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Police Unions, Police Officers, and Police Abolition

Abolition of the carceral state is a fundamental political goal for the Left today: specifically, abolishing the carceral state’s logic and institutions. . Abolition is both a goal and a discourse: it informs the strategies we adopt, as well as the framework we use to critique the carceral state and describe alternatives.

More than 80 members of New York City law enforcement unions held a rally August 19 in support of Colin Kaepernick.,Credit – Theodore Parisienne/For New York Daily News

It is inherently forward-thinking: we are no closer to abolition than to the revolution. The question of how the Left should regard police unions is therefore a question of whether and how police unions fit into the goal of abolition. I argue that we must understand police officers as individuals, with different interests, experiences, and opinions about their work, in order to develop political strategies necessary in the long fight for abolition. Police unions can play a strategically useful role by reflecting this diversity of individuals and opening a conversation about the relationship between the conditions and consequences of law enforcement.

Abolition is not around the corner: we have a long way to go in this battle.  Reforms are therefore necessary, and happen as a result of strategic political action, not grandstanding. The carceral state is brutal, oppressive, and deadly, which is why we cannot afford to compromise our goal, and why we also can’t afford to reject political opportunities along the way – strategies, allies, tactics, etc.

In the specifics, this will mean different things in different contexts. Broadly, this means:

  • We must identify carceral oppression wherever it is located: including within the labor movement. Our shared experience as workers does not mean that we do not participate in other forms of oppression, and we can no longer be silent about the oppression of the carceral state.
  • We must acknowledge the role of carceral actors in achieving reforms. Historically, any change that has happened within a police department has only happened with the participation of officers within that department. [[1]] This is the power of workers: they have the ultimate control over their labor. We must look for avenues to use this power, not deny its existence or potential.

The traditional Marxist critique of the police is that it is an institution created and used solely for the protection of capitalism and white racial hierarchy. This is certainly borne out in the history of police in America and their role in the political order today. They have been used to break strikes, disrupt protests, enforce private property laws such as against trespassing that prevent public use of land, surveil Muslim communities, and indiscriminately harass/ticket/arrest, injure, and kill Black and Hispanic people and other members of marginalized communities, such as GNC/queer folks and homeless individuals.

This critique accurately reflects the reality of police as an institution – as a technology of white supremacist capitalism. That reality cannot be denied. However, this critique only reflects the police as an institution. The most the critique will allow in terms of individualizing police officers is to highlight narratives of overtly racist/particularly egregious police behavior, often by calling for the conviction (or even just the indictment) of police who have killed civilians. Otherwise, the police are a nameless, faceless, abstracted threat. That threat is experienced in the real lives of individuals and should not be understated. In encountering a police officer, a person experiences the threat of the institution of police: in particular, the threat of losing one’s liberty or one’s life. The individual officer is perceived/experienced as a manifestation of the oppression of white supremacist capitalism.

And indeed, some police officers embody the institution, are overtly racist individuals who believe that Black people are inherently criminal and must be locked up or killed. Some officers join the department because they desire the power to dominate. Others are deeply invested in other facets of the current political order. But still other officers join a police force to protect their communities, believing that ensuring public order ultimately protects society. For others, it is just a job. We do not know how many individual officers fitting these descriptions are in any particular department. For now, let us agree that every department has some of each – that not every police officer has the same attitude. At this point, the Marxist critique of police as it is currently articulated fails us, because it fails to acknowledge the diversity of opinion and political orientation of different police officers, and the contradictions this creates within police departments.

Take the NYPD as an example. The NYPD is one of the most notorious police departments in the country – it is certainly the largest, it is intensely militarized, violent, with close ties to other state departments of oppression such as the FBI. The NYPD is also one of the most racially diverse police departments in the country. In 2016, the incoming class of NYPD recruits more closely mirrored the demographic population of New York City than ever before. While we cannot assume the political orientation of any individual based on their race, we can assume that Black and Hispanic police officers probably feel differently about NYPD practices that target minority communities.

This requires, at a minimum, that we ask (1) why Black and Hispanic officers join the NYPD, and (2) what happens to them after they join? Are these individuals motivated by the same racism, the same investment in capital, as their white counterparts? If not, why do they not have a bigger impact on the policy and practice of the department? These are empirical questions and require engaging with police officers as individuals, not as emblems of an institution, to answer. It is at this point that the reality of the police as an institution, and the reality of the police officers within the institution, poses a conundrum to our Marxist critique. In order to change the police, we must develop an analysis that includes these individuals.

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For now, we can conjecture something about why minority officers do not have a greater impact on reducing the racial bias of policing. The internal structure of police departments – particularly more militaristic ones such as the NYPD – are administrative agencies that are deeply hierarchical, with rigid rules and a deep reliance on technocratic standards of work performance, such as a reliance on the CompStat program. In such an environment, “bottom-up” influences on policy are structurally more difficult to achieve.

