My union right or wrong: Should rogue cops and football players be defended?

December 30, 2014

Law enforcement officers turn their backs on a live video monitor showing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has he speaks at the funeral of slain New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Rafael Ramos near Christ Tabernacle Church in the Queens borough of

Unions of football players and police officers are still strong organizations — even as the rest of the labor movement unravels. But scandal in the National Football League and murder on the streets of New York City has many people asking if these high-profile unions are too strident in defending their members.

In the wake of the assassination of two police officers, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association charged that Mayor Bill de Blasio and all other officials who recently criticized police conduct “have blood on their hands.” The police union had been staunchly defending Staten Island officers whose July arrest of Eric Garner ended in his death. In Ferguson, Missouri, and in other cities, police unions have also vigorously defended officers against charges of unnecessary use of deadly force.

Former Baltimore Ravens NFL running back Ray Rice and his wife Janay arrive for a hearing at a New York City office building

The National Football League Players Association has been equally vociferous in defending its members. When an elevator camera caught Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-girlfriend, now wife, the players union was quick to appeal his indefinite suspension. After union pressure, a neutral arbitrator vacated the suspension in November, making Rice eligible to play football again.

Both unions seem arrogant and contemptuous of a public that wants cops under control and misogynous football players properly penalized. If this is what militant unionism looks like, many say, we don’t want it.

But there are two issues involved here — and they need to be disentangled. First is what a union does to defend its individual members when they get into trouble. Second is the civic and political roles that unions play in society, and the collective posture taken by a union when it confronts an employer or seeks political influence. The two are very different — often seeming in utter contradiction.

Like a defense attorney who represents an unsavory client, unions have a duty to defend every member when he or she gets into trouble. The courts codify this as a “duty of fair representation,” which means unions can’t pick and choose the grievances that arise out of their membership. Some will be more worthy of defense than others — but even members who employers penalize for gross misconduct have a right to their day in court. Under most union contracts, this means the right to come before an arbitrator agreeable to both labor and management.

“The contract is your constitution” the United Automobile Workers advised its members more than 70 years ago, when this system was just getting set up, “and the settlement of grievances under it are the decisions of an industrial supreme court.”

New York Police Commissioner Bratton appears at news conference about two police officers who were shot in the Brooklyn borough of New York

Of course, it is one thing for a labor organization to defend a member denied a job promotion and quite another when he or she violates criminal law. No one would expect the autoworkers union to defend a member who robbed a bank — or beat his wife.

But this issue grows cloudy when workers are held accountable 24/7. The NFL requires players, coaches, officials and many others to avoid “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.” Meanwhile, the police are never really “off-duty.” Their job also frequently requires the use of physical force that would be illegal in any other work environment. When they are accused of a serious transgression, they are subject to discipline not only from their police superiors but also under criminal law.

It is therefore not surprising that a union of football players or police officers will hire lawyers to defend one of their members charged under the law or facing a penalty for irresponsible conduct meted out by their employer. Everyone deserves their day in court.

But there is another issue in play. Unions are political institutions, and few are more influential than those composed of police or the celebrity athletes whose exploits on and off the field are followed by millions. Union members elect their leaders to speak out on the issues of the day, to debate adversaries, endorse candidates and mobilize support.

But that does not mean union officials are always right. And in these recent controversies, they aren’t.

New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch speaks to media at Woodhull Hospital about two New York Police officers who were shot dead in Brooklyn borough of New York

Pat Lynch, head of the New York police union, is digging a disastrous civic and racial gulf when he encourages his members to turn their backs on a mayor who won election in part with talk of reforming police arrest and patrol practices. The New York Police Department can’t be a militia at odds with municipal officials it considers too liberal.

Similarly, the NFL union cannot continue to overlook its members’ cases of domestic abuse. Americans still watch many hours of professional football, but their tolerance for wealthy, protected players’ acts of violence has its limits.

Unions must defend their members, but they can’t do it if they isolate themselves from the American public.


PHOTO (TOP) Law enforcement officers turn their backs on a live video monitor showing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as he speaks at the funeral of slain New York Police Department officer Rafael Ramos near Christ Tabernacle Church in Queens, New York, December 27, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Former Baltimore Ravens NFL running back Ray Rice and his wife Janay arrive for a hearing in New York, November 5, 2014.REUTERS/Mike Segar

PHOTO (INSERT 2): New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton appears at a press conference about the two police officers who were fatally shot in the Brooklyn borough of New York, December 22, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

PHOTO (INSERT 3): New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch speaks to the media at Woodhull Hospital about the two New York Police officers who were shot dead in the Brooklyn borough of New York, December 20, 2014. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith


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No – they should not be obliged to defend anyone in court that breaks the law.

Yes – they should defend them when employment issues are at stake.

They need to realize that in the court of public opinion, they can do their members more harm than good.

It all boils down to survival techniques. Being in a school of fish, a member of a tribe, a mob participant – may allow you to “survive” or improve your situation. School of fish – ok – mob participant – not ok..

Pat Lynch is making a mistake.. NFL players union is making a mistake.

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

The Police Union should have paid for this Strawman misrepresentation!

There is no common denominator.

Buddy did not Knockout his wife on the Fifty Yard Line.

Can’t help but wonder if Police Union Fund investment strategy is hinged on the unaccountably of Police and the sustainable growth of the Prison Industrial Complex,and the continuous supply of bodies too profit.
The similarity to slavery is the overseer who managed field hands, was also immune from prosecution.

Posted by D.Baker | Report as abusive

A comparison of the issues confronting police officers and football players is fatuous at best.

A police officer is making split second decisions over life and death with dozens of factors to consider. Having the presence of mind in a situation where the lives of the officer, the suspect and the public are at risk is in no way comparable with the behavior of pro football players who believe they can flaunt society’s rules with no fear of penalty.

I cannot imagine the stress police deal with every day in a high crime area. The lives of pro athletes seems pretty posh by comparison.

It is fair to question the judgements of any organization or individual but comparing the need for strong defense from an organization of police officers to that of pro football players in nonsense.

Posted by WCL | Report as abusive

Would the same people commentating about strident unions also consider that “wall street”, that ubiquitous term for the financial community, has the entire US Congress doing similar work for most every one of the “wall streeters”?

Although now and then there is a high profile prosecution, white collar and corporate crime is usually overlooked or “punished” by a slap on the wrist, unlike robbing a c-store that leads to years of incarceration.

Neither is proper, but “attacking” one without the other is self serving partisanship.

Posted by ArghONaught | Report as abusive

Maybe unions could benefit everyone if they did the complete opposite. Rather than always defending their members even when guilty, they could defend the innocent members and discipline the guilty? Imagine an auto union that would correct a member installing parts improperly and point out that what he is doing is hurting their customers and in turn hurting future prospects for the jobs of everyone at the plant.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Cops are not football players. Unfortunately as of, late football players have behaved as morons. They should be treated as criminals if they break the law. It’s not the publics responsibility to monitor Football players.
The cops don’t dress up for a “Game” They’re out there on the frontlines 24/7. Not a game when one is dealing with criminals.

Posted by asteriod | Report as abusive

To equate football players with members of law enforcement is idiotic.

Posted by qrynm111 | Report as abusive

Of course they should be defended; the “rogueness” is determined in the court of law, not by a journalistic fiat. It’s bizarre even to pose the question.

Posted by genetics73 | Report as abusive

Everyone has a right to be defended….Guilty or innocent…But with police unions it seems the guilty are over protected in fact the guilty are never indicted…because of said union…They have rigged the game of fair play and justice….

Posted by akita96th | Report as abusive