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Caldara: To get rid of bad cops, start with their unions

Did government unions kill George Floyd?

The police officer who is charged with the murder of George Floyd had 18 complaints filed against him with the police’s internal affairs department, an average of one a year.

A study published a year ago in the American Economic Journal reviewed the predictive value of civilian complaints to future misconduct. Their conclusion: “We find a strong relationship between allegations and future civil rights litigation, especially for the very worst officers. The worst 1 percent of officers, as measured by civilian allegations, generate almost 5 times the number of payouts and over 4 times the total damage payouts in civil rights litigation.”

The study’s takeaway: “These findings suggest that intervention efforts could be fruitfully concentrated among a relatively small group.”

What they’re saying in English is those few cops that get the most citizen complaints filed against them are the most likely to misbehave, costing the city gobs in cash judgements and community good-will. So, fire those bad apples before, not after, they spoil the whole bunch.

This is echoed by simple common sense. If only that was possible.

Over the years I have asked my law enforcement friends about “bad cops.” By that I mean guys who just don’t have the temperament to be police officers, not cops taking bribes. I’ve been told that cops usually know which fellow coworkers are going to be dangerous cops. And that the problem usually weeds itself out. Nobody wants to be partnered with a jerk and sooner or later he gets the idea and leaves the force. And maybe that works more often than we could ever know. But obviously it doesn’t work all the time.

Firing a cop, like firing a public school teacher for cause, is nearly impossible thanks to their union contracts. In government-delivered education the problem is so rampant the bureaucratic work-around has been dubbed the “dance of the lemmings.” Since you can’t fire a bad teacher you just keep transferring him to other schools and smaller posts where he can do less damage. This is fine until the damage is robbing your child of an education, from which your kid may never recover.

It is inexcusable. Yet it is systematic and accepted thanks to the union.

It is the nature of government unions to protect the worst employees from getting canned and prevent the best employees from being rewarded. The key word in collective bargaining is after all, “collective.” We treat everyone the same, pay everyone the same as if people are robots.

Look no further than layoff policies in these contracts. Should there be budgetary layoffs, most contracts require those with least seniority to get the hook first, instead of the worst performing.

I’ve seen contracts that say that if there are two employees on the same bottom level of the seniority totem pole and one needs to get laid off, a coin toss will choose who gets the ax. Not performance reviews, complaints or commendations, a flip of the coin decides which teacher prepares your kid for life, which cop carries a gun and patrols your neighborhood to protect you.

This is more than an insult to hard-working, more qualified cops. It is a danger to citizens.

Many police union contracts prevent the immediate interrogation of a police officer after he is involved in an alleged crime, giving him time to “cool down,” and allow the accused cops access to some information civilians can’t get prior to their interrogations.

Overwhelmingly police officers are among the best this country has to offer. Contrasted to the military’s job to kill people and break things a cop’s job is extremely nuanced and complex. His daily challenges could be as varied as comforting parents trying to find a lost child, intervening in a delicate and explosive domestic situation, making a nanosecond decision on whether to pull the trigger, and as we have seen recently, accept vile hatred from people throwing rocks at them while keeping cool. All skills few have.

We need to treat them as the professionals they are, not as automatons. Their superiors should be able to fire the ones who are a bad fit and reward those who show merit befitting the professionals they are.

Police should be free agents, not unionized factory workers.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

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