This post is the first of a two-part blog by Prof. Paul Clark comparing police discipline in the US and the UK. Part I focuses on the relevant similitudes and differences between police discipline in the two countries and highlights the connections between police trade unions and police discipline.
Paul F. Clark is Professor and former Director, School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University in the United States. His research has focused on employment relations, labor unions, and the globalization of labor markets. His current focus is on police unions and police disciplinary processes in the UK and the US. He has authored or edited six books and his research has appeared in the leading scholarly journals in industrial and labor relations, applied psychology, and international labor issues. He has served as a visiting professor at universities in Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand and is currently President-elect of the U.S.-based Labor and Employment Relations Association.
Recent high-profile cases of police misconduct in the U.S. have heightened racial tensions and increased public awareness of systematic problems in American law enforcement. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of Minneapolis and Louisville police in 2020 were met by widespread protest around the world and for calls for police reform.
The fact that Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck causing his death, had 18 complaints regarding serious misconduct filed against him since 2001 and was still working as a police officer, has contributed to the impression that American police are not being held accountable for their actions.
In the wake of these concerns, the movement to reform American policing has gained momentum. This reform movement is looking at all aspects of American law enforcement including oversight, funding, training, use of force, hiring, pay, and recruitment. However, one important element that has received minimal consideration in discussions about reform are the processes for disciplining police officers accused of misconduct.
While the British public has concerns about police misconduct, police are viewed more favorably in the UK than in the US. In surveys conducted in 2020, 74 percent of people aged 16 and over in England and Wales reported having confidence in their local police, while only 48 percent of Americans held that view.
A preliminary examination of the UK police complaint and discipline processes indicates that these processes differ significantly from, and work more effectively than, those in the US. This suggests that there may be elements of the British system of police discipline that could be adapted and adopted by American law enforcement.
To learn more about the UK police complaint and discipline processes, I spent the spring of 2022 in residence at the University of Edinburgh’s Global Justice Academy and the University of Oxford Law School. Because England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland each have their own systems of law enforcement, they each have their own police complaint and discipline processes. In the course of my work, I gathered information about the three processes and conducted 37 interviews with parties involved in these processes—police forces, police federations representing officers, independent public oversight agencies, and neutral hearing officers. An analysis of the data collected identified a few elements that differ significantly from the discipline processes in the US and that, in my view, have potential to improve what is now, in many cases, a problematic process in the US.
Police disciplinary processes in the UK and the US have some elements in common. Disciplinary processes are utilized to deal with both public complaints about officer conduct and internal charges made by police colleagues or supervisors. Public or internal charges can result in an investigation into an officer’s conduct. The results of the investigation are considered by police administrators and the charged officer (and the officer’s representatives) are given opportunities to respond. If the charges are not resolved, the case can go before a neutral third party who renders a decision.
One significant difference between the US and UK systems of law enforcement is that the majority of police officers in the US belong to trade unions (57.5 percent in 2019) that have the right to collective bargaining. Some of these police unions, mostly in large cities, have used their bargaining power to negotiate contract clauses that make it harder to discipline their members. These unions also generally take a more adversarial approach when advocating for their members in the discipline process than their counterparts in the UK. For these unions, “defending the member at all costs” is the priority, even when the officer or officers involved have engaged in problematic behavior.
A recent analysis found that in 624 police discharge cases heard by arbitrators (neutral third parties) nationwide between 2006 and 2020, police officers were reinstated to their jobs 52 percent of the time. During the same period, in Minneapolis, in six of eight cases involving the discharge of police officers, the charges were overturned, and the officers returned to their jobs.
In the UK, police are not permitted to be represented by a trade union. Instead, officers at all ranks are represented by professional associations that advocate for the good and welfare of their members (for example, constables, sergeants, and inspectors in England and Wales are represented by the Police Federation of England and Wales), but do not engage in collective bargaining. While these federations and associations fight for their members when they feel they have been treated unfairly, they also tend to look more broadly at what is good for the policing profession and for the community. In some instances, they may put the interests of the profession and the community ahead of those of an individual member. For example, they might try to counsel a problematic officer into resigning from the force, rather than fight to get their job back. One long-serving police federation representative told me he thought “he might be responsible for getting rid of more bad cops than the police force had.”
Certainly, some police unions in the US do what they can to make sure that officers not suited to policing do not continue to serve. But in some notable cases where unions have won reinstatement for officers accused of excess force, racism, or corruption, these officers have continued to engage in misconduct. If they want to increase the public’s confidence in their members, the more aggressive police unions need to moderate their approach to representing their members and emphasize what is good for the profession and the community.
In addition to moderating their defense of “bad cops,” some US police unions need to consider rethinking existing contract language that makes it difficult for police departments to discipline officers (while still ensuring that they receive appropriate due process). Both changes would have a positive impact on how the public views the police.
Finally, it should be noted that an additional reason that police officers fired for misconduct in the US (and sometimes in the UK) are put back on the job is that police management sometimes does a poor job of investigating and building discipline cases against officers. Bringing a weak case before a neutral third party greatly increases the chances that a union will win the case and enable an undeserving officer to retain their job. Where this happens, police managers need to improve their performance.