State Labor Law and Federal Police Reform

19 Pages Posted: 11 Nov 2017

See all articles by Stephen Rushin

Stephen Rushin

Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Allison Garnett


Date Written: November 8, 2017


This symposium essay shows how state labor law can complicate the implementation of police reform efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) via 42 U.S.C. § 14141. Over the last twenty years, the DOJ has used § 14141 to investigate over sixty police departments and to reform over thirty. This reform process often attempts to overhaul internal department policies related to the investigation and oversight of police officers. Internal disciplinary policies, though, are frequently the product of collective bargaining. Most states permit or require localities to bargain collectively with police unions about the terms of internal disciplinary procedures. Previous research has shown that a significant number of police union contracts include potentially problematic disciplinary procedures that shield officers from accountability and oversight. This means that some of the very policies that federal intervention via § 14141 is designed to reform—internal departmental disciplinary policies—are commonly the product of state labor law. As this essay shows, this creates a challenging situation for the DOJ as it attempts to implement top-down reforms in a local police department. On one hand, undoing the terms of a collective bargaining agreement can reduce organizational acceptance of federal intervention. On the other hand, failure to alter these policies can hamper reform efforts.

Ultimately, the goal of this essay is narrow. It seeks to diagnose, rather than remedy, this tension in the federal oversight of local police departments.

Keywords: police, policing, police reform, labor law, police unions, collective bargaining, civil rights

JEL Classification: K1, K14, K31

Suggested Citation

Rushin, Stephen and Garnett, Allison, State Labor Law and Federal Police Reform (November 8, 2017). Georgia Law Review, Vol. 51, 2017, Available at SSRN:

Stephen Rushin (Contact Author)

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 E. Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Allison Garnett

Independent ( email )

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