We can also conjecture several reasons why someone might join the NYPD without wanting to enforce a capitalist racial hierarchy: the NYPD offers one of the best working class jobs available in New York City. It provides decent, regular pay. (Rookie officers make about 45,000 a year and aren’t required to have a college degree.) It is a prestigious job, conferring a feeling of ‘being a hero’ to many people. For some, growing up in neighborhoods with visible crime is sufficient motivation for joining the police force, out of a desire to do good and help their communities. It is also a union job, one that offers career advancements, job security, and pensions.

This is what deserves further scrutiny. Do the police deserve a union? Should the Left call for dismantling police unions?

Police unions have a deservedly bad reputation among the Left, if only because they protect the bad actions of workers (such as defending officers who have killed civilians from administrative punishments). Many police unions also oppose reform efforts, defend abusive practices, and advocate for expanding police power and discretion. The country’s largest police union – the Fraternal Order of Police – endorsed Donald Trump, clearly an articulation of support for a racist ‘law and order’ agenda. The Left’s call for dismantling police unions is therefore unsurprising. Unsurprising, but also mistaken: it is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw. The analysis that leads us to categorically reject police unions fails on several levels: it fails analytically to take into account both the individual and institutional reality of police officers and police departments; and it ignores the possibility and strategic usefulness of police unions.

A thorough analysis of whether police count as ‘workers’ is outside the scope of my purpose here. They do work, they do have a union – that is my concern. I will just say that the primary distinction that sets police officers apart is that they have the right to kill (a right shared by private security guards and corrections officers). Otherwise, most officers work in the same way that other street-level bureaucrats (such as DMV workers and Medicaid administrators) work. They go to a place other than their home, perform a service, have little to no control over the conditions under which that service is performed, and receive a salary. Much as the "gig" or "precarity economy" demands a re-examination of who is a worker in 2017, it is time to expand our analysis of ‘workers’ beyond the traditional Marxist analysis, rooted as that is in a mid-19th century reality.

In furtherance of our goal of abolition, we must understand the objective conditions of police departments as they exist today: the structural reality of the institution of police, the social and work conditions of police officers’ lives, as well as the fact that police officers have control over their actual labor power. We know that not all police officers go into this work for the same reasons, and not all police officers feel the same way about their work. That is reality as much as the fact that police have killed over 600 civilians in 2017 so far. We cannot afford to ignore either truth if we take our goal of abolition seriously.

Ideally, police unions would be protecting and offering a voice to discontented workers. Largely, police unions fail to do so. However, in some instances they do advocate for better working conditions for officers. One of the only public records of the NYPD’s illegal quota system comes from arbitration pursued by the police union (the PBA), which continues to collect stories about officers being forced to use quotas to pursue broken windows arrests. This is important, because the quota system is one of the main drivers of abusive police practice in the City. Quotas behind broken windows are almost certainly responsible for Eric Garner’s death. And police officers – like other workers – do not like quotas, which make their work more onerous. Quotas are a prime example of the relationship between the conditions of police work and the consequences of police work. Attacking police unions prevents us from making this connection, a connection that reflects the reality of the social conditions of policing and thus is strategically useful.

The consequences and conditions of policing are deeply related to each other. This relationship appears in a number of places. Quotas are one example. Another are training programs like “Operation Impact,” in which rookie police officers are sent to conduct vertical patrols in buildings that are considered high-crime, typically public housing buildings and other low-income residences. Peter Liang, who killed Akai Gurley, was a rookie police officer training under Operation Impact. Such a highly aggressive training program is a work condition that clearly has an impact on the way police officers treat civilians.

This connection is not one that police unions try to advertise. The PBA filing a lawsuit about quotas is very much the exception, not the rule. More commonly, police officers that object to department policies are stifled at every turn. Failure to comply with orders from bosses is met with retribution of varying degrees (having your shift changed, being denied a promotion). Making public statements outside the department yields even harsher penalties. Many people new to or unfamiliar with criminal justice advocacy in New York City will perhaps not remember the Adrian Schoolcraft story. In 2010, Schoolcraft secretly recorded conversations in his precinct and released those tapes. He was subsequently abducted by the department and involuntarily held in a psychiatric ward. He was released after three days due primarily to public scrutiny. The costs of speaking out against NYPD practice are high.

And yet officers continue to do so, some more or less publicly. Despite the costs, some officers object to the work they are required to do. They object to the racial discrimination, they object to the constant surveillance of communities, and they believe there are better ways to ensure public safety. The fact that there are both objections and retribution suggests the very thing that the Left risks ignoring: different police officers feel differently about how they are asked to do their job, and that feeling causes some police officers to act differently.

In a recent lawsuit, minority officers are directly challenging the NYPD’s quota policy as an explicitly racist policy. In August, 100 law enforcement officers marched in support of Colin Kaepernick. These officers should feel supported by the Left, should understand our shared goals of improving the conditions and consequences of police work. To accomplish our goal of abolition, we must consider what tactics or analysis we can adopt that will make officers more discontent with the way policing operates today, and thus more willing to participate in changes to police practice. What will our attitude towards police unions encourage: silence or speaking out?

