June 9, 2020 10:57AM

Police Unions Enable Misconduct

By Jeffrey Miron and Erin Partin

As calls for police reform echo across the country, police unions are under increasing scrutiny. A recent working paper from the University of Chicago addresses many of the issues surrounding police unions:

Growing controversy surrounds the impact of labor unions on law enforcement behavior. Critics argue that unions impede organizational reform and insulate officers from discipline for misconduct. Yet collective bargaining tends to increase wages, which could improve officer behavior. We provide quasi‐​experimental empirical evidence on the effects of collective bargaining rights on violent incidents of misconduct. Our empirical strategy exploits a 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision (Williams), which conferred collective bargaining rights on sheriffs’ deputies, resulting in a substantial increase in unionization among these officers. Using a Florida state administrative database of “moral character” violations reported by local agencies between 1996 and 2015, we implement a difference‐​in‐​difference approach in which police departments (which were unaffected by Williams) serve as a control group for sheriffs’ offices (SOs). Our estimates imply that collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents of misconduct among SOs, relative to police departments. The effect of collective bargaining rights is concentrated among SOs that subsequently adopted collective bargaining agreements, and the timing of the adoption of these agreements is associated with increases in violent misconduct. There is also some evidence consistent with a “bargaining in the shadow” effect among SOs that did not unionize.

Overly strong police unions hamper the police’s ability to protect and serve the community by enabling persistent police misconduct. Weakening or abolishing them is a necessary step in the reform process.