It’s Time to Take On Police Unions

Six and a half minutes.

That’s how much time elapsed between the instant that Akai Gurley was shot in a dark Brooklyn stairwell last month and the moment the officer responsible for Gurley’s death finally called it in.

What was NYPD officer Peter Liang doing in those six and a half minutes as his commanding officer and emergency operator tried desperately to reach him? So far as we know, he was not crouched on the floor, attempting to resuscitate Gurley, the man into whose chest Liang, gun drawn, claims he “accidentally discharged a bullet” during an unauthorized stairwell patrol, sending Gurley’s body tumbling down two flights of stairs.

No, as Akai Gurley, the 28-year-old father of a two-year-old daughter, was bleeding out on the floor, Officer Liang was texting his union rep. The Akai Gurley episode is a disturbing reflection on policing in America and of a law-enforcement culture that now prioritizes officers’ professional and personal liability concerns over the well-being of the citizens.

This is the reality we have wrought for ourselves, thanks to the far-reaching might enjoyed by America’s police unions.

The confusing events in Ferguson, the disturbing footage in the Eric Garner case, the aforementioned Brooklyn incident, and, most recently, a police officer’s shooting of a black father in Phoenix who was delivering his children Happy Meals when, during a brief chase and scuffle, the officer determined the man was armed, mistaking a bottle of painkillers in the now-dead man’s pocket for a gun — all of these incidents have provided rich content for television pundits on both sides of the aisle to stoke a polarizing dialogue about the complicated relationship between black Americans and law enforcement.

But there is another feature of these episodes that deserves our attention: The role unions representing America’s law-enforcement officers have played in the state of policing today.

Americans have long been sympathetic to public-sector unionization, even as some conservative thought leaders have gained some ground in pointing out their harmful influence on policy

Police unions, in particular, have come to command an enviable position, deploying lobbyists, endorsements, direct campaign-committee contributions, and independent expenditures and PAC spending — funded largely by union dues drawn from public paychecks — to great effect.

While some other classes of government-sector unions took a beating following the recession, police unions have mostly been insulated from reforms, securing carve-outs in legislation that would otherwise reduce union muscle.

America’s special reverence for law enforcement is understandable. Law enforcement is arguably government’s most core function, and effective policing requires the unflagging dedication of individuals who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect us.

But as police unions’ clout has grown, law-enforcement culture has tended to place the interests of unions and officers above those of the community. Police unions have lobbied against greater transparency in day-to-day policing and against internal-review policies or public-records laws that would shine light on complaints filed against officers, among other proposals.

Inevitably, the justification given in these cases is “safety of first responders” or the desire to “prevent community unrest.” But in reality, it’s an attempt to reduce the chance that officers, whether malevolent or simply negligent, will be held accountable for their actions.

And so we return to the November death of Akai Gurley and Peter Liang, the officer who killed him.