The state of law enforcement unions today is a matter of concern. It’s a situation that’s contributing significantly to public safety challenges across the United States. Officers are leaving the field, deputies are falling back on reactive policing, agencies are losing bargaining power, and commendable officers are becoming political sacrifices and pawns. Police training programs are witnessing fewer enrollments, and most concerning of all, crime victims are being left in the lurch and treated as second-class citizens. If this reality unnerves you, it should.
Public perception has tilted toward viewing law enforcement unions as protectors of “bad cops.” Activists have successfully propagated the notion that any questionable act by an officer stems from the protection offered by their union. Politicians, in their turn, cast shadows on police associations, branding them as sinister political forces manipulating local politics and policies.
However, the situation isn’t entirely bleak. Law enforcement unions are capable of change. They have significant political potential and can alter the narrative, reversing negative trends. Their current weaknesses can show them the path forward. Their obstacles can become their way.
One of the great paradoxes of police unions is that they are managed by police officers — a reality that is both their greatest strength and most profound weakness. Officers are superb at creative problem-solving yet aren’t naturally inclined toward number-crunching or strategic long-term planning. They can respond rapidly to evolving situations and write clear, concise reports, but their communication style isn’t always persuasive. Their acts of heroism are countless, yet they often shy away from acknowledging their accomplishments.
How, then, can police unions leverage their strengths, overcome their weaknesses and climb out of the predicament they’re in? The answer lies in long-term strategic thinking, storytelling about their officers and crime victims, and embracing the technological skills of the younger officer generation.
Research shows that our human brains aren’t naturally wired to understand statistics or abstract numbers. This difficulty stems from the complexity involved in analyzing data and drawing accurate conclusions. We also have cognitive biases like “anchoring,” where we tend to rely heavily on the first piece of information we receive, or “confirmation bias,” where we favor information that confirms our existing beliefs, both of which distort our perception of statistics.
On the other hand, narratives and stories are deeply embedded in our cultural and cognitive DNA. They capture our attention, engage our emotions and make information more memorable. This is because stories create personal connections and stimulate our imagination, enabling us to see and feel the narrative as if it were a personal experience. Our brains are designed to think in terms of cause and effect, and storytelling follows this natural arc of tension and resolution, making it much easier for us to absorb and remember.
In essence, while statistics can provide empirical evidence, narratives are what truly resonate with us on an emotional level. By intertwining the two — using data to reinforce our narratives and using narratives to humanize our data — we can create a compelling, persuasive message that not only informs but also emotionally connects with the audience.
Videos, as a medium of storytelling, have a profound impact on our perceptions. They capture moments of reality and present them to viewers, immersing them in the narrative being shown. This immersive nature of videos is both powerful and potentially misleading. For instance, continuous circulation of footage showing police brutality can create a narrative that all police officers are violent, even though these videos do not represent the majority of police interactions.
The challenge we face is while this narrative can be countered statistically — for instance, by demonstrating the percentage of interactions involving police brutality is low compared to the overall number of police-community interactions — statistics alone can struggle to change minds. The emotional weight of a violent video is much heavier than abstract numbers on a page. The human brain tends to remember and be more affected by individual incidents, especially negative ones, than by statistical data. This negativity bias can skew perceptions and fuel generalized narratives.
That’s why it’s essential to balance the narrative, not just with statistics but with stories and, if available, videos that reflect the multitude of positive interactions that police officers have with their communities every day. It’s about humanizing the data and providing a more holistic, accurate picture of the reality of policing.
The widespread implementation of body cameras within police forces represents an unprecedented opportunity for police unions to showcase the breadth and depth of their members’ daily contributions to society. Body cameras, while initially introduced as a tool for accountability and transparency, capture not only the instances of contention but also the myriad positive, commendable and even heroic acts that officers carry out routinely.
By reviewing and selectively publishing footage of these positive interactions, unions have the potential to counterbalance the existing negative narratives. This can serve as a potent reminder to the public that the actions of a few do not represent the entire force, and the majority of police officers are committed to serving their communities with compassion, integrity and respect.
However, it’s crucial that any use of body-camera footage for this purpose strictly adheres to privacy laws and ethical guidelines to maintain the trust and cooperation of the communities we serve. Through this balanced and respectful use of body-camera footage, we can help to reconstruct the narrative around policing, giving a voice to the countless positive stories that often go untold.
To the leaders of law enforcement unions, here’s a practical piece of advice: Establish a program within your agency that encourages officers to anonymously report commendable deeds performed by their colleagues. Make it a routine process to request the videos of these positive incidents through the Freedom of Information Act procedures. Carefully edit these videos to construct a clear narrative with a beginning, middle and end, integrating dash-camera footage and 9-1-1 audio where applicable. Also, be sure to emphasize that the officers depicted in your videos are not just members of your agency but also members of your union.
Don’t depend solely on traditional media outlets to disseminate these stories. Establish your own distribution channels to circulate these videos. It’s assured that you will have an endless supply of content to keep your local community engaged and informed.
Police unions need to combat narratives with equally compelling narratives of their own. Video is the most potent tool for storytelling; learning to use it more effectively than those who oppose police unions is crucial. Remember, it’s not just about setting the record straight — it’s about shaping a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of what law enforcement truly encompasses.
About the Author
Cliff Burns has been a police officer in a major metropolitan department in Texas for 12 years. He has been an active member of the police union, serving in various roles for seven years. He was a U.S. Army officer who served in the Infantry and Psychological Operations and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He co-founded The Human Performance & Readiness Institute with two law enforcement psychologists and has helped agencies across the nation establish effective wellness and performance programs.