As demands for reform have mounted after police violence in cities like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and now Minneapolis, police unions have emerged as one of the most significant roadblocks to change. The greater the pressure for reform, the more defiant the unions often are in resisting it, with few city officials able to overcome their opposition, the New York Times reports. Unions aggressively protect the rights of members accused of misconduct, often in arbitration hearings they try to keep behind closed doors. They have been effective at fending off broader change, using their clout to derail efforts to increase accountability. While rates of union membership have dropped by half nationally since the early 1980s, higher membership rates among police unions give them resources to spend on campaigns and litigation to block reform. One New York City police union has spent more than $1 million on state and local races since 2014.
When Kim Gardner was elected St. Louis’ top prosecutor four years ago, she set out to rein in the city’s high rate of police violence. After she proposed a unit that would independently investigate misconduct, the powerful local police union pressured lawmakers to set aside the proposal. After Minneapolis prosecutors charged an officer with murder in the death of George Floyd, police union president Bob Kroll accused political leaders of selling out his members and firing four officers without due process. “It is despicable behavior,” said Kroll, referring to protesters as a “terrorist movement.” In Cleveland, the union helped slow adoption of reforms mandated by a federal consent decree, said former U.S. Justice Department official Jonathan Smith. He said union officials signaled to rank-and-file officers that the changes should not be taken seriously, such as a requirement they report instances in which they pointed a gun.