Will America's Police Become Federales?

More centralization of power.


Police unions across America are moving closer to being federalized. The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2009 was reintroduced in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid on April 12,  where it currently awaits debate. The act is part of a supplemental appropriations bill meant to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If passed, the act would place first responders (police, firemen, paramedics) under federal union regulations. Control would be removed from state and local authorities except in places with fewer than 5,000 people or with fewer than 25 full-time first responders.

In effect the act seeks to nullify important aspects of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which in turn reversed much of the  pro-union Wagner Act of  1935. Taft-Hartley is currently the cornerstone of U.S. labor law and allows individual states to regulate their own public-sector worker relations.

Most of the attention paid to the act has focused on the disastrous budget consequences it would have for local authorities. Public-employee payments (wages, pensions, and health benefits) already consume a huge slice of the expenditures of cities and states; for many the burden is so heavy they are verging on bankruptcy. The San Francisco Chronicle (July 14) reported, “Oakland [Calif.] laid off 80 police officers Tuesday after negotiations between city officials and union leaders failed on one simple matter: job security. The police union demanded that the city guarantee that its officers would not be laid off for three years in exchange for giving up some pension benefits that would have eased the city’s budget problems. City leaders, however, said it would have been irresponsible of them to agree to protect police jobs for more than one year because the city’s budget problems are likely to worsen.”

The act would remove such flexibility from local authorities and instead impose the unfunded mandate of applying federal standards that would be determined by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. In disputes a labor relations czar would arbitrate the “hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment.” Local governments would no longer be able to adjust pay scales and benefits according to their own budgets nor would local voters have any input.

Transparency and Accountability?

The act would also diminish police transparency and accountability because it would regulate disciplinary policies through which police and sheriff departments address alleged abuse and misconduct. The act would strengthen unions that have a long record of siding almost unconditionally with their members against such allegations. For example, in June a young black woman who had jaywalked was punched in the face by a Seattle policeman. The president of the local police union declared, “He [the Seattle officer] did nothing wrong. If anything, I think he maybe waited a little too long to engage in force.”

Equally, when local authorities attempt to correct police abuse, police unions are often the greatest barrier. The Syracuse Post Standard (July 6) reported, “Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has taken courageous steps to rid the police department of misbehavior that sullies the image of every officer.” Nevertheless, she has come “under withering criticism from the police union for refusing to sign a commendation” for a detective whom a federal jury found guilty last year of using excessive force. On July 19 the Austin police union urged the city council not to accept a $750,000 settlement with the family of a man killed by an officer last year. In many cases, police unions also act to block public and media scrutiny of accused officers.

The act has already passed the House so its fate rests with the Senate. The D.C. watchdog periodical The Hill (July 19) reported, “Senate and House Democrats are headed for a clash this week over funding for U.S. troops….The Senate and House are squabbling over $22.8 billion House appropriators added to the supplemental bill…. Senate Democratic leaders doubt the House bill can pass their chamber with the extra spending ” Nevertheless, Harry Reid has made it clear he will push the legislation and is threatening to keep the Senate in session past in August 1 if necessary. Given how important the August recess is to upcoming election campaigns, a lot of legislation may well be rushed through.

The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act moves in precisely the wrong direction. Local authorities should have more power to negotiate down the disastrous cost of public-employee unions; the police should become more accountable and transparent in cases of alleged abuse. Power should be decentralized not federalized.



Contributing editor Wendy McElroy is an author and the editor of

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