During push for police reform, a new Virginia law could give officer unions greater power

Police unions around Virginia could use a new state law to become more powerful than ever — even as people around the country cry out for the kinds of reforms police unions often oppose.

The law, which goes into effect next May, allows cities and towns to give unions representing public employees the opportunity to collectively bargain.

The president of a union that represents more than 450 Virginia Beach police officers said he plans to launch a campaign to convince city leaders to let rank-and-file officers collectively bargain with the city.

And the president of the local union representing more than 100 Norfolk officers said he wants his members to at least consider the idea.

“(Collective bargaining) has been our goal for a very long time,” said Brian Luciano, president of the Virginia Beach Police Benevolent Association.

The new law partially undoes a 1993 Virginia statute barring collective bargaining in the public sector, according to a Nov. 18 Washington Post article. Virginia and the two Carolinas are the only three states in the country with such a blanket ban.

The debate over the law during the General Assembly session earlier this year focused mostly on teachers’ unions being able to bargain with cities. But the law would also give that opportunity to police unions, which have come under fire in the two months since a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, killed 46-year-old George Floyd by jamming his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, told The Virginian-Pilot she doesn’t see a direct link between officers being able to collectively bargain and police brutality. But some policing experts say research shows a relationship between the kinds of protections officers win in bargaining and the amount of police violence and misconduct that happens in those cities.

Guzman said she believes she and her fellow lawmakers will pass police accountability laws next year before public employees are able to collectively bargain on May 1, and those laws will supersede any thing unions might be able to win at the bargaining table.

Since the 1960s, police unions have morphed from weak organizations with little input into political powerhouses that have a huge say in not just how much pay and benefits rank-and-file officers get, but also how and when they can be disciplined.

In that time, some scholars found unions have had positive and negative impacts on policing, criminal justice professors Samuel Walker and Charles Katz wrote in their 2018 textbook, “The Police in America.”

For more than a half century, these unions have won higher pay for officers, thus luring stronger candidates into the profession and cutting down on turnover, Walker and Katz wrote. In the mid-1960 1/4 u2032s, many departments were struggling to recruit and hold qualified officers. By the late 80s, they were able to compete with other professions in attracting candidates with at least some college education.

Both Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone and Mike McKenna, a retired Norfolk officer who was heavily involved in unionizing rank-and-file Norfolk officers for decades, said it’s generally a good thing when officers have a college education. Those officers are less likely to use force and more likely to de-escalate tense situations by talking people down and letting things cool off, McKenna said.

But three University of Chicago Law School professors found in a 2018 study that collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents and misconduct in Florida sheriff’s departments after a 2003 state supreme court gave sheriff’s deputies bargaining rights.

And an Oxford University researcher in 2019 discovered “a significant relationship between police abuse and police protections” won by police unions in a study analyzing the 100 largest police departments in the United States.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Carol Archbold, a criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University and co-author of “The New World of Police Accountability.”

Some policing experts and police chiefs have also accused unions of blocking or sabotaging accountability efforts, such as citizen oversight, wearing body cameras and early-intervention systems, which use complaints and disciplinary records to flag officers who are doing a bad job with an eye toward correcting their mistakes before they get worse.

“Police unions have become so powerful in some places across the country that it really limits the ability of the police chief to do anything with regard to increasing accountability of officers,” she said.

Archbold said she has consulted for three major police departments for which early-intervention systems had “failed miserably.” Police unions fought to block supervisors and top brass from either using information they needed to identify officers’ bad behavior, stop them from retraining those officers once the red flags popped up, or both.

“They weren’t allowed to give it any teeth because the union was part of the process,” she said.

In some cases, the unions fought to allow officers’ disciplinary records to be part of the system at all, which “completely undercuts the whole point of it.”

Luciano bristled at the idea that police unions reflexively block any and all potential reforms. Yes, he opposed a recent proposal that would reduce assaulting an officer from a felony to a misdemeanor charge, but he and the union are open to reforms that work.

“I will be an obstacle to stupidity,” Luciano said, “but if somebody presents something that makes sense, I’m not going to stand in its way just for the purpose of standing in its way.”

Luciano and McKenna defended one provision in some police contracts and department policies: a “cooling off” period that prevents investigators from questioning officers who’ve shot someone in the line of duty until 48 or 72 hours later.

