procedures. Representing all cops is a union’s legal obligation. A failure to do so is a violation of law.
In 23 years, I have yet to witness police unions gaining advantages in “secret” arbitration hearings when it came time to discipline or fire bad cops. In fact my union has been a proponent of opening the hearings to the public so that voters can see and understand the truth of how police do their jobs and how discipline is handled.
I’ve witnessed some employers presenting incompetent cases, but the police unions do not deserve blame for an employer’s incompetence. That is the public’s responsibility.
We work in an adversarial system. As a union representative, I’ve always tried to act within the confines of my ethical obligations, and the mandates of the law in representing my clients. I’ve observed arbitrators do their best to hear the evidence and make fair decisions. I’ve never witnessed intentional bias in any decision-making that favors bad cops.
Beyond shedding light on the process of training and disciplining our unionized police force, I want to make something clear about the men and women who put on the badge every day. I speak of them now as a group, recognizing that a group is comprised of individuals with their own special qualities and characteristics, which usually serve to make them good at what they do: guard the safety of our communities. They are mothers and fathers who care about the people they serve. They bring high levels of integrity to their work every day. The little things matter to them.
They have an incredible capacity for empathy and compassion, and every day they call on those reserves when they serve the public. They are the good guys – even today, even when the world has gone upside down.
I have been awed by their courage. They don’t brag about the work they have to do, even though, at times, they are called to be truly heroic, risk their lives without a second thought. I still remember the day an active shooter report came in and an off-duty union member sped to the scene in his own vehicle without safety equipment. He rushed into the building to stop the shooter and later said, “I was sure I was going to be killed, but I was going to stop that %$*%.”
When the world turns upside down, that’s the kind of person you want guarding your wellbeing.
Again. We need to take a good hard look at what we expect of our police officers. Unions will be at the forefront when it comes time to take action, to make changes that will ensure that officers can safely do their jobs and protect the public, to ensure justice for all.
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