Police unions can be smart partners in community-policing reform: Tom Wetzel (Opinion)

Police unions and community policing are two terms that most people probably don’t view as synonymous right now. The first may be viewed as recalcitrant, stubborn and only looking out for the interests of their members, while the latter is all the buzz right now and viewed as a panacea for all that plagues police work.

This may be especially true in Cleveland, where a federal consent degree put special emphasis on the role of community policing, but appears to have ignoredcontractual issues that are both legal and binding, which is a concern to the Cleveland police union there. It’s unfortunate because community policing and police unions are intrinsically connected and have the collective potential to make our communities safer places to live and thrive.

For the leadership of police unions throughout our nation, this is an opportune time to demonstrate the importance of that relationship and work towards educating our customers about unions’ purpose and mission.

It is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the business model of police unions and recognize that certain changes can strengthen their hand and increase their support from those same customers.

Many people may not fully understand that those sworn to protect and serve them also need someone to protect and serve them.

One officer alone is limited in addressing capricious management that shows favoritism or sexism, or the stinginess of city administrators in allowing that same cop to have a decent standard of living for his family. But collectively, through a union, officers can work as a team towards improving their work conditions and be able to defend themselves against unfair or inconsistent disciplinary efforts brought against them.

Police union leadership needs to do a better job explaining why they do what they do, because they are essentially another form of “backup” for an officer.

Making changes within their business model is fundamental for the long-term success of police unions and is critical in developing increased backing from the citizenry police are risking their lives to protect. Current agreed-upon police contracts will limit immediate large-scale changes, but that shouldn’t prevent planning for when they do expire.

There are many ways unions can enhance their mission, but one area of concern is their role in the discipline process. One of the biggest criticisms police unions face is defending chronic troublemaking officers who don’t seem to learn from their mistakes.

Unfortunately, police administrations are part of the problem because they can be erratic in meting out discipline, which makes them susceptible to later losing cases involving punishment.

A better model for addressing officer mistakes and misconduct may involve having union representation be part of the discipline solution instead of just reflexively defending it. By working with police administrations in the actual complaint process, union participation will allow for a more balanced approach, which may produce a resolution more tolerable for the officer in question as well as limit excessive outside litigation and lengthy arbitration hearings.

City management would naturally have to agree to this process and conditions would have to be set for an impasse, but it clearly has the potential to bring more harmony and fairness to this complex and emotional process. And it also shows the public that unions recognize the importance of addressing misconduct because they will have a hand in the disciplinary process.

Getting back to community policing, leadership needs to be out in front on this.

Instead of having politicians or pundits calling for these measures, it should be union presidents, because they recognize well the value of community-policing efforts. It is their membership who will be the ones enacting these programs and policies — and who better to lead the charge than them? In doing so, they will demonstrate a commitment to developing a genuine partnership with the public to help keep them safe.

Police unions have an important function within our communities. The current strain of antipathy towards too many police officers requires strong leadership and the wherewithal to make internal changes that will help them better connect with those they are sworn to protect and serve.

Tom Wetzel is a suburban police lieutenant in Northeast Ohio.