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Want to Truly "Back the Blue"? Try Backing Their Unions.

Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, thinks City Hall won't wake up to the city's policing needs until more people in North Dallas start getting killed.EXPAND
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, thinks City Hall won't wake up to the city's policing needs until more people in North Dallas start getting killed.
Jim Schutze

Stephen Young has a great piece up on our website now analyzing police staffing in Dallas and whether we need more, fewer or the same number of officers than we already have. As he explains in his story, the overall problem of police staffing is surprisingly complex, with many moving parts.

One element, however, the one that gives me heartache, is not complicated. Most people who put their own lives at risk for others — cops, soldiers, sailors, pilots, emergency medical personnel — do it from a deep sense of being called. Among them, police are a special case because they know once they take the badge they may be called upon to go to war any day or every day for the rest of their lives.

For that deep sense of duty, cops expect to be respected. Their assumption of respect is not some expression of psychological need. What it really reflects is simple moral truth. If you put your life on the line for me, I ought to respect you. Or I’m a schmuck. I think cops don’t like people who don’t respect them, because they don’t like schmucks. Neither do I.

Sadly, heartachingly, the issue of respect for the police has gotten all mixed up and mashed into the mud in this town by a deep cultural antipathy for unions. During the long, painful deliberations on fixing the city’s police and fire pension fund in 2017, the mayor and some City Council members spoke as if the police were grifters because their unions were fighting the good fight for them on the pension.

And let’s be careful here to note the "as if." I do not believe that our mayor and the council members who sided with him in the pension fight believe police officers are grifters. The mayor and his allies come from the more conservative side of the dial, and as such I think they all have respect for law and order and for individual cops. But they do think the unions are grifters.

Here’s the thing: Some people may believe that when they call police unions dirty or illegitimate they’re not talking about individual officers. But they are. Police in Texas fought hard for the right to join unions and engage in collective bargaining, and, by the way, they have the public on their side. Police in Dallas have the right to engage in a modified form of collective bargaining called "meet and confer."

Young’s story reveals that a central piece in Dallas’ police and fire staffing issue is the poor luck Dallas is having in recruitment and retention. I know from talking to a lot of cops over the last year and from watching what they have to say online that they do not believe they are respected by the mayor and his allies on the council. That has to be a major factor.

A lot of crazy stuff gets said in Texas when people talk about unions, so it’s worth taking time to review some basic facts. Yes, police in Texas have the right by law to join unions. No, they are not prohibited from engaging in bargaining, although meet and confer is more collaborative than traditional trade union collective bargaining. In fact — and this is worth noting — Texas goes out of its way to say that police and fire unions are considered a good thing, not a bad thing, under state law.

Hey, it’s worth reading, if you’re not allergic to legalese. Look how Chapter 174 of Title 5 in the Texas Local Government Code spells it out:

The policy of this state is that fire fighters and police officers, like employees in the private sector, should have the right to organize for collective bargaining, as collective bargaining is a fair and practical method for determining compensation and other conditions of employment. Denying fire fighters and police officers the right to organize and bargain collectively would lead to strife and unrest, consequently injuring the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

That’s the law talking. So let’s be clear. The people of Texas acting through their elected representatives in Austin have declared police and fire unions to be a good thing. The attitude that these unions are by their very nature a bad thing is an eccentric minority view in this state. It is not how most Texans feel, no matter how many times some people may say it is.

So when the cops and firefighters hear a lot of negative attitude about their organizations coming from the lips of their mayor and some council members, they have every right to be pissed off, and they are not wrong to interpret it as a sign of basic disrespect for them and for what they do.

I have to confess to a little bit of basic cultural conflict here. I grew up in the Detroit area. I do not revere all unions, but I do some, and I do generally. As a young man, I belonged to two. The first one was the United Auto Workers, which was a great, clean, smart effective labor organization. The second was the Newspaper Guild, a union for reporters, which was awful. As far as I could tell, reporters were the worst union members on earth. It was like a union for cats. You couldn’t have a union meeting, because you couldn’t get them to stop scratching each other.

I have never really fully understood the feeling that all unions are by their nature bad. To the extent working people believe that, they’re just suckers, conned by somebody. The union is the mechanism by which working people and the people they work for can meet at the table as equals, in equal dignity and with equal standing, and negotiate their relationship. One thing that can come out of that process is a realization that workers, given respect and the proper encouragement, can come up with good ideas for running a better company.

One quick way to find out what’s wrong with police staffing in Dallas, for example, would be to ask the cops, although I’m not sure the answers will be what the mayor and his conservative allies on the council will want to hear. As Young uncovered in his piece, a major issue of which rank-and-file cops are very aware in his city is the howling discrepancy between policing in majority white North Dallas and in majority minority Southern Dallas.

Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, the city’s largest police union, told Young: “This seems like a horrible thing to say, but people will wake up and recognize [what’s going on] unfortunately when the right person is killed. That’s the saddest thing to say about this city. You’ll hear about the person getting killed north of [Interstate 30], but you just don’t hear about the people getting killed south of [I-30].”

I’m not sure about the waking up part. That might take a couple of extra buckets of water. There was a fairly obscene example of un-woke thinking recently in a Dallas Morning News editorial about a Park Cities kid who apparently was murdered in a parking garage in a drug deal.

The Morning News' editorial page, recently placed under the stewardship of a former Republican Party operative from the Bush Presidential Center, said this: “What brought these statistics onto our radar was the arrest Saturday of Rene Eduardo Montanez Jr. on a capital murder charge in the death of Joseph Anthony Pintucci, an 18-year-old former Highland Park High School student. Police describe the incident as a drug deal gone bad in a parking garage. Pintucci’s death has drawn a great deal of attention, but a quick review of this newspaper’s files reveal many other such drug-related acts of violence.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings may respect individual cops, but his disdain for their unions is clear.EXPAND
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings may respect individual cops, but his disdain for their unions is clear.
Jim Schutze

My first thought on reading that was, “No shit, Sherlock.” Someone really had to make a quick review of the files to find out there’s a lot of drug violence in the city? Obviously not anybody from the newsroom. The editorial went on (and on): “We worry that Dallas is re-entering a period where residents feel less safe ... Snapshots of horrible crimes like Pintucci’s death can spread fear beyond the reality of the actual public risk ... But in cities, when it comes to crime and safety, perception is reality.”

No, actually, in cities like Dallas, especially where murder is concerned, reality is reality. The reality in Dallas, as the cops know full well, is that policing is very disparate north and south. The same conservative old-guard culture that sneers at police unions also feels that we have more than enough cops in Dallas as long as the white people are safe in North Dallas. But it’s a big bloody crisis if crime shows up on the wrong side of the line.

That’s poison. We need to get the cops out of the business of being security guards for white people. We need to show respect for them by respecting their unions. And we need to listen to what they have to tell us about the reality of crime and law enforcement in this city.

Those “Back the Blue” stickers people put on their cars? Some people mean it. But too often what people really mean is, “Blue, Back me.” If we want to back the blue, let’s show some respect for their unions. Let’s ask them for their ideas on how to make policing more equitable in the city instead of only talking to them when they’re in trouble. Hey, they do this stuff for a living.

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