The Blog

COP BLOC

11:00 PM, Oct 27, 1996 • By ERIC FELTEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The union may also have thwarted corruption investigations by enforcing the code of silence. According to one of the principals in the Mollen Commission, the union had a built-in conflict of interest. When a group of officers was accused of shaking down businesses, robbing from drug dealers, or some other form of corruption, the PBA would provide legal representation to all of the suspected officers. Since the same lawyers represented all the defendants, prosecutors were rarely able to get any of the officers to break ranks. The situation has improved, however, partly because of public outrage at what appeared to be corruption-coddling: When 33 NYPD officers were arrested in the 30th precinct this year, the PBA publicly announced that it would not provide lawyers for them.


The PBA, it should be noted, was one of the police unions that did not endorse Clinton. But as with the FOP support for the Democratic ticket, the PBA's support for Bob Dole is an extension of the union's politics, not a devotion to the candidate most likely to stop crime. Sen. Al D'Amato is one of the PBA's prime patrons, as well as a co-chairman of the Dole campaign.


Police unions regularly resist efforts to remove not only officers who are corrupt or brutal, but even those psychologically unfit for duty. Steve Stanard, a psychologist whose firm, Stanard and Associates, does mental- fitness tests for more than 300 police departments, tells of an officer who returned to work after part of his brain was removed in surgery: "He failed every psychological fitness test we gave him. But the union's doctors insisted he was fine. He's still on the job." Stanard insists that unions " want to have good people on the street," but he admits that "the police unions absolutely have to support their members, regardless of the psychologists' recommendations."


As much as one might be inclined to voice solidarity with policemen, it is frightening to imagine how difficult it is to remove officers suffering from depression or alcoholism or worse. Day in and day out, police have the power to deprive people of their liberty. Officers are armed and sanctioned to use lethal force if necessary. In many ways, the police are a sort of domestic military -- armed, uniformed, and governed by rank. But police departments have few of the powers that the military has to enforce command and control in the troops or to retire the mentally unfit. "In the military, it's a breeze to get rid of someone who is not psychologically fit for duty," says Stanard. But the military doesn't have to worry about getting sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, or local administrative law.


All of which brings us to the question whether police officers should be accorded the same sort of union-negotiated civil service protections enjoyed by bureaucrats and other municipal employees. Administrative due process can help protect cops from abusive or corrupt superiors; it can shield them from being sold out by opportunistic politicians; it can give them peace of mind to do their jobs with confidence. But the flip side of such a process is that the public is left at the mercy of a few rogues, brutes, bigots, crooks, and psychotics with badges and guns.


The police unions not only favor process, they are eagerly lobbying Capitol Hill for legislation called the "Policemen's Bill of Rights," a bill that would extend union-style protections to every cop in the country, union or no. If anything, we should be moving in the opposite direction, limiting officers' rights rather than expanding them. If police departments are quasi- military operations, perhaps policemen should be held to quasi-military standards of conduct, and their behavior judged by heightened quasi-military standards of justice.


For a paradigm, look to the uniformed division of the Secret Service. There was one sticking point that threatened to derail Clinton's endorsement by the the Fraternal Order of Police: For all his pro-union credentials, the president has resisted efforts by the FOP to unionize uniformed officers of the Secret Service. The reason offered by the administration for keeping the union out is simple and revealing -- FOP rules could compromise the president's security.


If unionization of the White House police force threatens the president's safety, might not the unionization of local police forces pose a threat to public safety? With the FOP's endorsement in his back pocket, don't expect Clinton to address that question anytime soon.




Eric Felten, a writer and jazz musician in Washington, D. C. last wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD about big-band music.