How police unionization has affected police violence : The Indicator from Planet Money There appears to be a relationship between police unionization and the number of people killed by officers.

Police Unions And Civilian Deaths

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Rob Gillezeau is an economist at the University of Victoria, and he is the co-founder of the Racial Uprisings Lab, which has been gathering data about every single race-based protest in the U.S. since the 1990s. So, of course, Rob has carefully been watching the nationwide protests of the past week or so, which was sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

ROB GILLEZEAU: I will say as someone who has studied this area for a large part of my career, they are extraordinary. You know, we remember the wave of BLM protests after Trayvon Martin, after Michael Brown. But the extent of the protests that we're seeing right now are easily the largest since 1968 in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. King. So not unprecedented, but - right? - the biggest wave of protests we've seen in half a century.

GARCIA: These protests have brought a lot of attention to racial economic inequalities. But what can economists also tell us about the event itself that led to the protests, the death of George Floyd? Well, there's a lot of theories out there about the reasons behind police killings of civilians.


And Rob says he and other economists can analyze data that either supports or disproves these theories. And one theory Rob has been gathering data about is the role of police unions.

I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. In most industries, unions try to bargain with their employer on behalf of their members, the workers. And they try to bargain for things like better wages or benefits or working conditions.

VANEK SMITH: But police forces are not like other industries, which means there are added complications when police unions bargain on behalf of police officers. There are real issues of life and death, and there appears to be a relationship between police unionizing and the number of people who get killed by police.


GARCIA: Every year, more than a thousand people are killed by a police officer in the United States. And that is many more people than are killed in other countries with similarly advanced economies. For example, last year, someone who lives in the U.S. was almost 60 times as likely to be killed by police as someone in the United Kingdom. And within the U.S., there is also a big disparity. A black American like George Floyd is about three times as likely to be killed by police as a white person.

Economist Rob Gillezeau studies the history of police killings and the protests that often result from them. And he says there was a big increase in the police killing of civilians starting about a half-century ago.

GILLEZEAU: The uprisings that happened in the 1960s were a reflection and a use of voice against police brutality against African Americans in that era. And how is - what was the response? The response was that officers killed more civilians, in particular, African American civilians.

GARCIA: And Rob wanted to study what might have contributed to police killings of African Americans increasing the way they did. And to know why these big racial disparities in who dies from confrontations with police still persist to this day. One theory is that it is very hard for a police officer to be prosecuted for a wrongful killing. And one possible reason for that is police unions.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, police unions bargain with city and state governments, of course, to get better pay for their members, the police officers. And Rob says after a police union is formed, officers do get paid better. But, he says, police unions also negotiate for things that most unions don't.

GILLEZEAU: They're bargaining over legal representation in the event of a potential prosecution. They're bargaining over the length of time between which they might be involved in committing a crime and when they will give their statement, right? So they're bargaining essentially for delays in giving a statement. They're bargaining over the conditions under which that statement would be made, how often they would get to take breaks.

Oftentimes, they're bargaining on restrictions of releasing footage. Often, when killings of African Americans happen by police, you know, you see a number of irrelevant and awful photos put out of - right? - of the victim released to the media. But you don't see the officer released, and that's often because it has been bargained that it cannot be released. And you'll see them trying to bargain opportunities to huddle with other officers so that people can agree to a story before it's ever recorded in the record.

GARCIA: But on the question of whether or not these protections for police officers that the police unions have bargained for have actually contributed to police killing more civilians, there hasn't been much evidence to answer it - not yet.

GILLEZEAU: Rob and his co-authors Jamein Cunningham and Donna Feir wanted to provide that evidence in their latest research paper. Starting roughly in the late '50s, Rob says, state governments began allowing police officers to collectively bargain - in other words, to join unions. Those unions would then negotiate on behalf of the police officers with their employer, which was their state or city government. That's what collective bargaining is.

GARCIA: Yeah. And because those unions were all formed in different counties throughout the U.S. at different times, it's possible for an economist like Rob to then compare what happened in counties with unions versus counties without unions. Rob stresses that the paper is not yet published, but it is far enough along now that he can share the conclusions.

GILLEZEAU: This is where we found a really remarkable and really horrible result. We found that after officers gained access to collective bargaining rights that there was a substantial increase in killings of civilians - 0.026 to 0.029 additional civilians are killed in each county each year of whom the overwhelming majority are non-white. That's about 60 to 70 per year civilians killed by the police in an era historically where there are a lot fewer police shootings. So that's a humongous increase.

GARCIA: And as Rob says, pretty much all of that entire humongous increase was killings of non-white civilians.

GILLEZEAU: So bargaining rates are leading to a substantial increase in the number of primarily African Americans killed by police officers. So it really does look like it is the protection of the ability to discriminate, and that is enormously problematic.

VANEK SMITH: One possible reason why police unions might want more ways to protect officers from being prosecuted is the safety of the officers. If an officer is worried about being prosecuted, then that officer might hesitate to shoot in a dangerous situation. So the added protections negotiated by the union would be protecting the officer by giving the officer more leeway to shoot or kill someone if the officer felt threatened.

GARCIA: But more officer safety, Rob says, did not result from the negotiations done by police unions.

GILLEZEAU: Officers killed in the line of duty, that figure also doesn't change after bargaining rights are granted.

GARCIA: Plus, Rob says, police unions barely have any effect at all on crime itself. Now, Rob's paper does not talk about any specific police union. Instead, he says, it shows a systemic problem, something in the structure of these collective bargaining agreements that is making discrimination against non-white civilians worse. And finally, Rob emphasizes that it's also important to keep in mind who police unions are negotiating with, who their employers are - the state and local government, which is elected by voters and is accountable to them, which might mean that voters themselves share some responsibility for the results of these negotiations, he says.

GILLEZEAU: Right. If you were a local government, you're bargaining with your police union, you probably mainly care about keeping costs down - right? - because you don't want to raise local taxes. So you're holding that down, and you maybe give the police union other things that they want that don't have a fiscal cost. And maybe those things are exactly what's leading to this increase in killings of non-white civilians.

So looking at that interplay, I think, is a really important policy point but also really important research point because - right? - in this case, it is the employer's obligation. The employer is our government, right? It is bodies that Americans elect, and they don't seem to really be sitting down at the bargaining table and actually putting lives of non-white civilians as their top priority.


GARCIA: This episode is produced by Camille Petersen and Leena Sanzgiri. It was fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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