How Police Unions Fight Reform


In May, just days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, Lieutenant Bob Kroll, the bellicose leader of the city’s police union, described Floyd as a violent criminal, said that the protesters who had gathered to lament his death were terrorists, and complained that they weren’t being treated more roughly by police. Kroll, who has spoken unsentimentally about being involved in three shootings himself, said that he was fighting to get the accused officers reinstated. In the following days, the Kentucky police union rallied around officers who had fatally shot an E.M.T. worker named Breonna Taylor in her home. Atlanta police staged an organized sick-out after the officers who killed Rayshard Brooks were charged. Philadelphia police sold T-shirts celebrating a fellow-cop who was caught on video clubbing a student protester with a steel baton. The list goes on.

Along with everything else about American society that was thrown into appalling relief by Floyd’s killing, there has been the peculiar militancy of many police unions. Law enforcement kills more than a thousand Americans a year. Many are unarmed, and a disproportionate number are African-American. Very few of the officers involved face serious, if any, consequences, and much of that impunity is owed to the power of police unions.

In many cities, including New York, the unions are a political force, their endorsements and campaign donations coveted by both Republicans and Democrats. The legislation they support tends to get passed, their candidates elected. They insist on public displays of respect and may humiliate mayors who displease them. They defy reformers, including police chiefs, who struggle to fire even the worst-performing officers. In an era when other labor unions are steadily declining in membership and influence, police unions have kept their numbers up, their coffers full. In Wisconsin, the Republican governor, Scott Walker, led a successful campaign to eliminate union rights for most of the state’s public employees. The exceptions were firefighters and police.

Police unions enjoy a political paradox. Conservatives traditionally abhor labor unions but support the police. The left is critical of aggressive policing, yet has often muted its criticism of police unions—which are, after all, public-sector unions, an endangered and mostly progressive species.

In their interstitial safe zone, police unions can offer their members extraordinary protections. Officers accused of misconduct may be given legal representation paid for by the city, and ample time to review evidence before speaking to investigators. In many cases, suspended officers have their pay guaranteed, and disciplinary recommendations of oversight boards are ignored. Complaints submitted too late are disqualified. Records of misconduct may be kept secret, and permanently destroyed after as little as sixty days.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, criticism of the police has become less muted. Calls resound to defund police forces, and to abolish the unions. But the United States has eighteen thousand nonfederal police agencies in its hyperlocalized system, with more than seven hundred thousand officers represented by unions. They will not be easily dislodged.

The Police Benevolent Association of New York City, which represents rank-and-file officers in the N.Y.P.D., is the largest municipal police union in the country, with twenty-four thousand dues-paying members. When the P.B.A. was founded, in the eighteen-nineties, it was a feeble thing, dedicated to raising money for the widows of fallen officers. The job was brutal then. Officers were badly paid, untrained, overworked—and thrown out of their jobs every time political power changed hands. They could plead for a living wage or an eight-hour day, but the rising labor movement wanted nothing to do with them. Cops were strikebreakers or worse; the first unionists killed in the American labor struggle, in 1850, were tailors clubbed to death by the New York police, at Ninth Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street.

After the First World War, the American Federation of Labor began issuing charters to police locals—in Cincinnati, St. Paul, Boston, Los Angeles. Management was horrified. Police were not ordinary workers, the argument went; they were more akin to soldiers or sailors, and unions would divide their loyalties, undermining the chain of command. The Boston Police Strike of 1919, when the nascent union demanded recognition from the city, forced a reckoning. There was extensive looting and reported rape; eight people were killed by the state militia. President Woodrow Wilson called the strike “a crime against civilization,” and most of the city’s policemen were fired. The fledgling unions in other cities were destroyed, and the cause of police unionization was set back for generations. It didn’t help that, in 1937, Chicago cops fired on striking steelworkers and their families, killing ten.

In the early sixties, white racial anxiety helped strengthen the unions’ position. The civil-rights movement was gathering force, street crime was increasing, and white flight was transforming cities. Public-sector unions were also flourishing. In New York, the teachers’ union secured the right to collective bargaining in 1961—a major victory. The city’s police were next. In 1963, Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr., a progressive, signed an executive order granting them collective-bargaining rights. Other cities followed, and police unions were eventually accepted in much of the country.

The N.Y.C.P.B.A. reassured politicians by promising not to strike or to affiliate with any other union, but it quickly asserted its power in other ways. The next mayor, John Lindsay, a Kennedyesque Republican, came into office vowing to establish a strong civilian complaint-review board, to provide police oversight. The P.B.A. mounted an overwhelming campaign against the plan. One poster showed a young middle-class white woman emerging from the subway onto a darkened street, looking frightened, with an accompanying text that read, “The Civilian Review Board must be stopped! Her life . . . your life . . . may depend on it.” A TV commercial surveyed damage from rioting in Harlem in 1964, with a voice-over intoning, “The police were so careful to avoid accusations that they were virtually powerless.” The P.B.A. leadership was, if anything, blunter. The president, John Cassese, said, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” In a citywide referendum, Lindsay’s side was defeated, by a margin of nearly two to one, and New York’s mayors have been on notice ever since.

In the city’s large, and largely segregated, Black community, police brutality had been a first-order issue for decades. The 1964 riots had been sparked when an off-duty policeman killed a fifteen-year-old Black student, James Powell. Activists, led by the N.A.A.C.P. and by Black newspapers such as the Amsterdam News, had been calling for more police accountability since at least the twenties, and for civilian oversight since the forties. Another frequent demand was for the hiring of more Black officers. One of the less-remembered lines in Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s soaring speech at the March on Washington, in 1963: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

When Mayor David Dinkins sought to install a civilian review board, in 1992, the P.B.A. staged a ferocious protest at City Hall, with ten thousand off-duty officers, virtually all white and many carrying guns and drinking alcohol. Demonstrators waved racist placards—“Dump the Washroom Attendant”—attacked reporters and bystanders, vandalized City Council members’ cars, stormed City Hall, and overflowed onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where they stopped traffic and jumped on occupied cars. It was a wild performance of police impunity, and the on-duty officers did nothing to stop the mayhem.

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Cartoon by Jody Zellman

Jimmy Breslin was there, reporting for Newsday, and he described a scene of toxic racism. “The cops held up several of the most crude drawings of Dinkins, black, performing perverted sex acts,” he wrote. Newsday had more. A city councilwoman, Una Clarke, who is Black, was prevented from crossing Broadway “by a beer-drinking, off-duty police officer who said to his sidekick, ‘This nigger says she’s a member of the City Council.’ ” As the rally surged, Rudolph Giuliani, a former prosecutor, stood on a car, leading obscene chants through a bullhorn. He defeated Dinkins the next year and went on to two terms as mayor.


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