“That comes from science,” Luciano said.

Archbold said there has been little research into the issue and that she’s seen nothing medically- or psychologically-based that supports allowing officers to “cool off.” Plus, it flies in the face of centuries of police investigators’ own practices of questioning suspects and witnesses as soon as possible after an event, however traumatic, while their memories are still fresh.

Other provisions allow officers to look at body and dashboard camera video before talking to investigators, meaning they can align what they say with the footage rather than basing it off their independent memory, like any other witness.

“I don’t believe that there should be exceptions made for officers, especially those that are involved in situations where there’s a loss of life,” Archbold said.

Booker Hodges, an assistant commissioner in Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety, admitted police unions block reform efforts on June 10 when he appeared on NPR’s 1A podcast episode about “The Power of Police Unions.” But, he added, that’s their job — to get as much at the bargaining table as they can and defend their member police officers That’s why officers pay dues.

“All of these things are placed in these contracts by elected officials,” Hodges said.

So why have city leaders around the country let many of these

officer protections slip into police contracts over the years?

“Two things: It comes down to money … and political influence,” Archbold said. Union leaders use member dues to contribute to political campaigns, backing candidates who support them or “sweetening the pot” for those that may be on the fence.

Virginia’s police unions — all public employee unions for that matter — will have to convince their city’s leaders to let them collectively bargain in the first place. Democrats in the House of Delegates originally wanted to require cities and towns to collectively bargain with public employees, but the senate wouldn’t go that far and only agreed to back legislation that would give cities that option.

“The fight is not over. We’re still going to have to convince council,” Luciano said.

That could be an uphill battle. The Virginia Municipal League opposed the legislation. The Richmond-based lobbying group represents city and town governments from across the state and fought Guzman’s bill, saying it would increase the cost of government, create red tape and foment a more adversarial relationship between city officials and workers.

Norfolk councilman Tommy Smigiel, president of the municipal league, said he generally supports unions but thinks the state has, to a certain extent, given cities an unfunded mandate by allowing collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining will probably lead to higher salaries for thousands of public employees in Norfolk alone, Smigiel said, and the city would be on the hook to pay for that.

The General Assembly didn’t require cities to allow collective bargaining, but if they say no, city councils will have to weather the pressure from employees. All the while, state lawmakers didn’t give cities any more money to pay for increased salaries and benefits.

Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander said allowing public employees to collectively bargain is not something the City Council has considered or has plans to consider. Instead, he said, city leaders have been focused on coronavirus-related shortfalls and resulting budget cuts as well as police reform.

“We’ve been so consumed with recent and current events,” Alexander said, “(collective bargaining) is not on my radar.”

Alexander said he’s sure the issue will eventually come before the council, and that he’s always supported labor unions. But allowing public employees, and police officers specifically, to collectively bargain is a complicated issue that could increase how much money the city has to spend over the following five, 10 or 20 years, he said.

And when it comes to police unions, he wants council members to know the kind of officer protections police unions have won in other parts of the country and how their increased power has often come at the cost of police chiefs.

Alexander mentioned how the union defended Chauvin and the other officers after Floyd died. When state prosecutors charged Chauvin with murder, Lt. Bob Kroll, the fiery union president representing Minneapolis officers, was one of the few people who defended Chauvin, and he came out swinging.

He tarred Black Lives Matter protesters as a “terrorist movement” and said the media was ignoring Floyd’s “violent criminal history,” even though his record consisted mostly of nonviolent drug and theft charges, according to the June 24 Vox article “How police unions became so powerful — and how the can be tamed.”

Alexander said that if a police union wants more power simply to defend bad cops, no matter what they’ve done, “that gives concern.”

“If their sole purpose is to defend bad people, bad actors, bad practices — you’re not going to find a lot of support for that.”

Alexander said he would want his fellow council members to understand all the possible ramifications of collective bargaining, some that could ripple into the future for decades, before they made a decision on whether to allow it.

“You look at all those things,” he said. “You don’t do a knee-jerk reaction.”

Staff writer Marie Albiges contributed to this report

Jonathan Edwards, 757-739-7180, jonathan.edwards@pilotonline.com


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