Police Union Privileges, Officer Misconduct and Systems Thinking

In Police Union Privileges I explained how union contracts and police bill of rights give police officers privileges not afforded to regular people. What differences do these privileges make? A new paper, The Effect of Collective Bargaining Rights on Law Enforcement: Evidence from Florida, suggests that police union privileges significantly increase the rate of officer misconduct:

Growing controversy surrounds the impact of labor unions on law enforcement behavior. Critics allege that unions impede organizational reform and insulate officers from discipline for misconduct. The only evidence of these effects, however, is anecdotal. We exploit a quasi-experiment in Florida to estimate the effects of collective bargaining rights on law enforcement misconduct and other outcomes of public concern. In 2003, the Florida Supreme Court’s Williams decision extended to county deputy sheriffs collective bargaining rights that municipal police officers had possessed for decades. We construct a comprehensive panel dataset of Florida law enforcement agencies starting in 1997, and employ a difference-in-difference approach that compares sheriffs’ offices and police departments before and after Williams. Our primary result is that collective bargaining rights lead to about a 27% increase in complaints of officer misconduct for the typical sheriff’s office. This result is robust to the inclusion of a variety of controls. The time pattern of the estimated effect, along with an analysis using agency-specific trends, suggests that it is not attributable to preexisting trends. The estimated effect of Williams is not robustly significant for other potential outcomes of interest, however, including the racial and gender composition of agencies and training and educational requirements.

This is important research but although I’m not surprised that collective bargaining rights lead to more misconduct I do find the size of the effect implausibly large. One reason is that police union privileges are only one brick in the blue wall. Juries, for example, often fail to convict police even when faced with video evidence that would be overwhelming in any other context [e.g. Philando Castile]. Police union privileges are unjust and should be abolished but solving the problems with policing requires more than a change in naked incentives.

To solve this problem we need to adopt the same kind of systems wide thinking that has led to large reductions in fatal accidents in anesthesiology, airplane crashes, and nuclear accidents. Criminologist Lawrence Sherman writes:

The central point Perrow (1984) made in defining the concept of system accidents is that the urge to blame individuals often obstructs the search for organizational solutions. If a system-crash perspective can help build a consensus that many dimensions of police systems need to be changed to reduce unnecessary deaths (not just but certainly including firing or prosecuting culpable shooting officers), police and their constituencies might start a dialog over the details of which system changes to make. That dialog could begin by describing Perrow’s central hypothesis that the interactive complexity of modern systems is the main target for reform. From the 1979 nuclear power plant near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania to airplane and shipping accidents, Perrow shows how the post-incident reviews rarely identify the true culprit: It is the complexity of the high-risk systems that causes extreme harm. Similarly, fatal police shootings shine the spotlight on the shooter rather than on the complex organizational processes that recruited, hired, trained, supervised, disciplined, assigned, and dispatched the shooter before anyone faced a split-second decision to shoot.


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