Police unions, by their actions and policies, seem to see a contradiction between two purposes of their organization: (1) take care of our members; (2) uphold integrity of our members and our profession. I don’t see a contradiction there at all. If I were part of a professional organization that excuses, conceals, and protects unethical behavior, I would want out of that group as fast as possible.
Suppose the American Medical Association protects someone like Larry Nassar? Suppose the Writers Guild of America protects plagiarists? Suppose the Air Line Pilots Association protects pilots who fly aircraft while drunk? How long would these organizations last? How long would reputations of their members last?
So why do police unions protect police officers who shoot people without justification? Why do they protect officers who lie about what they did? Don’t police unions want the people they serve to regard them with respect? Would you respect a doctor, a writer, or a pilot who supports an organization whose main function appears to be protection of unethical, unsafe, or criminal behavior? No, you would expect professionals to get out of that organization, and criticize it as effectively as they can.
I recognize you can’t leave a police union as easily as you can leave the Writers Guild. Police unions have a hold on their members that is hard to break. Yet the same principle holds in police work, as in other professions: your community judges you by company you keep. No matter how good you are as a police officer, you will find people do not give you benefit of the doubt if you accept unethical behavior by the organization that represents you.
The film Serpico, based on a true story of the New York Police Department, shows the consequences of trying to resist unethical behavior. Frank Serpico couldn’t stand corruption within the department, and refused to participate. His colleagues saw him as a threat to their lucrative bribery schemes, and tried to have him killed on duty. When he did not die after a bullet to the face, they forced him out of the department. He spent the rest of his life speaking against police corruption.
Police unions will not change unless they have leaders who insist the organization project and protect professional integrity. Those leaders will promote the best people in the organization, and get rid of officers who violate professional standards. What good is an organization that protects my job, if the consequence for me personally is disgrace, dishonor, and contempt?
The last, most telling example of misguided protection is leadership of the Catholic church. Bishops protected priests who raped children. They made sure guilty clergy did not lose their jobs. They let them commit more and more crimes on the children of unwitting parishioners. We all know most priests are good people, yet bishops who protected members of the brotherhood brought dishonor on the entire institution.
Rape is a crime. Violating female athletes under cover of medical care is a crime. Use of lethal force against people who pose no threat, then lying about it, is unethical and reckless. Police unions that protect reckless members, who exploit their positions of authority to commit crimes, cannot honestly think that policy protects their membership as a whole. Police officers that value integrity of their profession must move to replace union and department leaders who betray and dishonor every one of them.