Freddie Gray and the public union conundrum

Yesterday, The New York Times published a column by Ross Douthat in which he calls for police union reform. Douthat suggests that in light of recent events in Baltimore, and across the country, we can no longer sit back and ignore the racism and abuse of power that plagues police departments nationwide. Police officers must be held accountable for the wrongful violence they perpetuate, and after Friday’s announcement that six officers are being charged with the murder of Freddie Gray, it looks like the Baltimore city government agrees.

While filing criminal charges is one way of holding police officers accountable, our criminal justice system makes conviction in these cases extremely difficult. We’re a country that would rather let ten guilty people go free than wrongfully imprison one innocent person, as the saying goes. And the jury proceedings in the recent Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases are proof that police officers are not likely to be punished even in cases where it’s eminently clear that there was wrongdoing. I won’t get into the merits/ demerits of a criminal justice system that prizes rights of the accused — I think it protects citizens in ways that are both extremely harmful and extremely beneficial to society as a whole — but I do think that in light of our criminal justice system’s clear inability to keep officers accountable to the people they serve, it’s necessary to consider other disciplinary avenues.

Douthat’s proposal that police union reform is the way to keep police accountable is thought-provoking for a number of reasons. It simultaneously satisfies a liberal desire for police accountability as well as a conservative desire for public sector union reform — and yet it pleases no one. Conservatives balk at the idea of disciplining police officers, and liberals can’t stand the thought of weaker public sector union protections. His proposal brings to mind the debate in recent years over what protections teachers’ unions should enjoy from state governments. In the education debate, however, the sides are clearer. Liberals protect teachers’ unions while conservatives demand accountability.

As Douthat points out, “For decades now, conservatives have pressed the case that public sector unions do not serve the common good.” Recent conservative state initiatives across the country have aimed to abolish teacher tenure, which would allow public school districts to fire low-performing teachers. But the argument that public sector unions promote inefficiency is only compelling if it is applied consistently. If public unions are so inefficient, then why aren’t we hearing calls from the right to make it easier to fire low-performing and/or abusive police officers? By the same token, if keeping public employees accountable to the taxpayers who employ them is so important, then why aren’t we hearing calls from the left to weaken protections for teachers’ unions? Public sector unions don’t just protect the people we like.

The comparison between teachers’ unions and police unions is not a perfect one. Teachers and police officers play different roles in our daily lives and they enjoy different protections in their respective unions. But one thing they do have in common is their critical importance in the fight for racial equality. Police officers have the power to ensure that all citizens receive equal protection under the law, and the struggle to close the achievement gap is central to American racial progress. Both law enforcement and public education are currently failing black and Hispanic youth in this country, and the role that unions have played in that failure is not clear cut. We need public sector unions because they remind us that our public employees are grossly underpaid. Unions push us to value public services for what they’re worth, and even then we still don’t pay public employees in a manner commensurate with the immense value that they contribute to society. Public unions are important, and yet they’ve also prevented schools and police departments from firing employees who are clearly not cut out for their respective jobs. The national conversation about racial inequality needs to carefully consider the role that public unions play in the prevention of racial progress.

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