How has the development of police unions changed law enforcement?
As workplaces employing large numbers of low-wage workers, police departments stand out for the unique stresses and risks associated with that type of labor. Every shift an officer works can involve a life-or-death situation, with the possibility of lethal force having to be used on the basis of split-second decisions. Mistakes can result not only in the death of the officer, the suspect, or a civilian bystander, it can result in imprisonment and liability in a civil suit. Police officers have to occasionally testify under oath in criminal trials, and spend a great deal of time after their normal shift completing the requisite paperwork.
There, of course, other occupations that involve high levels of stress, long hours, and relatively low wages, but those other jobs seldom require the worker to risk his or her life on a daily basis, to patrol dangerous neighborhoods, to chase and apprehend dangerous suspects, and to be prepared to be investigated by the department he or she serves following the slightest hint of an infraction. That police officers began to unionize almost one hundred years ago should not, therefore, be surprising. The creation of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in 1915 was a response by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania police officers to the perceived need for the political representation and protections that union membership was providing for other professions. It has since become a nationwide union, with over 300,000 members.
While a strike by a police department would clearly be a major disruption to whatever city or town experienced it, such strikes are very rare. Police labor grievances are usually amicably resolved because both parties to the labor dispute, the officers and the city councils, mayors, governors, etc., uniformly recognize the importance to public safety of police officers remaining on the job. Existence of a labor union representing police officers has provided them with greater levels of confidence that they will have the legal protections they need should they be accused of improper conduct, like a questionable use of their firearms or of lesser levels of force in restraining a suspect. Because police officers can be sued by citizens for violations of civil rights, officers require legal representation, and the union helps to ensure such representation is available.
Because cities are often on tight budgets, and because police frequently have to work overtime due to paperwork requirements, officers on sick or vacation leave, or major events requiring all available officers, for example, a political convention or major sporting event, there are often conflicts between the officers and the departments for which they work and the cities that pay them regarding compensation for those extra hours on the job. Union representation has made it easier for officers to secure overtime pay and other forms of compensation in exchange for those extra hours worked.
Because the FOP has grown so large, and been around so long, there is little evidence that its existence has negatively affected law enforcement. Individuals become police officers -- most of them, anyway -- out of a sense of commitment to public safety. They want to prevent crime, and to catch perpetrators once crimes have been committed. Union membership has not altered that basic fact.