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Police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

Anyone who has ever worked for the government for any length of time has experienced a freeloading co-worker. They’re the people who figured out that it’s almost impossible for anyone to fire them, and that they can keep collecting a paycheck more or less just by looking busy. They may get a stern warning in their file from time to time, but mostly they just bounce along while their co-workers do all the work. 

There is very little that is more poisonous to office morale than the supervisors ignoring the freeloader (or worse, ignoring someone actively doing wrong), heaping more and more work on the people with work ethic. This, of course, amounts to punishing the people trying to do it right and rewarding the slackers. The best people leave, and those who remain learn to be slackers, too. The only thing that keeps offices like that running at all are a few folks who feel duty-bound to make sure the work gets done. Sometimes, because the supervisor is too much of a coward to confront an individual employee about a problem, there’ll simply be group punishments, or passive-aggressive emails reminding “everyone” of such-and-such policy, which has never in the history of email ever actually corrected bad behavior. 

The real irony is that weak leaders see their best employees as threats. At best, they simply take them for granted, and then get angry or confused when those employees leave. 

Lazy and inept leadership can create this dynamic in any workplace, public or private. But in the context of a government agency, we’ve too often gone many steps further – our political class has tied the hands of the supervisors, so they can’t weed out the non-hackers or bad actors even if they wanted to. And then we wonder why our government isn’t as efficient – or as free from misconduct – as we would like.

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In theory, the public is the employer of our public servants. No, this does not mean you get to  shout at a police officer about to give you a speeding ticket about how you pay his salary, because he’ll happily return the 12.6 cent contribution you made to him last year, Karen. Rather, being a good boss is about responsibility to the people who work for you, not just when it comes to voting for pay increases, but also in terms of training, discipline, professional development, and not allowing the best workers to be dragged down (or pushed out) by the worst – or by us. It’s also about taking responsibility for the overall mission your employees are charged with completing.

Right now, we’re being particularly crappy bosses to our police officers. Most people don’t fully understand what goes into a cop’s day, or the very real dangers they face so often we forget to be astonished by them. The best cops get very little press, and the worst of them get all the attention. In response to the worst of them, there is a growing movement to collectively punish all of law enforcement, or even get rid of them all together.

To be fair to the collective us, however, police, like many other public employees, are almost totally insulated from public accountability due to too-powerful police unions. This has to change.

If having a government of, for, and by the people means anything, it must surely mean that we have the right to get rid of bad actors via the voting booth. Obviously, it’s not practical to elect every government employee, or even every police officer. But every government agent should be directly accountable – including terminatable at-will – by someone that we do vote for. (This would also make sheriff’s races much more meaningful.)

Instead, we have allowed police unions to serve as a shield against any meaningful discipline of police. Ironically, the cops getting promoted to be supervisors get carved out of the union (management has to be separate from the rank and file union members, after all), and so it is no surprise that (at least in my experience working with a LOT of cops over the years) there is very little correlation between the best police officers and police union leadership. 

In defending their members from discipline or termination, unions do not do any self-policing. They are obligated to defend their members, no matter what, and do so. This is a great system for people charged with crimes, but it makes no sense at all from an employer/employee perspective.

For example, most police know who the bad apples in their departments are, and are righteously embarrassed by them. Most of the supervisors know it, too. Part of what makes a bad cop is temperament – even if they aren’t (yet) breaking any policies per se, you can quickly recognize the ones who are too quick to use serious force, draw a gun or a taser, or don’t intuitively understand how or have the talent to deescalate a situation. Training is part of this, but so is an innate judgment that some people don’t and will never have. 

Supervisors must have the ability to weed those people out early, before someone gets hurt (not least at risk is the officer himself, or his co-workers). There can be no entitlement to hold a job that periodically puts you in a position to decide whether or not to cage, hurt, or even kill another citizen. All police must be employed at-will, and their unions must no longer have any say in disciplinary matters. Total responsibility – and authority – must lie with the chain of command, and the top link of that chain must be accountable to voters.

This, incidentally, is how the military works. It’s still hard to just “fire” someone, but at least the chain of command isn’t being undercut by a union when discipline is imposed.

But it’s not just about weeding out the bad apples. In fact, that’s a small part of good leadership, and in some ways, the simplest. Good behavior must be rewarded, and police must be provided with adequate tools to do their job. The best employees must be valued, or they’ll find other employers, or other lines of work. (Seriously – I’m so grateful to all the hardworking, ethical, and dedicated police officers I know and have worked with, even as I despise the bad ones protected by the unions. But who would want to be a cop these days, especially in America’s most liberal cities?  The pay is lousy, it’s dangerous, and your bosses will sell you down the river for some fleeting political points with the more radical members of their base. All around the country, we’re about to lose – or never get – hundreds of thousands of people who we would have wanted patrolling our streets.)

