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The Link Between Disproportionate Police Brutality And Police Unions


In the United States, a black person is about three times as likely to be killed by police as a white person. That's according to the Mapping Police Violence project. Official data on the shootings isn't available for many jurisdictions. There are lots of theories about the reasons behind police killings, including new data linking police unionization with police violence. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from our daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money report on consequences of police unionization, particularly for black Americans.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Rob Gillezeau is an economist at the University of Victoria, and he is the co-founder of the Racial Uprisings Lab, which has been gathering data about every single race-based protest in the U.S. since the 1990s.

ROB GILLEZEAU: We know that there's disproportionate use of force. What we actually don't have a lot of information on is what is causing that, right? Other than - beyond racism, what is causing it? What can we do to limit it?

GARCIA: One theory is that it is very hard for a police officer to be prosecuted for a wrongful killing, and one possible reason for that is police unions.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Police unions bargain with city and state governments, of course, to get better pay for their members, the police officers. And Rob says after a police union is formed, officers do get paid better. But he says police unions also negotiate for things that most unions don't.

GILLEZEAU: They're bargaining over legal representation in the event of a potential prosecution. They're bargaining essentially for delays in giving a statement. They're bargaining over the conditions under which that statement would be made, how often they would get to take breaks. And you'll see them trying to bargain opportunities to huddle with other officers so that people can agree to a story before it's ever recorded in the record.

GARCIA: But on the question of whether or not these protections for police officers that the police unions have bargained for have actually contributed to police killing more civilians, there hasn't been much evidence to answer it - not yet.

VANEK SMITH: Rob and his co-authors, Jamein Cunningham and Donna Feir, wanted to provide that evidence in their latest research paper. Starting roughly in the late '50s, Rob says, state governments began allowing police officers to collectively bargain - in other words, to join unions.

GARCIA: And because those unions were all formed in different counties throughout the U.S. at different times, it's possible for an economist like Rob to then compare what happened in counties with unions versus counties without unions. Rob stresses that the paper is not yet published, but it is far enough along now that he can share the conclusions.

GILLEZEAU: We found that after officers gained access to collective bargaining rights that there was a substantial increase in killings of civilians.

GARCIA: And as Rob says, pretty much all of that increase was killings of non-white civilians.

GILLEZEAU: So it really does look like it is a protection of the ability to discriminate.

VANEK SMITH: One possible reason why police unions might want more ways to protect officers from being prosecuted is the safety of the officers. If an officer is worried about being prosecuted, then that officer might hesitate to shoot in a dangerous situation.

GARCIA: But more officer safety, Rob says, did not result from the negotiations done by police unions. Plus, Rob says, police unions barely have any effect at all on crime itself. Now, Rob's paper does not talk about any specific police union. Instead, he says, it shows a systemic problem, something in the structure of these collective bargaining agreements that is making discrimination against non-white civilians worse.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.