Conservative hypocrisy on police unions

In the charged atmosphere surrounding the debate on race and policing in American cities, nuance and fresh perspective have often been in short supply. That made Ross Douthat‘s column in Sunday’s New York Times a welcome tonic.

The reliably conservative voice on the Times op-ed page weighs in with a thoughtful critique of those on the right who seem to rush reflexively to the defense of police. It’s an odd practice, argues Douthat, since those same voices tend to be the harshest critics of nearly every other group of unionized public sector employees.

Conservatives, he writes, have said the monopoly such unions have on the provision of crucial public services makes imperative the ability to fire poor-performing workers.

Douthat says there are plenty of parallels with the situation of unionized teachers. Both police and teachers fill incredibly difficult and important public roles, and most of them are fully deserving of our gratitude and admiration. But not all of them. As in any field, some are not up to the challenging demands of the job. And it’s that subgroup that is at issue.

Police and teachers both “belong to professions filled with heroic and dedicated public servants, and both enjoy deep reservoirs of public sympathy as a result,” writes Douthat. “But in both professions, unions have consistently exploited that sympathy to protect failed policies and incompetent personnel.”

The stakes, he says, are far higher in law enforcement, where a “bad cop” can leave someone dead or permanently damaged — or help set a city ablaze.

Cities are facing pressure to address police wrongdoing. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announced last month that he wants to beef up a review board set up to examine charges of police misconduct that has been largely dormant. The panel was established by former mayor Tom Menino in 2007. Although police unions battled for years against its formation, the board wields very little clout, with no authority to carry out its own investigations, interview witnesses, or issue subpoenas. The Globe reported today that the city is nearing an agreement with police unions on a separate review process to handle lower-level complaints — cases involving allegations of rude conduct or use of abusive language by officers.

There continues to be a lot of focus on diversity in law enforcement, with the Herald reporting today that the number of minority officers in Boston has ticked down slightly since Walsh took office. No one would dispute that it is good to have a police force that reflects the makeup of the community it serves, but diversity alone is no guarantor of sounder or more sensitive policing practices. In Baltimore, in the case of the death of Freddie Gray, the city’s Dorchester-born prosecutor is bringing charges against six police officers, three white and three black.

The worst thing one can do is to conflate the heroism shown by many police officers with the serious issue of police abuse of blacks that has been at the center of one controversial case after another in recent months. And that is exactly what Joe Fitzgerald does in today’s Herald. He spoke yesterday with John Moynihan, the Boston gang unit officer who has made a remarkable recovery after being shot in the face point-blank in late March.

Fitzgerald writes poignantly about Moynihan’s reaction to the news that a New York City police officer had been critically wounded there on Saturday in an encounter not unlike the one he faced. But Fitzgerald then goes on to decry all the handwringing about blacks recently killed in encounters with police, saying of these victims, “We’re not talking about Medgar Evers and Emmett Till here.”

Eric Garner, he says of the unarmed man a group of New York City police were trying to handcuff for selling loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island, would be alive today if he had “properly responded to arresting officers.” He also would be alive if police hadn’t put him in a chokehold in violation of department policy against its use.

Fitzgerald’s twisted logic is exactly what has given rise to an atmosphere in which rules and reason don’t apply when policing in poor neighborhoods or dealing with black residents. The longstanding tensions that have suddenly burst into public view need a lot less of that thinking and more of Douthat’s thoughtful take. We ought to be able to balance deep respect for police with demands for stricter accountability for their actions and reforms that further that goal.