Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Can the Police Union Prevent Reform?

Milwaukee’s powerful union has long gotten its way. But this time may be different.

By - Jun 10th, 2020 03:53 pm
George Floyd Protest March. Photo taken June 1st, 2020 by Graham Kilmer.

George Floyd Protest March. Photo taken June 1st, 2020 by Graham Kilmer.

Across the nation and in cities like Milwaukee, the protests over George Floyd’s killing have called for reform of police departments. That includes everything from policies banning the use of chokeholds to “defunding” police departments (redirecting a portion of the budget to funding health care, youth programs, etc.) to even abolishing departments.

Those proposals will run smack into the political power of police unions. “Over the past five years, as demands for reform have mounted in the aftermath of police violence in cities like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and now Minneapolis, police unions have emerged as one of the most significant roadblocks to change,” a story by the New York Times noted.

In Wisconsin police unions have long been successful at hiking pay and benefits while defending rogue officers and killing calls for reform. The police and fire unions backed Republican Scott Walker for governor in 2010, and he exempted them from from Act 10, which decimated collective bargaining for public unions. Walker defended the law as a way to cut costs for taxpayers, but protected the public workers who get by far the highest pay and benefits. 

A 2017 analysis by the City of Milwaukee found the average Milwaukee cop is eligible for retirement at age 53 and had a final average salary of about $90,000 and benefits worth more than $58,000. Yet the Milwaukee Police Association wanted the city to pass a pension sweetener similar to the infamous county backdrop, which would have given the average officer a payout of some $950,000, as Dan Bice reported.

Mayor Tom Barrett opposed the plan, just another example of the union’s declining clout with city officials. With the retirement of Bob Donovan, the union lost its most fervent champion on the Common Council.  

But the union, along with other police groups, continues to have tremendous clout with state officials. They have spent $2.3 million on campaign donations and lobbying over the last 10 years, as the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported.

The Milwaukee police union has spent most of its money to elect Republicans and they have been generously awarded. Besides the exemption from Act 10, the Legislature has kept a law on the books which requires that suspended police officers can continue to collect their salary, the only public employees in the state who enjoy such treatment. Alderwoman Chantia Lewis has condemned this provision, a sentiment shared by many council members.

Critics have charged the provision gives police every incentive to appeal any disciplinary action and oppose any settlement offer because they continue to collect a salary. Two Racine cops collected $300,000 while suspended:

The police union has supported the conservative members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which rewarded them with a much criticized decision preventing Milwaukee from adding members to the pension board, which the union saw as a threat to its power.

But the bitterest blow to Milwaukee was the unions’ end run around its collective bargaining with the city to end the residency requirement for employees, which had been in place since 1938. Its abolition was something the union had wanted for decades and which Milwaukee and other cities vigorously opposed, but Walker and Republican legislators gladly passed a law in 2013 ending all city residency requirements in the state. 

Police and fire workers would often grumble about property taxes in Milwaukee, which are higher than many surrounding suburbs. But the major reason for that is the wages and benefits they are paid, which accounts for 60 percent of the entire city operating budget.

By 2017 35 percent of fire fighters and 31 percent of police had moved out the city and the percentage has no doubt continued to rise since then. The loss of so many middle-class city workers and homeowners has been a major blow to the city. And critics have suggested it turns the police into an invading force of officers living far outside the city. 

Meanwhile the city has paid some $30 million to settle lawsuits for unjustified killings and violence by police against citizens. Yet the police union can be counted on to oppose any disciplinary action against its officers. Police union president Dale Bormann, Jr., opposed a Fire and Police Commission investigation of the killing of Joel Acevedo by officer Michael Mattioli and Barrett’s call for Mattioli to be fired. And Mike Crivello, who was union president in 2018, defended Milwaukee police who tased and threw Milwaukee Bucks’ player Sterling Brown to the ground in an incident where Brown was not charged and which was condemned nationally. 

“Police unions have traditionally used their bargaining agreements to create obstacles to disciplining officers,” the Times story noted. “One paper by researchers at the University of Chicago found that incidents of violent misconduct in Florida sheriff’s offices increased by about 40 percent after deputies gained collective bargaining rights.” 

In 2019 Mayor Barrett proposed a budget that reduced the number of officers from 1,864 to 1,804 and the police union blasted it as a “dangerous” proposal that would increase crime. But the Common Council passed the proposal. 

That was just 3 percent of the force, and all cuts were to come only though attrition. For the next budget talks, which will start this August, the furor over George Floyd’s killing and the calls for defunding police will likely push council members to support much deeper cuts in the department’s budget, as well as other reforms. 

And the union, after years of pushing the city around, may find it has few friends left in city government to oppose such changes. 

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4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Can the Police Union Prevent Reform?”

  1. Mingus says:

    The laws should be changed so that police unions have the limited bargaining powers that other public employees have under Act 10. No administrative personnel from Sergeants on up should be represented by the police union. Policies on police discipline should be developed by the State Attorney General and applied to all departments across the State. In cases of police misconduct, those Sergeants and higher officers who are in charge should be reviewed when police officers under their control are guilty of misconduct.

  2. danlarsen7007 says:

    I agree that there seems to be more sympathy for change at the local level, but I’m afraid that the local governments may find their hands get tied by the police sympathizers (Republicans) at the state level. And the Police Union knows that – note the large expenditures to make sure the Republicans get elected.

    Protective laws at the state level really need to be reviewed and changed. I used to think that special protections for the Police were good and appropriate for people working in a dangerous environment. Now, not so much; the privileges are too often abused.

    When they do their job properly and well, Police are well worth their paycheck. But when they get abusive and bullyish, the protections need to end. Taxpayer dollars should not be used to pay and protect the few that are in the job on a power trip.

  3. mkwagner says:

    A key argument for defunding police departments is that police have been tasked with addressing problems to which they have no training. Issues we have relegated to law enforcement include: homelessness, mental illness, substance use disorders, school discipline, domestic violence. As we dump more of these social issues on police departments, budgets have ballooned but without any perceptible change — homelessness continues, all forms of mental illness including substance use disorder are on the rise. We simply cannot solve problems by throwing money at the clean up, which is exactly what we are doing with the ever growing law enforcement budgets. What could the city of Milwaukee have done with the over $30 million it paid out to settle police brutality lawsuits? More money could have gone to programs that prevent homelessness; funds could have gone to better fund our schools and youth mental health initiatives; more money could be spent on violence prevention. All of these initiatives have proven track records for reducing social problems and generating more tax revenue — an individual sitting in a jail cell costs taxpayers; if that same individual received help getting and maintaining a good-paying job, they are now contributing to tax revenue.

    The campaign to defund police departments is about shifting our priorities. It is about funding prevention initiatives first. Prevention has always been less expensive and more effective than reacting after the fact. Defunding is about focusing on the serve side of law enforcement’s “serve and protect.”

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