Document Type



Law and Race | Law Enforcement and Corrections | Other Political Science | Race and Ethnicity


Police unions have garnered the attention of the media and some scholars in recent years. That attention has often focused on exploring the seemingly inexplicable and routine power police unions have to shield problem officers from accountability. This Article shows that police union power did not surreptitiously arrive on the doorsteps of American cities. Instead, collective bargaining rights for law enforcement began to gain firm footing during the 1960s as white Americans remained committed to preserving their place in the nation’s racial hierarchy as it related to housing, jobs, education, and entertainment. Existing legal scholarship has successfully highlighted the depth and breadth of modern-day union contracts and the undemocratic manner by which problematic provisions within those contracts have been negotiated. This Article adds to that research by explaining how the social and political interests of both the electors and the elected merged with the demands of officers sworn to protect their specific interests. Law enforcement served as the first line of attack against efforts to free Black communities from police abuses during the 1960s. Police organizations amassed political power during their fight against Black liberation. That power netted them collective bargaining rights and secured mayoral seats for “law and order” candidates during the 1960s. It also demonstrated America’s deep commitment to unchecked police violence. In short, police unions have effectively accomplished their aim of impeding external inquiries into officers’ actions and methods. Decades of concerns about police brutality have followed. Any sincere effort to make police accountable must understand the origins of police union power—and then use that understanding to explore how to excise problematic collective bargaining provisions. The Article proposes the federal government impose conditional-spending restrictions on state and local police departments that fail to make demonstrable strides toward officer accountability by removing collective bargaining protections that foster misconduct.