The County Where Cops Call the ShotsHistorians in the News
tags: Police, corruption, suburban history, Law Enforcement, Long Island, Suffolk County
SMITHTOWN, N.Y. — Rob Trotta, a cranky Republican county legislator on Long Island who worked as a cop for 25 years, might be the unlikeliest voice for police reform in America. He’s full of praise for the rank and file. The phrase “defund the police” makes his skin crawl. When he talks about race, he sounds like he’s stuck in the 1980s.
Yet Mr. Trotta has railed for years about the political influence of police unions in Suffolk County, Long Island, a place where the cops are known to wield exceptional clout. He’s a potent messenger, since he can’t be smeared as anti-cop. He wore a badge and walked a beat. Mr. Trotta’s small, quixotic battle is part of a much larger struggle in the United States to wrestle power away from police unions that for too long have resisted meaningful reform.
Even those who disdain Mr. Trotta acknowledge that he has a point when it comes to the money. But I dug around and found articles about the power of the Suffolk County police unions from the 1970s, long before it was legal for police officers to donate to political campaigns in New York.
During the first half of the 20th century, police unions were “rare, weak and lacked legal status,” Aaron Bekemeyer, a Ph.D. student at Harvard who is writing his dissertation on the history of police unions, told me. In the 1950s and 1960s, police unionists managed to convince a large part of the American public that their own safety depended on a strong police union. Without unions, they argued, the police would never get the funding and legal protections needed to keep crime in check.
In the 1960s, a series of debilitating public sector strikes across New York persuaded lawmakers to pass the Taylor Law, which outlawed strikes but granted access to a labor-friendly board that resolved disputes. In 1974, police officers and firefighters in New York got an additional boost from a new provision in the Civil Service Law that gave them compulsory binding arbitration if they reached an impasse in a contract dispute. Other unions didn’t get that. Since then, the average salaries of the police and firefighters have risen far faster than other government employees’, and well above the rate of inflation, according to E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy.
Politicians bellyache that compulsory binding arbitration is bankrupting their communities by handing power over police salaries to an unelected, police-friendly arbitrator. But legislators have not had the guts to get rid of the provision.
The justification for this sweetheart deal for the police and firefighters is that they are so essential to safety that communities can’t risk a strike. But that same logic beat back an attempt to unionize the American military. In 1976, an A.F.L.-C.I.O.-affiliated union voted to admit military personnel, prompting a freakout at the Pentagon, according to Jennifer Mittelstadt, a history professor at Rutgers who wrote “The Rise of the Military Welfare State.” Congress swiftly outlawed union membership for soldiers. Giving a paramilitary force the right to collective bargaining would undermine the military chain of command, they argued. It was true. But that’s also true of the police.