Do police unions lead to more police violence? : Planet Money We look at the data connecting police unions and police violence. Today's episode comes from our daily podcast, The Indicator. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Police Unions And Police Violence

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The last few weeks have been exhausting for a lot of people, especially people in Minneapolis, including Javier Morillo.

JAVIER MORILLO: It's just been a really trying time. Even if your neighborhood was not literally in flames, it was just extremely difficult to rest or to sleep.

ARONCZYK: Javier is a union organizer in Minneapolis-St. Paul. And until recently, he was the president of a union, SEIU Local 26, representing thousands of janitors, security officers, window cleaners. But lately, all he is thinking about, all his city is thinking about are the protests.

MORILLO: There were a few days when 911 was almost nonfunctional. Neighborhoods that do not trust the Minneapolis Police Department have begun policing themselves.

ARONCZYK: When he went for a meeting in south Minneapolis, he told me that it looked more like a war zone in a movie. There were Humvees and soldiers carrying machine guns. So much has happened in the past two weeks, but there is this one thing that really stuck out for Javier. Started with a letter on Monday.

MORILLO: So a week after Memorial Day when George Floyd was killed, there was made public a letter by Bob Kroll, who is the president of the Minneapolis Police Federation.

ARONCZYK: In that letter, the police union president writes that the four officers charged with killing George Floyd were fired without due process and he is going to fight to get their jobs back. So that was Monday. Then Tuesday, there was a response that Javier did not expect.

MORILLO: Individual labor unions and then the Minnesota AFL-CIO put out a statement condemning the killing and specifically calling for the resignation of the president of the police federation.

ARONCZYK: Is that a big deal for one union leader to demand that another union leader resign?

MORILLO: Absolutely, yes.

ARONCZYK: We reached out to the Minneapolis police union for their response, but they did not get back to us. This police union, by the way, is not a part of the Minnesota branch of the AFL-CIO, which is kind of this umbrella organization for unions, including the union that represents a bunch of us here at PLANET MONEY.

Now, calling for the resignation of a union boss might sound small, but this was a very big deal. Unions don't usually trash talk other unions. Usually, they're all about solidarity, but not this week. These labor leaders accused the president of the police union of failing the movement and the people of Minneapolis.

MORILLO: I mean, I'm glad that we're finally having a full conversation on the labor side.

ARONCZYK: Javier - remember; he's a former union president himself - he says police unions are just not the same as other unions. For one, police unions are really powerful.

MORILLO: They are wildly successful at saving the jobs of people whose jobs should not be saved.

ARONCZYK: Compared to other unions, they have all of these tools to keep their members from getting fired or even disciplined. So in this moment, Javier's like, we have to talk about our police unions, what makes them different and how they need to change.

MORILLO: My personal feeling is that the greater good demands that we take this on and that the labor movement speak up. And if it means that the police union does not exist anymore, I personally am fine with that.

ARONCZYK: Because - that's a fairly radical thing to say because you're saying, I believe in organized labor, but not for this group of workers.

MORILLO: And I think that colleagues in the labor movement may disagree with me, but I think we need to hit reset, period.


ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. Police unions are not like other unions. Today on the show, we look at the data, how police unions got so powerful and how their very existence might lead to more people being killed by police. The rest of this episode comes from our daily podcast, The Indicator. Cardiff Garcia and Stacey Vanek Smith will pick it up after the break.


CARDIFF GARCIA: 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.

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: 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.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Rob studies the history of police killings and the protests that often result from them. 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 was - 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've 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 try 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.

VANEK SMITH: 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 in each year, of whom the overwhelming majority are nonwhite. That's about 60 to 70 per year civilians killed by the police in an era historically where there were 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 nonwhite civilians.

GILLEZEAU: So bargaining rights 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 nonwhite 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 are 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 nonwhite 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 nonwhite civilians at their top priority.


ARONCZYK: That was Cardiff Garcia and Stacey Vanek Smith. If you're not already subscribed to The Indicator, what are you waiting for? In one episode, they went looking for the wave of bankruptcies that is supposed to be happening and found out why it's not crashing down just yet.

This episode was produced by Camille Petersen, Leena Sanzgiri, Liza Yeager and Darian Woods. It was fact-checked by Brittany Cronin.

Let us know what is on your mind. You can send us an email - Or we're on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok. Our TikTok crew is making tons of videos right now about racial inequality in the U.S. Highly recommend checking them out if, you know, TikTok is your thing.

I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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