Research Outline

Police Unions in the US


To gain a comprehensive overview of police unions in the US, specifically to understand the history of police unions in the US and how they differ from other unions, the composition of police unions in the US, and what supporters and critics of police unions are saying in light of recent civil unrest and demands for police reform.

Early Findings

History of Police Unions in the US

  • The first move to form police unions started after World War I with the issuing of charters to the police in 30 cities by the American Federation of Labor. However, the move was condemned by police chiefs who countered by saying that unionism is a semi-military pursuit and incompatible with policing.
  • With the country's inflation rate at a high due to its participation in the World War and the salaries of the police unable to keep pace with the inflation, the policemen were unhappy with their police chiefs who had prevented them from joining the union. This culminated in the Boston Police Strike of 1919 when 80% of the city's police force went on strike to protest against their police commissioner.
  • The strike was ended due to the intervention of the Governor Calvin Coolidge who sent the entire Massachusetts militia to break the strike. By 1920, all unofficial police unions were made defunct.
  • The second campaign to form police unions occurred during World War II when rising inflation and lower salaries caused policemen to unionize. However, this too was crushed by the police chiefs and elected officials.
  • Even though the official police unions were disbanded, several benevolent and fraternal organizations survived that looked after the well-being of policemen unofficially. Getting support from these organizations, rank-and-file officers increased their lobbying to form police unions.
  • The increased lobbying, changed leadership within the police forces, and the Black Ghetto riots of the early-1960s forced the police chiefs and elected officials to look at the situation differently in order not to alienate the policemen. This resulted in a major victory for the policemen in New York City in 1964. Other major jurisdictions followed this closely.
  • The last major step towards unionization of the police came during the early 1970s when the fraternal and benevolent organizations were transformed into labor unions. The police unions finally gained the recognition of their police chiefs and other elected officials.

How Police Unions are Similar to or Different From Other Unions

  • While labor unions are formed for protecting the rights of workers, police unions have labor contracts that prevent law enforcement agencies from interrogating or firing officers after acts of misconduct. In this way, police unions are similar to labor unions.
  • However, unlike labor unions that penalize their members for egregious acts of misconduct, police unions seldom admit when their members have made a mistake and try to protect the guilty members at all cost. This has led to mass protest against police officers and police unions for defending their guilty members.
  • Due to the contractual laws of the police unions that prevent law enforcement agencies from interrogating or punishing police officers accused of acts of misconduct, police unions can reject citizen review boards for allegations of misconduct, allowing police officers to purge their disciplinary records. Thus, police union contracts create barriers to accountability.
  • Another article states that police unions are just as guilty as other public-sector unions, including the teachers' union, since these unions do not serve the public well that pays their bills.