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In many fields, professional bodies will vocally condemn members who commit misconduct. For example, medical associations, learned societies or unions will seek to end the careers of members who commit fraud. A teaching union may strike for higher salaries, but not to support a teacher who punches a student.

However, when a police officer commits misconduct in a clear and documented manner it seems that often police representatives (such as unions or department captains) will actively support them, and resist calls for them to be fired or prosecuted.

Some examples to illustrate:

  • According to Reuters, it is common practise for US police unions to negotiate contracts that erase disciplinary records and protect abusive officers from being fired
  • St Louis police union vocal opposition to attempts by prosecutor Kim Gardener to set up an independent misconduct watchdog.
  • Minneapolis police union president Lt. Bob Kroll called city politicians 'despicable' in response to criticism for the killing of George Floyd.
  • Buffalo police union president said his union stood "100%" behind officers who aggressively pushed over and then failed to assist a 75 year old man, causing brain injury

If I was a police officer, I would surely want all those abusing their power attacking innocent people to be fired immediately. By staying in the force, they are harming my own reputation by association, and making my own job more difficult. I would not want my union to defend these people.

Some possible speculative answers:

  • A high number of police officers are at some point accused (falsely or correctly) of misconduct, causing them to be supportive of anti-discipline unions
  • Union chiefs support brutal/aggressive policing for cultural reasons (e.g. racism)
  • Local laws or political institutions create a confrontational dynamic between police/union chiefs and communities/local government, preventing constructive agreement on disciplinary issues
  • Most union chiefs do condemn members guilty of misconduct, but these do not receive media coverage.
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  • 9
    Is this a politics question, or a psychology question?
    – user5155
    Jun 10, 2020 at 16:27
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    The reasons might be psychological or political, but the effects are certainly political. Jun 10, 2020 at 16:34
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    @Greenwood Should maybe focus the question more on the effects rather than asking why. I'm interested in seeing an answer, and would like the question to remain open, but we are ill equipped for answering why people do things.
    – user5155
    Jun 10, 2020 at 16:45
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    I’ve voted this as out of scope, but it is completely false that good police do not criticize the bad police. All 4 of the officers who were involved in George Floyd’s death were fired the very next day because it was quickly determined that they did not act professionally.
    – Joe
    Jun 10, 2020 at 16:51
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    I've updated the question to make it more specifically about recent US examples of police unions defending officers that have committed gross misconduct. Jun 10, 2020 at 17:41

3 Answers 3

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Because that is the function of unions.

A union does not exist to support the industry, but to support the workers. For example a union of automobile workers does not exist to improve the public perception of the industry, or to make the industry "better". Unions exist to protect the workers.

It's not the role, of a union to judge who is rightly and who is wrongfully accused. If you were a teacher, and a student lied and said you hit them, would you not want support? If you were a union member, would you not expect your union to take "your side" and not that of the student? Would you expect to have to prove to the union that student was a lier before they supported you?

Similarly a police union does not exist to improve the reputation of the police force. It exists for the sake of supporting and defending its members. Police officers facing disciplinary action (whether this is justified or not) look to the union (to which they have paid membership fees) for support. While the officer remains a member, it is reasonable for them to expect the support for which they have paid.

In much the same way, teacher's unions support teachers facing charges of misconduct. Builder's unions defend builders who are accused of doing poor work and so on. Representing their members is precisely the role that unions play.

https://www.nlrb.gov/about-nlrb/rights-we-protect/the-law/employees/right-to-fair-representation

You have a right to be represented by your union fairly, in good faith, and without discrimination.

Your union has the duty to represent all employees - whether members of the union or not-fairly, in good faith, and without discrimination. This duty applies to virtually every action that a union may take in dealing with an employer as your representative, including collective bargaining, handling grievances, and operating exclusive hiring halls. For example, a union which represents you cannot refuse to process a grievance because you have criticized union officials or because you are not a member of the union. But the duty does not ordinarily apply to rights a worker can enforce independently - such as filing a workers' compensation claim - or to internal union affairs - such as the union's right to discipline members for violating its own rules.

