By Ed Ring | In the wake of tragic and deadly attacks on police officers, those of us who have never wavered in our support for the members of law enforcement, but have questioned the role of police unions and have debated issues of policy surrounding law enforcement have an obligation to restate our position. Civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives have disagreements with police unions which were summed up quite well recently by guest columnist Steve Greenhut, writing in the Orange County Register. Here are some of the principal concerns:
Police unionization protects bad officers and stifles reform. Lack of transparency into investigations of police misconduct aids and abets the worst actors. Police unions often support laws designed to extract increased revenue from citizens in the form of excessive fines. The “war on drugs” and militarization of law enforcement can further increase the tension between police and the populations they serve. And, of course, police unions fight relentlessly for increases to compensation and benefits, especially straining the budgets of cities.
To have a balanced discussion on these topics, however, it is necessary to revisit why police work has become more controversial and more expensive. Here are some of the reasons:
(1) The value of life has never been higher. A century ago, when the life expectancy for Americans was 49, tragic deaths were commonplace. Compared to Americans in 1916, Americans today on average can expect an additional three decades of productive life, and premature death is proportionately more traumatic. This means the premium that police officers deserve for their service is higher than it’s ever been, and should be.
(2) The expectations we have for law enforcement have never been higher. Along with longer lives, Americans suffer less crime. For nearly forty years, in nearly all categories, crime has steadily diminished. While there remains enough crime to generate a daily barrage of lurid local news reports, we enjoy more safety and security than at any time in history. We are getting this service thanks to our police forces, and better service deserves better pay.
(3) The complexity of crime has never been higher. Crime itself has become far more sophisticated and menacing, morphing into areas unimaginable even a generation ago – cybercrime, global terrorism, financial crimes, murderous gangs, international criminal networks, foreign espionage, asymmetric threats – the list is big and gets bigger every year. Countering these threats requires more capable, better compensated personnel.
(4) The statistical risk to police officers, even in the wake of recent tragedies, may remain low, but that could change in an instant. In the event of severe civil unrest or well coordinated terrorist attacks such as we saw in Sept. 2011, hundreds or even thousands of officers could find themselves on the front lines of a cataclysm. Statistics are not necessarily predictive, and police officers live with this knowledge every day.
So how do civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives manage their debates with police unions while conveying their respect for police officers? First, by acknowledging the complexity of the issues. Police should make more money than ever before – the debate should start there, not end there. Police have to be armed to the teeth, because in a free republic, the citizens themselves are armed to the teeth. That’s the choice we made, and unless we want to disarm the citizenry, we can’t disarm the police. These are fundamentals where there should be agreement.
Beyond that, it is necessary to appeal to the patriotism and decency that animates the vast majority of members of law enforcement, and ask them: Please work with us to curb the inherent excesses of police union power. Of course we have to get bad cops off the street. Of course we have to come up with effective non-lethal uses of force. Of course we have to figure out how to fund police departments without levying excessive fines. And of course we have to face a challenging economic future together, where police are partners with the people they serve, not an economically privileged class. Is this possible? One may hope so.
There’s more. If police unions are going to be intimately involved in the politics of law enforcement and the politics of police compensation, and they are, they may as well start getting involved in other causes where their membership may find common cause with civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Police officers see first hand how welfare destroys families and how public schools fail our children. So why aren’t they fighting to replace welfare with workfare and why aren’t they fighting to destroy the teachers union? You can say what you will about police unions, but they did NOT turn this nation into a lawless hellhole, quite the opposite. The teachers union DID destroy public education. So help us reduce their influence.
Similarly, police officers need to decide if they really feel like enforcing the myriad environmental harassment laws that are criminalizing everything from installing a window or water heater without a building permit to watering your lawn on the wrong day. The global environmentalist movement – of which California is ground zero – has become fascism masquerading as anti-fascism. It has become neo-colonialism masquerading as concern for indigenous peoples. It was a previously noble movement that has been hijacked by cynical billionaires, monopolistic corporations, and corrupt financial special interests. In its excess today, it has become a despicable scam. Help us to crush these corrupt opportunists before our freedom and prosperity is obliterated.
These thoughts, perhaps, are challenges that civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives might offer up to the police unions of America.
Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.