Police unions are a valued entity for officers throughout the country. But there’s also a downside.
In the early 1970s, police officers were underpaid and understaffed. Corruption was perceived as commonplace, even if it wasn’t true. People thought cops were on the take. Working homicide in Dade County, my co-workers and I often logged 70-80 hours a week on whodunits and high-profile cases for the same small paycheck every two weeks. No overtime, no extra benefits. We might go to work on Monday and not come home for days.
Along came the Police Benevolent Association, which had been a law-enforcement fellowship. New leadership led the organization into a bargaining entity, without calling it a union. By 1972, Dade County politicians acquiesced to demands and police began receiving long-overdue benefits, including overtime pay.
That was a good thing. It also was good that the new union made sure officers’ rights were protected. The union staunchly defended cops accused of wrongdoing. But, they may have gone too far in some instances.
In the late 1970s, a small number of officers had been red-flagged as problematic, accused too often of unnecessary brutality. Whereas most officers might see one or two brutality accusations in their personnel files, a very few others had 20 and 30 complaints on record. Internal investigations often exonerated these men, though the lopsided number of complaints should have indicated a serious problem. Rather than firing or reassigning them to desk jobs, they were transferred to patrol Central District, considered the “Siberia” of assignments. Citizen complaints continued, but nothing was ever proven. The union, now a political powerhouse, made sure officers’ rights were protected.
One night, motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie, 32, led this cadre of officers on a harrowing chase through the streets of Liberty City. When apprehended, flashlights and nightsticks were used to beat the unarmed man into unconsciousness and death. Five officers were charged and tried. A not-guilty verdict led to the Miami riots of May 1980.
The department brass knew these few officers had lopsided numbers of brutality complaints. The upper echelon who were willing to act were deterred by the union and the political clout it wielded. They knew the bad cops, but nothing could be done. In truth, the department brass/union/political forces were equally responsible for the death of Arthur McDuffie.
Example Two: In my final year, 1990, I was a captain managing a unit of 60 officers and supervisors. By this time, the police union had morphed into a protection agency acting as de facto public defenders whenever a complaint was logged for wrongdoing.
I inherited one officer who, in his short three-year tenure, had established a dismal performance record, with poor evaluations and a series of reprimands and suspensions for failing to perform duties. Officer “Z” was a bad cop but remained on the job.
One day, another officer in his area called for a backup on radio. Officer “Z” would be closest, but he didn’t answer. Other officers, farther away, took the call, but no one could find “Z.” An investigation determined “Z” had abandoned his zone to attend an event at the Orange Bowl, on duty. He had violated rules and put his fellow officer in danger.
Considering his atrocious job record, I recommended termination — in vain. Officer “Z” presented his termination papers to a union rep, who in turn complained to downtown politicians, who in turn contacted the department chief, who called to let me know he wouldn’t allow “Z” to be terminated. The bad cop prevailed over the captain.
If you wonder why some notoriously bad cops (or bad teachers) stay on the job, that’s an example. Union leaders have much more political clout than department heads.
While unions are still valuable, the golden age has crested. Sometimes, greed and power is given priority over doing what’s right. That’s not a good thing.
Marshall Frank is an author and retired South Florida police detective who lives in Melbourne. His work is online at MarshallFrank.com.