Attacking police unions puts us at odds with exactly those police workers we should be supporting. Dismantling police unions will not give those workers a greater voice, or make other calls for change any easier. In challenging police practice, dominant liberal discourse is a bigger obstacle than union actors. And legal protections for officers’ bad actions – particularly regarding civilian deaths – are more a result of courts than any other institution. I don’t mean to suggest that police unions have no political influence. But ultimately, power over police policy is located in liberal ideology, courts, executive offices, and the structure of an institutionally isolated administrative agency. These are the places where power lies; focusing on police unions is a distraction. And what would happen if we succeeded in getting rid of police unions? Would police be less likely to be violent, or carry out racist policies? It is hard to see why. It is more likely that this would make it even harder for discontented police officers to speak out.

Although it may be difficult when confronted with aggressive, militarized forces -- and no one is suggesting that we try to make friends with the officers sent to terrorize our protests -- it is essential that in our discourse we continue to engage with the concept of police as individuals. Yes, police are tools of the state (as are Wall Street bankers and street level welfare bureaucrats). But people do not conceptualize themselves as mere tools. If our conversations deny police the status of workers -- including the attendant right to unionize -- then any conversations we have with rank and file officers (some of whom may be sympathetic to our cause, much like veterans who have been radicalized) place them squarely as agents of an authoritarian regime, a framework which actively works against any possibility of deeper solidarity.

Not only does this preclude the possibility of solidarity with police who are actively discontent but still working within the department, it also ignores the reality that it is police officers themselves who must participate in creating and implementing changes within their department. Ultimately it is police officers, the rank and file, who hold power over policing practice (as opposed to setting police policy). In 2014, the NYPD instituted a slowdown in reaction to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, a perceived lack of support by the De Blasio administration, as well as the deaths of two on duty (minority) officers. That slowdown was instigated by the PBA and warmly embraced by officers. It was also embraced by police reform advocates at the time, who responded with a resounding “yes, please, police us less.” Police officers as rank and file ultimately hold more power than even they realize; this is as true for police workers as it is for any other kind of worker. The Left should acknowledge the reality of this power and the reality of workers’ discontent alongside the reality of racism and structural inequalities of policing.

There is another aspect to this: even police officers who do not have critiques of their job are still human beings. We have an obligation to remember this when developing our abolition strategy and discourse. We must overcome the capitalist framework that keeps us from recognizing the humanity of those we oppose. It is under capitalism that a logic developed allowing/encouraging us to discard human life, to treat outsiders, the marginalized – or even people who actually commit offenses we do not want to defend – as inhuman. This is the most basic difference between socialism and capitalism. We do not deny the humanity even of our enemies, of people we disagree with, of people who do bad things. We are capable of recognizing the complexity and contradictions of individual human life. Here, I think the old anti-war adage “Hate the War, Not the Soldier” is useful. Although police and soldiers are different and shouldn’t be over-analogized, the point of this slogan was that it doesn’t matter if an individual soldier is a good guy or a bad guy; what matters is that he is not responsible for starting or ending war. The police as an institution, not the police as individuals, should be our target.

A young man I used to work with encountered an officer who gave him a ticket, and said “I have to do this because my boss is in the car. You’re fine – I filled it out wrong. Just don’t lose it, go to court on the date, and the judge will dismiss it.” A police officer I worked with shared a story of when he first realized the racism of policing: he tried to give a ticket to a white couple having wine in Central Park. His supervisor was called in and scolded him, saying “we don’t do that here.” This officer saw the problem with his job, but continued to give tickets to people drinking on their stoops in Harlem. How do we account for these individuals in an analysis that says “you are not a worker, you are not a person, you are either evil and racist or just a mindless thoughtless tool of the state”? That attitude allows capitalist thinking to limit ourselves, undermining the possibility of creating a new way of life, a new basis of social relations. This doesn’t mean we forgive blindly. It doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t hold people accountable, or that we ignore oppression in looking for understanding. It means that must free our analysis of the dehumanizing logic of capitalism.

Are police unions currently close to being allies? No. I do not mean to be naïve: we are a long way away from having any practical political solidarity with police and police unions. However, in our analysis and strategy, we should not ignore the possibility of this relationship, and certainly we should not ignore the reality of the relationship between conditions and consequences of police work. Rejecting police unions as only and always reactionary does not acknowledge the complexity of the world around us. Our strategies must be informed by an analysis rooted in the real conditions of the institution of police departments and the lives of individual police officers (especially police from minority and working class backgrounds), even while we continue to forefront the stories and voices of those who have been harmed by the police. The question of police unions is not an abstract one, and therefore our answers should not rest on abstractions. A successful abolition strategy will require examining and addressing the reality of police both as an institution and as individuals.

[1] For a thorough history of police departments and police reform, see Samuel Walker’s A Critical History of Police Reform

[Rosa Squillacote has 10 years of experience in criminal justice advocacy. In 2011, she helped co-found the Police Reform Organizing Project in New York City. She's currently pursuing her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, studying the relationship between the welfare and carceral state.]

[1] For a thorough history of police departments and police reform, see Samuel Walker’s A Critical History of Police Reform