In a lead editorial, the Wall Street Journal proposes the truly bizarre theory that overly generous police contracts helped cause the civil unrest in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
To come to this outrageous conclusion, the Journal must combine truly twisted reasoning with an imperfect history of public sector employment. What the editorial says is that because police officers receive lifetime job protection and generous retirement benefits, turnover among police occurs more slowly than the demographic changes in the communities they serve. That mismatch in turnover explains why 94% of all police officers in Ferguson are white even though Ferguson shifted to a majority-African-American population over the past decade—or so says the Journal. The Journal concludes this nice bit of dishonest analysis by saying that the complete dearth of minority officers “may have contributed to municipal mistrust.” The Journal also blames union-negotiated contracts that build in bureaucratic privileges that would never be extended to other suspects.”
Let’s begin our analysis of the Journal’s deception with the history that the editorial does not provide: Historically public sector employees made less than what workers earned in the private sector, a deal that public employees—and their unions—were willing to make for better benefits and more job protection. Private sector workers have only fallen behind police, teachers and other government workers during the last 30 years of stagnant and falling wages for all employees. As the newspaper of record for corporate America, the Wall Street Journal has long supported anything that drives down the wages and benefits of employees, be it implementing anti-union regulations, keeping a tight lid on the minimum wage or weaseling out of pension deals with public employees.
Unions and union contracts have nothing to do with what happened in Ferguson, which resulted because of a “bad shoot” by one officer and the overreaction of the police department to the exercise of the legal right of residents to gather in protest. As the New York Times and others (including the Economist weeks before the Ferguson incident) have noted, the militarization of police departments following 9/11 has gone too far, with the overuse of SWAT team and other military tactics becoming all too frequent across the country. That this militarization of local police has led to many more tragic incidents in minority communities than in upper- and middle-class white neighborhoods merely continues the long and sad history of institutional racism in the United States.
Making union contracts less generous to create greater turnover will not help to prevent future Fergusons. Distrust of police comes from practices such as racial profiling, overly harsh treatment of suspects, trigger-happy officers and racism.