Jun 10, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Democrats face the changing politics of police unions

Illustrated GIF of a protestor with signs flipping between saying support police unions and no justice, no peace

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Democrats are in a political bind. They want police reform, but as advocates of public sector unions, they've also been trying to help police unions — which have been some of the biggest obstacles to police reform.

Driving the news: The politics of police unions have gotten so difficult that House Democrats are shelving a bill, first introduced in 2019, that would strengthen the ability of police to unionize, Axios has learned.

That was then: The bill, H.R. 1154, would enable all state and local public safety employees — including police — to collectively bargain for wages, hours, and other conditions of employment.

  • It was introduced by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), with a group of 225 other co-sponsors.
  • The vast majority of those co-sponsors were Democrats, including Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who leads the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

This is now: Many of these same Democrats co-sponsored legislation introduced on Monday called the Justice in Policing Act, which has not yet been endorsed or opposed by major police unions.

  • The bill would, among other things, limit qualified immunity for police officers, which makes it practically impossible to sue them successfully. A senior Democratic aide says this issue remains a sticking point for police unions, and the White House has called it a nonstarter.

Kildee's spokesman says that he is a "strong supporter" of the Justice in Policing Act, and that he has asked House Democratic leadership to not bring his earlier bill up for a vote in its current form because of "valid concerns with how H.R. 1154 could potentially contribute to acts of police brutality."

The big picture: Kildee's change of heart shows how Democrats are grappling with the changing politics of police unions — and making distinctions between them and the other public-sector unions they've traditionally supported.

  • "Police unions are very different. They’re very conservative, a lot of them are even Republican," said a House Democratic leadership aide. "They don’t have the same progressive beliefs."

What they're saying: Police reform advocates have long sought to more easily fire or discipline bad cops, as have many police chiefs.

  • The Major Cities Chiefs Association, in a statement last week, said:
"The balance of labor and management is often out of calibration. Contracts and labor laws hamstring efforts to swiftly rid departments of problematic behavior and as law enforcement executives, we call for a review of those contracts and laws."
  • But the National Fraternal Order of Police, a labor organization that represents more than 300,000 cops, replied that it is legally obligated to defend its members. Organization president Patrick Yoes said:
"I agree whole-heartedly that law enforcement executives should use every appropriate and legal authority to hold their officers accountable. But I must take issue with the MCCA’s fear-mongering. Suggesting that unions are somehow the root cause of these tragedies is simply a deflection from their own failures."
  • The head of Minneapolis' police union argued last week that the four police officers involved in the death of George Floyd, including Derek Chauvin, were improperly fired and that he would work to "fight for their jobs."
  • The Brevard County, Fla. chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police on Saturday offered to hire officers in Buffalo and Atlanta that have been accused of misconduct during recent protests.

Between the lines: It's possible that police unions won't oppose the whole bill. A House Judiciary Committee aide who worked on the bill said that the police unions have shown support for some provisions.

  • One Democratic aide working on the bill told Axios that the unions have signaled they're open to change, recognizing that the political dynamic has shifted, but it's still unclear where they will fall.
  • "There's always going to be unions that are opposed to big legislation," a second Democratic aide said. "That's just fact ... I don't think Democrats are any less supportive of unions broadly. This is just what happens when you deal with issues related to a specific union."

Democrats may try to thread the needle by arguing that police unions should be treated differently than other public employee unions, because police misconduct can be the difference between life and death. Rarely is that the case in a classroom or a department of motor vehicles.

The other side: Republicans in the House and Senate are working on their own police reform measures, and may get some help from President Trump. They may face a different challenge than Democrats, in that GOP politicians often oppose public employee unions but loudly laud police.

  • Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who is working on the Senate GOP bill, tells Axios: "Unions are gonna probably fight everything that we're doing in general. And I think it's just a point where that's going to have to change so I'm hoping what we do do, ends up being a benefit to them in general so they don't have to keep contending with all the issues that arise every time we have a situation like this."

The bottom line: Everyone says they're willing to work for change, in light of nationwide demonstrations. But it remains unclear where the battle-lines will be drawn.

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