Recently, an arbitrator ruled that Sgt. Brian Miller of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office should be reinstated, receive full back pay of nearly $275,000, and regain seniority status despite being fired from the department. Miller’s employment was terminated after he failed to adequately respond to the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Miller was one of four officers fired for neglect of duties after he, as the first supervisor on the scene, hid behind his police car during the shooting. He was represented by his union and reinstated because of a procedural timing issue outlined in a collective bargaining agreement.
This is just one example of how today’s police unions have become obstacles to reform instead of the change agents they once were. Many law enforcement collective bargaining agreements create procedure rights for the officers that make it difficult for agencies to investigate and discipline misconduct, including excessive use of force.
In 2015, the Minneapolis Police Department introduced new rules requiring officers to protect the “sanctity of life” and intervene if they saw a colleague improperly using force, according the to then-police chief, Janee Harteau, the union undermined these changes. Five years later, this issue came to light with the unfortunate and high-profile death of George Floyd.
Police unions have continued to expand their negotiating strength over the years, and these cases are just two examples of how much strength they have in collective bargaining. To reinstate an officer, like in the Parkland case, who failed to respond in an incident where 17 lives were lost is an insult to citizens and officers alike.
This leads to a growing concern that such contractual provisions undermine the ability of management to deter misconduct. In addition, unions may also successfully lobby state and local legislators to provide procedural protections against investigation and discipline or litigate against reform efforts.”
Police unions are concerned, first and foremost, about the union—its growth and expansion. Achieving that goal comes with it the need for political influence. In recent years, police unions have been instrumental in blocking true police reform, such as civilian oversight committees, because reforms could subject union members to discipline or even termination.
There continues to be a growing controversy regarding the impact of police unions and on law enforcement behavior. Unions that have contracts or collective bargaining agreements on terminations and use of force could unintendedly cause officers to be less concerned with their behaviors while on the job. In Florida specifically, a 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision conferred collective bargaining rights on sheriff’s deputies, which increased the union ranks considerably. This 2003 decision emboldened police unions in Florida and ultimately helped reinstate a failed police officer that should not be serving the public.
Police unions do some good work, research suggests that officers in union agencies have higher wages and better benefits. However, modern unions have undermined the collective bargaining process that can make it very difficult for agencies to discipline and terminate officers and this has led to poor public policy decisions in the end.
Sheriff (Ret) Currie Myers, PhD, MBA is a senior visiting fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a member of the Criminology faculty at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. His previous law enforcement service was with as a Kansas Trooper, a special agent with the KBI, and as sheriff of Johnson County, Kansas.