On Behind the Police, journalist Robert Evans and rapper Jason “Propaganda” Petty have been tracing the history of policing, starting with Ancient Greece and working up to American policing’s ties to the KKK and organized crime. This history helps explain why American policing is inextricably linked with white supremacy and serves more to protect wealth and property than people, especially minority communities. On this episode, they get into police unions, and how they work to keep the “bad apples” in the barrel, spoiling the whole bunch. They also explain the racist thinking behind “broken windows” policing, which advocates for extreme punishments for minor infractions.
In the early 1900s, police departments were little more than hired muscle for organized crime; cops regularly took bribes, ran prostitution or gambling rings, promoted officers based on payment rather than merit, and suppressed labor organizers from forming unions. Reforms were slowly put into place to make cops trained professionals rather than state-sanctioned gangsters. A powerful centralized police bureaucracy was formed to keep a closer eye on officers; this, coupled with their historically low salaries, made cops want to unionize so they could bargain for better wages and benefits – fairly ironic, considering their role in keeping labor unions from forming. But the law said that public safety workers – police, EMTs, air traffic controllers – weren’t allowed to strike, because people could die if they didn’t go to work. So officers started initiating “slowdowns,” where they would no longer respond to any petty crimes. It worked, and they were allowed to form unions in the 1960s.
But these unions did a lot more than get cops benefits and better salaries. They required that disciplinary records be wiped after a certain period of time, in some cases as often as every six months – meaning we never have a clear idea of how often an officer is reprimanded. Plenty of police chiefs have wanted to get rid of problematic officers, but are forced to hire them back because of the unions. Robert reads quite a few cases from 2012-2019 of officers who were fired for rape, murder, aggravated assault, and other criminal activity, that unions forced departments to reinstate, often with back pay. And elected officials find the unions impossible to fight, too: One Minneapolis city council member who pushed for a hiring freeze discovered that officers started responding more slowly to 911 calls made by his constituents. So no matter who we may elect to install reforms in police departments, they cannot succeed, because the unions are still there protecting bad officers from accountability.
And unfortunately, there is consistent research that shows that unionization has had no meaningful impact on crime – but there has been a substantial increase in police killings of civilians, usually non-white people. Once cops were given collective bargaining rights in Chicago, studies showed a forty percent increase in police violence. And as Robert and Prop point out, if a car engine was released that killed or harmed forty percent of the people who drove it, it would be pulled from the market. Hear more about the toxicity of police unions, the racist theories behind “broken windows” policing and how it led to the death of Eric Garner, and much more on Behind the Police.
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