The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 2 | Issue 9 | September 2009

Police Labor Relations: Interest-Based Problem-Solving and the Power of Collaboration

Police Officer speaking and demonstrating at a meeting The role of police unions and labor relations in law enforcement agencies are topics that have received little attention. A recent study reported that in the past 33 years, there have been only 19 published items—scholarly articles, books, book chapters, or reports by government agencies or private nonprofit groups—on police unions in the United States (Walker, 2008). The study also reports that “the neglect of police unions has seriously impeded understanding of American policing, particularly with respect to basic police management, innovation and reform, police-community relations, and police accountability.”

Not only have few articles been written about police unions, only a few of those published discuss the positive role unions can and do play in working with management to solve problems, implement change, make reforms, and handle crises. It is small wonder that initiatives that attempt to engage both police union leaders and managers in efforts to work together are relatively rare, even though many of the challenges confronting police departments today affect them both.

Issues such as budget cuts, privatization and civilianization, recruitment, health care, and pension benefits, to name a few, affect everyone in the departments. To most effectively address and resolve the challenges facing law enforcement agencies, union and management need to work together. For this reason, the 1st National Joint Police Union-Management Symposium, sponsored by the Michigan State University Schools of Labor and Industrial Relations and Criminal Justice, and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office), was convened in October 2008 to provide a forum for union and management leaders to learn more about issues confronting them, as well as to learn to apply skills for effectively resolving them.

The week-long symposium was divided into nine half-day segments. The opening segment gave participants an opportunity to get to know each other by meeting in small groups to discuss the challenges that each faced as either police union or management leaders. The four issue-based content segments focused on the future of policing, health care and the implications for bargaining, work-family issues, and recruitment and retention strategies. The remaining four skill-building segments focused on effective negotiation and problem solving using interest-based approaches, leading and managing change, building and maintaining an effective union-management relationship, and joint strategies for addressing critical issues. Sessions were very interactive and engaged participants by encouraging them to voice their thoughts and questions with each other and with the presenters.

Forty-one participants from across the U.S., as well as Canada, Australia, and Turkey, attended the symposium. A little more than one-third of the participants were from the management ranks, so there was a lot of opportunity for candid and frank conversations that represented the interests of their constituents. Some departments were represented by both union and management leaders.

While hearing current information on some of the pressing problems confronting departments and unions was a key element of the symposium, acquiring the knowledge and skills to effectively address problems together was the desired outcome. Much emphasis was placed on the process skills necessary to achieve effective and enduring solutions to problems. One useful exercise required participants to identify characteristics of both successful and unsuccessful change efforts. Participant responses provided useful data for all to consider:

Successful vs. Unsucessful Change Efforts


Additionally, participants were exposed to the concept of Interest-Based Problem Solving (IBPS) and were given several opportunities to apply the IBPS process to issues similar to those they faced in their home departments. Symposium conveners, experienced facilitators of successful joint union-management interventions, explained that the IBPS approach was a very effective tool for unions and their managers for addressing crises, solving problems, and making changes. The IBPS approach builds a shared understanding of what the problem or issue is, identifies what each stakeholder needs (their interests) to be satisfied with a solution, evaluates all options generated through a brainstorming process against the interests that have been identified, and crafts a solution, from those options, that best addresses the key interests.

In the debrief of the sessions, many participants commented that the practice they received in applying a joint labor-management process to simulated cases or problems was of great value because it helped to solidify many of the concepts they learned in the skill-building sessions. Several people commented on the value that an interest-based process can bring to union-management conversations. Others said that they saw great value in applying a joint labor- management approach to some of the critical issues facing their departments because they believed that the perspectives of both union and management were key to finding appropriate and effective solutions.

As a result of the symposium, participants discovered that a joint approach to problem solving and planning to address issues of mutual concern, in particular, is more enduring than the more traditional adversarial approach. Moreover, participants were able to see that the success that comes from using a joint process is often magnified by increased trust between union and management and by an increased confidence in their ability to achieve successful outcomes. This trust can also be beneficial when future issues arise.

The COPS Office will publish a more detailed summary of the symposium proceedings later this year.

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