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Study: Unionized Police? Increased Misconduct

by Derek Gilna

According to a December 2017 study by University of Chicago Law School researchers, data from Florida indicate that “shielding officers from the consequences of their actions ... result[s] in increased misconduct.” After Florida sheriffs’ deputies were allowed to unionize in 2003, such incidents of misconduct increased.

The researchers wrote, “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.”

The study found that collective bargaining results in “a lengthy list of extra rights for deputies. While due process should be afforded to everyone, the version of due process citizens make do with contains none of these perks and protections.” These extra protections include (1) the right to “be informed of the nature of the investigation before any interrogation begins;” (2) the right to receive “all witness statements … and all other existing evidence, including, but not limited to, incident reports, GPS locator information, and audio or video recordings relating to the incident under investigation … before the beginning of any investigative interview of that officer”; and (3) the requirement that all “identifiable witnesses shall be interviewed, whenever possible, prior to the beginning of the investigative interview of the accused officer.”

The clear implication is that deficient or absent officer discipline for clear cases of misconduct appears to foster increased police misconduct. Study authors analyzed this issue in Florida by constructing 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” the 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision in Coastal Fla. Police Benevolent Ass’n v. Williams, 838 S.2d 543 (Fla. 2003).

As a result of that decision, Florida sheriffs’ deputies are shielded from discipline by the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, which comprises a wide variety of generous procedural protections for officers facing disciplinary investigations.

The clear result of all of these protections is an increase in both cost and time required to discipline or remove officers with clear records of misconduct from police rolls. These protections limit the deterrent effect of disciplinary mechanisms. Nevertheless, the study indicates that union agreements result in an increase in police misconduct. It is not at all surprising to discover that when people with power are subject to lower accountability, the number of complaints alleging abuse goes up. 


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