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    This. Exactly this. People in general seem to be asking why the Union that represents Police Officers are against their members being punished. That, to me, makes no sense at all. as James K says, that is the stated purpose of the Union.
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 10, 2020 at 22:23
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    And yet, many unions have themselves disciplined members who have violated the ethics of the union. The idea that the union will take the side of its members in any case, no matter how egregious their misconduct, is not in accordance with precedent, besides being opposed to most codes of ethics.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 10, 2020 at 22:58
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    And yet, many unions have themselves disciplined members who have been proven to have violated the ethics of the union. Have the officers been tried yet? Have there been union hearings to determine conduct violations? This nation is hurting, and have tried and convicted them in the eyes of the public. Unfortunately, or fortunately, that is simply not good enough.
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 10, 2020 at 23:18
  • But for public workers the payment is from the public money pool. If they want a raise it means taxes have to grow, and public knows that. So if you are going to strike you better have public support to help you with strikes -- and they're more willing if they know police is good. On top of that the idea "bad cop" makes everyone wary of the police, thus making the police work harder. Since most information has to come from the street anyways. In the netherlands we have a very strong union structure where the union plays a major role in all debates. But they strongly condemn malpractices.
    – paul23
    Jun 28, 2020 at 11:29
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    @CGCampbell The issue is complex. However, there is one measure that is objectively dangerous. That is that the efforts of the police unions have resulted in an environment where police are now held to lower standards of conduct than the average citizen. This creates an unpalatable unbalance that will result in conflict.
    – David S
    Jul 20, 2023 at 21:35
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There is a lot of research on police unions going back decades and it all just seems to say that there isn't enough research on police unions. I see a lot of authors acknowledging the general perception that police unions are against reform, but they often question whether this is really the case.

Here is the most relevant, recent article I've looked at. One pattern it points out is the lack of trust between management and rank-and-file officers. Consistent with this, it shows that police unions are most resistant to reforms that relate to disciplinary action against officers. The authors of this particular article show when there are reforms that don't relate to possible disciplinary actions, the unions that represent rank-and-file officers may potentially be more cooperative.

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  • Some quotes would be good in case the link goes dead in the future.
    – Just Me
    Jun 11, 2020 at 2:50
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There's confusion in the question about whether we are talking about support when an allegation of misconduct is still contested, or whether we are talking about support after an allegation has been adjudicated and proven, and what kind of support is being provided.

The main function of police unions (like all unions) is to defend police officers (in their capacity as workers) from the management, not to act as an impartial judiciary or guarantee the public interest.

When misconduct is first alleged by management, their primary role is to articulate the worker's perspective and provide practical support against any steps management may take to lay blame or impose punishment upon the worker.

When misconduct does occur, sometimes the eventual question is not about whether a particular behaviour occurred or was unacceptable, but who is to blame for it.

Because management have significant control over how the worker is worked, what tasks they are put about, what resources they have, the intensity at which they work, and indeed what risks the worker is expected to run, when things go wrong it is often a foreseeable consequence of arrangements imposed by management.

The union may take the view that a particular instance of misconduct was merely a foreseeable instance of furious emotion or serious misjudgment that results from the inherent difficulty and intensity of the job, and therefore the union position may be that management must accept responsibility (and either justify the status quo to the broader public, or accept their own error and alter the working arrangements and reduce pressure upon police officers which are said to cause certain incidents of misconduct).

Even when an allegation of misconduct is adjudicated and proven, the union may have a different political policy from either the judiciary or from any police disciplinary panel.

So the support for a police officer may not necessarily cease even after wrongdoing is proven against the individual and perhaps even punishment imposed, if the union (either taking feedback from its members, or as a result of the thinking of its own bureaucracy) thinks that shouldn't have been the result.

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