police union | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Policing

Police unions are organizations of police officers purported to be collective bargaining organizations that protect the interests of officers.

Police unions are organizations that serve as collective bargaining units for police officers. These unions work to negotiate contracts, wages, and working conditions for police officers. While they are intended to protect the interests of officers, police unions have come under scrutiny in recent years for what many see as an excessive influence on police policy.

Criticisms of Police Unions

One of the criticisms of unions is that they may protect officers who have engaged in misconduct. Unions often work to ensure that officers who face disciplinary action receive due process and are not unfairly punished. However, some argue that unions may go too far in defending officers who engage in misconduct, making it difficult for departments to hold officers accountable for their actions.

The Role of Unions in Police Professionalism and Accountability

Additionally, it’s worth noting that they can sometimes be a roadblock to increasing transparency and accountability within law enforcement agencies. Unions are organizations that represent the interests of police officers, and while they play an important role in negotiating wages and benefits, they can also oppose changes aimed at increasing oversight. For instance, some unions have pushed back against the use of body cameras, a technology that can offer more objective evidence in cases involving potential police misconduct. Their resistance often stems from concerns over privacy or the practicality of implementing new technology. However, this opposition can hinder efforts to make policing more transparent and accountable to the public. Therefore, while they are essential for protecting the rights of officers, their stance on certain reforms can sometimes conflict with the broader goal of enhancing police professionalism.

Financial Responsibility and the Role of Police Unions

Another contentious issue is the resistance by police unions to hold officers financially responsible for their actions, especially in cases of misconduct. Typically, if an officer is found liable for wrongdoing, the police department or the city ends up covering the financial costs, which can include legal fees and settlements. This arrangement can place a heavy financial burden on cities and, indirectly, taxpayers. Critics argue that unions should be more open to the idea of their members bearing some financial responsibility. This could create a stronger incentive for individual officers to act professionally and responsibly. However, unions often push back against this idea, citing concerns about the financial well-being of their members and the potential for frivolous lawsuits. While protecting officers from financial hardship is a legitimate role for unions, this protection can sometimes conflict with the broader societal need for accountable and professional law enforcement.

The Positive Contributions of Police Unions

Despite criticisms regarding transparency and financial accountability, it’s important to recognize the valuable role that police unions play in safeguarding the interests of law enforcement officers. Unions have the power to negotiate not just better pay, but also improved benefits and working conditions. These factors are key in attracting and retaining qualified, professional officers who can serve their communities effectively. Better pay and benefits make the job more appealing, which can result in a higher caliber of applicants and ultimately, a more professional police force. Additionally, unions offer important resources like legal support for officers who are facing disciplinary actions or other challenges in their career. This support can be crucial in ensuring that officers receive fair treatment and due process. So while unions may sometimes stand in the way of certain kinds of reform, their contributions to the well-being and professionalism of police officers can’t be overlooked.


Overall, the influence of unions on policing policy is a complex issue that continues to be debated by experts and policymakers. While some argue that unions have too much power and may obstruct efforts to implement reforms, others contend that unions play an important role in protecting the rights and interests of police officers. As the public continues to demand greater accountability and transparency in policing, it is likely that the role of police unions will continue to evolve in the years to come.

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Last Modified: 08/26/2023

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