Police need military discipline, not unions

Seventy-two years ago this month, on June 26, 1948, President Harry Truman went against the advice of his top military aides and ordered “that there should be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” thereby ending racial segregation in the nation’s military. No other American institution has been more successfully integrated.

Later, the Supreme Court would order the end to separate but equal schools “with all deliberate speed” but America’s schools remain largely separate and unequal. Congress would pass civil rights legislation, aimed at assuring the end to discrimination in everything from housing to voting rights, but all of this remains a work in progress at best.   

This makes Truman’s effort to end segregation in the military all the more remarkable. The grandson of slaveholders on both sides of his family, Truman grew up with his mother’s bitter tale of Union troops riding into their farmyard and killing all the livestock they didn’t carry away along with the family silver and other property.

But early in his presidency, Truman was horrified by a black army sergeant having his eyes gouged out by North Carolina policemen just hours after his discharge. Deciding he didn’t want to preside over a nation that was only half free, Truman established a commission that recommended numerous civil rights measures, including the elimination of racial discrimination in the armed forces and other public employment, the abolition of the anti-voting poll tax and lynching. (Sad to say, an anti-lynching bill is being held up to this day by the objections of one senator, Kentucky’s Rand Paul.)

Truman began with the executive order ending discrimination in the armed forces “as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.” The last army unit was integrated in 1954, just six years later, and the same year the Supreme Court handed down its decision ending separate but equal public schools “with all deliberate speed.”

I can bear witness to the early success of Truman’s integration order. Drafted in 1956, I did my basic training in a platoon equally composed of white, recent college graduates like me, who had been allowed to delay being drafted for four years, and 18- and 19-year-old blacks who hadn’t.  

About 50 of us shared accommodations in a rundown World War II barracks at Fort Knox, Kentucky, sleeping together on bunk beds and washing together in a primitive shower room.  

All four of our company platoon sergeants, charged with turning us into soldiers in eight weeks, were black combat veterans of the war in Korea. They were also equal opportunity tyrants, treating all of us like dirt, without regard to race, creed or color. 

There was no time for culture shock on long marches in the heat of a Kentucky July, hunkering down together as live ammunition flew over us on the confidence course or gasping for air in a gas mask drill. We were united in our dislike for the tough platoon sergeant and in gratitude for him when basic ended.

So why haven’t our police departments, para-military organizations not unlike the armed forces in command structure and hierarchy, been similarly successful?

The big difference is discipline — and unions. 

Members of an army unit could not have resigned from their assigned duties as those 57 Buffalo cops did when they quit the department’s emergency response unit to protest the arrests of two colleagues for assaulting a 75-year-old demonstrator. A soldier with 18 incidents of misconduct would be court martialed out of the army, but the policeman charged with the killing of George Floyd was protected by his union contract in all 18 investigations. The head of the Minneapolis police union, a lieutenant, has an even more impressive record of 29 complaints and has boasted of having been involved in three “successful” shootings in his career.

“The greater the political pressure for reform, the more defiant the unions are in resisting it,” reports The New York Times with considerable evidence supporting that statement. In most cities, police unions have the clout and campaign contributions to clear officers accused of misconduct and deny cities the right to independently investigate police misconduct.  

A report by the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration found that, “Officers in unionized police forces are more likely to be the subjects of an excessive force complaint but more likely to beat the allegations in disciplinary hearings.”

Trying to reform police unions by rewriting contracts and changing rules certainly makes more sense than defunding or otherwise eliminating police departments, the public policy equivalent of throwing out the baby with the bath water.  


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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