Although unionization of police officers is not universal in the United States, all major agencies have either a formal labor organization or a professional association that functions as a labor organization. The right to collective bargaining varies state by state. Collective bargaining is authorized by almost all states in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and Far West. It is spotty in the South and Mountain states. Nevertheless, even in states without formal bargaining, police unions play a significant role in determining wages and working conditions for officers. Indeed, it is not unusual for a strong union or association to be more influential in a jurisdiction without bargaining than a weak union is in a jurisdiction with bargaining.

The Boston Police Strike in 1919 froze the development of police labor organizations until the 1960s. From 1960 to 1990, the police labor movement ”matured.” Since 1990, there has been a ”settling in”; police unions now are part of the landscape of American law enforcement management. Police labor organizations are, however, highly fragmented. Most local organizations, although perhaps affiliated with various national associations, function independently.

Labor-Management Relations

Since the inception of organized labor, both management and union representatives have struggled to maintain a balance between advocacy and antagonism. Everyone recognizes there is a fine line between the two. We expect both management and labor to maintain a strong and healthy advocacy role. We recognize that when the line is crossed and management and labor become antagonistic, everyone suffers. But that line is crossed with regularity. Indeed, in some enterprises in America, extreme and unyielding antagonism has resulted in the ruin of the organization— the ultimate lose-lose outcome.

The problem is no easier to handle in law enforcement than in any other enterprise. Despite the facts that policing is a public sector occupation, that police unions are supposed to be quasi-professional associations, and that there is a prohibition against the ultimate job action—strike—nevertheless, relations frequently degenerate. Police managers often characterize relationships with the union as their most stressful role, even more stressful than with the American Civil Liberties Union or problematic city council members. Police union officials, on the other hand, frequently characterize the management of their organizations as “impossible to work with.”

Employee associations must be an advocate for their membership. A reasonable reaction to such a statement might be “Well, yes, of course.” But the issue goes beyond this simplistic observation. There is an expectation by membership that a union will be a strong, outspoken, vigorous advocate for membership. We expect cooperation and civility, but we also expect individuals who play a representation role to keep an arms length from advocates from the other side. When union leaders get “too cozy” with management, they are no longer trusted, and they are no longer reelected.

This has profound implications for the role of union leaders. Put simply, they must maintain some level of conflict if they expect to stay in office. This has profound implications for the implementation of innovative endeavors. A labor organization will not greet proposals for changes in philosophy or approach with unquestioning enthusiasm. Labor organizations are inherently mistrustful of change. The membership expects union leadership to challenge new ideas. Further, the first response is not likely to be “What’s in this for our citizens?” but rather, ”What’s in this for our membership?” That reaction is not likely to sit well with managers just back from a conference about the need for innovation in law enforcement.

Police chiefs are often heard to say words to the effect that ”no matter how good a job you do at cultivating positive relationships, they’ll find an issue.” Police chiefs are essentially correct. Although union leaders have no intention for their actions to be destructive or to undermine basically positive working relationships, they must maintain some level of strain. Put a little differently, they must at least occasionally fan the fires if they are to remain in office. Police managers who understand this are not as likely to personalize the conflict.

One must understand that this does not preclude cooperative, productive relationships. Management and labor can, and frequently do, work together for the greater good of the organization and the citizens served by the organization. But there are limits to joint, cooperative effort.

If everyone understands the limits, there will be less rancor. A police chief who takes office expecting that engagement and cooperation with the union will bring 100% support 100% of the time is in for a rude awakening. It will not happen. And, after all, it must be remembered that many innovations tried by management fail—as would be expected. The union probably should be skeptical. Some healthy skepticism by at least one element of the organization might be a good thing.

Police Unions and Politics

The vast majority of police unions in the United States have a distinct political advantage over nonelected police managers. What separates the police union from the police manager in the world of politics is that the police union has the ability to endorse a candidate and work in the candidate’s political campaign. But the greatest advantage for the police union is its ability to contribute money to the candidate. In many parts of the United States, the police union’s political action committee is the largest campaign contributor to a candidate. Despite protests from the editorial boards of newspapers about the perceived political power of many police unions, candidates for public office continue to seek the endorsement and resources of police unions.

While politics is an integral strength of police unions in the United States, it is also internally divisive. The endorsement of candidates for elected office, especially if the candidates are evenly matched, often causes stress within the union. Members and union leaders fear the consequences if they endorse a losing candidate. Political activity can also disrupt police labor-management relations when police management sees the union as having the ability to undermine or modify the changes or reforms desired by management.

Police Unions: Major Players

There are two major police associations in the United States independent of ”organized labor.” The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is the oldest, founded in 1915 in Pittsburgh. The national FOP reports a membership of three hundred thousand and has lodges in all fifty states. It also has several strong state lodges. Like the FOP, the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) is essentially an association of independent associations. NAPO provides a mechanism for otherwise independent local associations to work cooperatively on national legislation affecting their membership, as well as providing a forum for the exchange of ideas. NAPO reports a membership of 220,000 in four thousand local associations.

In addition to the FOP and NAPO organizations, there are a number of AFL-CIO affiliated unions with substantial police membership. The most prominent of these is the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA, AFL-CIO). IUPA is the only organization actually chartered by the AFL-CIO as a police union. It reports a membership of a hundred thousand. The International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO, NAGE, SEIU, AFL-CIO) merged into the independent National Association of Government Employees (NAGE) in 1969. In 1982, NAGE affiliated as an autonomous division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, AFL-CIO). IBPO is a division of NAGE. SEIU has chartered police unions outside of IBPO/NAGE. NAGE reports a membership of fifty thousand, but no separate figures are available for IBPO membership. The best estimate for IBPO membership is about ten thousand. The National Coalition of Public Safety Officers (NCPSO, CWA, AFL-CIO) is a sector of Communications Workers of America (CWA, AFL-CIO). CWA reports a membership of seven hundred thousand, and NCPSO reports that twenty-six thousand of those members are in the police and corrections sector. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME, AFL-CIO) includes police membership, but there are no membership figures available. Finally, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) includes law enforcement officers as a part of the 140,000-member Public Employees Division, but no separate figures are reported.

Table 1 Summary of the police associations in the nation’s ten largest cities


Police Union


New York

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of New York


Los Angeles

Los Angeles Police Protective League



Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7



Houston Police Officers Union



Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5



Phoenix Law Enforcement Association


San Diego

San Diego Police Officers Association



Dallas Police Association


San Antonio

San Antonio Police Officers Association



Detroit Police Officers Association


Table 1 provides a summary of the police associations in the nation’s ten largest cities. Note that most large city unions are independent associations, although some have multiple affiliations.

In addition, there are several strong state associations. In six states in particular— California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin—independent state associations dominate the labor scene among all but the largest cities.

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