The new spin on “defund the police” is to dishonestly claim it doesn’t mean exactly what it says, but rather we should just have fewer police and more social workers. That sounds awesome, as long as you believe in the power of unicorn toots and have no idea how the real world works.

If a call comes to dispatch that someone is acting violently and has “a weapon”, they may be having a mental break holding a stick or they may just be a thug with a gun. Either way, sending in a social worker without police protection would be dangerous. The decision on how to deal with that person must be made in an instant, with imperfect and incomplete information. Social workers are great for helping connect people to services, and I’ve known some really great ones, but if we try to make them investigators or public mediators or put them in a position where they may have to physically defend themselves or others, we’re setting them up for failure (or worse).

Social workers, by the way, don’t have magic wands, and have substantially less training than the average police officer. They also can do real harm. I have seen countless child abuse investigations botched by DCFS personnel who should have involved more experienced police detectives, and I’ve seen lives ruined and families devastated because children got taken away from the wrong parent. I once had a social worker supervisor tell me, as I’m explaining how the Fourth and Fifth Amendments still apply to them, that she “didn’t care about” my client’s rights. The rules don’t apply when you’re doing it “for the children,” of course. I would (and have) trusted my life and my family to many police officers. I have never met a social worker I would say that about.

The better option is to train police more holistically, so they can, in fact, be social workers. We already ask them to do that (a fact of policing which has always been true and always will be true), so we may as well make it official – and adjust their pay accordingly (multi-talented professionals should be compensated as such). 

Indeed, we used to call law enforcement officers “peace officers,” and I think we should make an effort to return to that moniker. If one’s mission is “law enforcement,” it’s easy to forget that laws exist to serve society and to keep the peace – enforcing laws merely for their own sake leads to abuse and tyranny. 

Highly paid, highly educated, and highly trained professionals with a mission to keep the peace built right into their name, and who are answerable to and appreciated by the citizens who employ them – that will solve a lot of our problems. The best part about it is that it ends the abdication of our responsibility as a citizenry to ensure that the police become and remain our police.

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It’s not just peace officers who could benefit from this change. Police are the most obvious show of government force most of us experience or see from day to day, but they aren’t the most powerful or even the most potentially destructive. A sneering, self-important Walter Peck-esq bureaucrat is enough to unfairly destroy a business. One bad office manager can obliterate morale – and productivity – in any given workplace. When was the last time you went to DMV and sincerely believed you – a voter and taxpayer – had any ownership over what was happening there?

On Thursday, Harry Schiffman, President of AFSCME Local 4041, the union claiming to speak for state employees as a whole, sent out probably the most tone-deaf press release I have ever seen. It was a reaction to Governor Sisolak’s announcement that (duh) said there would be budget cuts in response to the massive loss of tax revenue due to the COVID-19 shutdowns. 

Schiffman whined at the idea of one day per month furloughs, complaining, “When our state falls on hard times, state employees are always the first to be asked to make sacrifices.”  Yes – no one else in Nevada has had to make sacrifices during the public health crisis. Everyone in the private sector is hummin’ along, hunky dory – just ask the good people of DETR, who apparently are sitting around twiddling their thumbs without any unemployment benefits to process.

Government employees have weathered this storm far better than most, with few (so far) losing their jobs, which is more than nearly half a million Nevadans can say since this crisis began. And truly – who does Schiffman think we’re going to tax in order to avoid pay and hiring freezes and unpaid furlough days?  Even businesses that have stayed open have struggled and suffered. 

But AFSCME’s self-entitled rant shows us that the same disconnect between the public and their employees that is currently plaguing the police is not limited to the police. Public employee unions insulate government from the governed, making good people who should be public servants totally unaccountable, (and if Schiffman is any indication) totally oblivious to the plight of the public they are supposed to serve. 

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A significant part of my job is to actively look for mistakes or misconduct from the police. I watch their body cameras. I second-guess them. I attack them on the witness stand. On occasion, I catch them lying, or abusing their authority, or using too much force, or even committing crimes. Sadly, even when I catch them, they suffer no real consequences.

But what I really learn in all of that report reviewing and video watching is that the vast majority of peace officers try to live up to that old-fashioned name, are people I am proud represent my community, and despise their rogue colleagues as much or more than I do. I know they don’t want to work with people who tarnish the badge, and would just as soon be rid of them, too. 

We need to re-establish ourselves as a citizenry as the true authority over our employees, and then keep our own responsibility in mind to the men and women who do it right. Let’s rid ourselves of the barriers between the public and public servants of all descriptions – the more cohesive community we become as a result will be worth it.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

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