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labor Police Unions Wield Massive Power in American Politics — For Now

The barriers to reform police unions erected over the years will pose an enormous obstacle to establishing a new, more accountable kind of policing in the United States.

With blood covering her hand and arm, a woman points at a police officer on September 21, 2016 in Charlotte, NC. The North Carolina governor had declared a state of emergency in the city of Charlotte after clashes during protests in the city in response t,Sean Rayford/Getty Images

When he was fired, arrested, and charged with the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin belonged to a union. Officer Brett Hankison still enjoys union membership, despite being terminated by the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department over the killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. Unlike other public sector unions tasked with establishing collective bargaining rights for its members, police unions have sought to protect employees who have killed people on the job.

When he was fired, arrested, and charged with the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin belonged to a union. Officer Brett Hankison still enjoys union membership, despite being terminated by the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department over the killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. Unlike other public sector unions tasked with establishing collective bargaining rights for its members, police unions have sought to protect employees who have killed people on the job.

Though Chauvin’s termination won’t be contested by the Minneapolis Police Federation, his criminal legal defense will be covered by another labor outfit, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers AssociationHankison appealed his termination to the LMPD’s Merit Board through lawyers employed by his union, the River City Fraternal Order of Police. The RCFOP didn’t return a request for comment by Rolling Stone, and the MPF’s website and social media pages have been taken offlineThe FBI and the Kentucky State Attorney General’s office are investigating Taylor’s death. 

Neither officer is an anomaly. Chauvin had a professional history littered with at least 17 misconduct complaints, while Hankison, who had sat on the LMPD Merit Board, later faced allegations of using his position to sexually proposition and assault at least two women. Both men have become a focal point of the national ire currently focused on America’s cops. They are just a symptom of the systemic rot that plagues American policing.

In a time of dwindling union membership in the United States, police unions have only grown in sheer size and power. Over decades of savvy political alliances, lobbying, advertising blitzes, and contract negotiations with obliging city officials, the unions have engineered an environment where accountability is fleeting, and where numerous hurdles make it exceedingly difficult to punish officers who abuse their power.

“You have really politically powerful police unions that lobby, that are organized, that donate and give to major political candidates,” says Stephen Rushin, an associate law professor at Loyola Chicago University.

As calls to “defund the police” grew across the country, prominent police union leaders exercised their clout by speaking out. Bob Kroll, president of Minneapolis Police Federation and the subject of 10 misconduct complaints of his own since 2013,responded to the unrest by calling Black Lives Matter “a terrorist organization.” (One of the complaints remains open, and none of the others against Kroll have resulted in discipline, according to published reports.) Pat Lynch, president of the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, spoke of being abandoned by elected officials, saying the protests put the NYPD “under assault.

But those union leaders’ histrionics could signal a changing of the tide. With a national wave of protest fueled by the public’s contempt for police brutality and unaccountability, some advocates and experts believe we could be nearing a moment of reckoning that achieves systemic change. “This could be a watershed moment where policing is radically restructured and we understand public safety in a fundamentally different way,” says Goff. “Or it could look like every other time that black communities have been calling for the same things with different words” that failed to change the situation.

Police unions are on the movement’s radar, but the barriers to reform they’ve erected over the years will pose an enormous obstacle to establishing a new, more accountable kind of policing in the United States.

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DESPITE THEIR INFLUENCE and present-day power, police unions had to fight for decades to gain a foothold within the labor movement. They eventually sought and gained union recognition, but America’s police departments ironically came to prominence as forces used to quash labor agitation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“If you go back to the period before the New Deal, unions were more or less considered illegitimate,” says Sam Mitrani, a labor historian at the College of Dupage. “Every time there was an organizing drive or a strike, the police were sent in to smash it.”

The development of industry in U.S. cities led to widespread work stoppages, such as the Pullman Strike of 1894 and Chicago’s Haymarket Square Massacre in 1877. Cities responded to the unrest by bolstering police forces. “The police were largely built in reaction to the labor movement,” Mitrani says.

Before and after the New Deal won historic concessions for workers, police forces clamored for acceptance within the broader labor movement with little success. The establishment of fraternal organizations — many of which still exist today — allowed police to advocate for better pay and pensions, but didn’t maintain the might and bargaining power of unions under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor. Fraternal organizations “start out as pressure groups and advocates for police. … They’re not actually formal unions,” explains Max Felker-Kantor, a labor historian at Ball State University.

By the 1950s, a professionalization movement within police forces was born with an aim of instilling bureaucratic efficiency and control within departments. This only created more tension between police officers and their reform-minded leaders, who viewed collective bargaining as an impediment to their aims. According to Felker-Kantor, the leaders of the professionalization movement, such as former Chicago police chief O.W. Wilson, thought unions made it more difficult “to enhance discipline, to increase the education you might need to become a police officer.’”

As a result, officers rebelled. A wave of police protests in the 1960s and 1970s saw cops attempt to cash in on the public sector union movement, which had increased in size and strength in prior decades without them. The union push was won after a wave of civil disobedience in Baltimore, San Francisco, New York and, other cities, with cops using protest tactics that they had been instrumental in suppressing in previous generations. The social upheaval of the late Sixties helped police unions win over broad segments of the white working-class public, who viewed the country’s simmering racial tension with alarm. “Nearly every large-city police department had been unionized by the early 1970s,” Gary Potter, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University, wrote in a 2013 paper.

The Great Migration reshaped U.S. cities demographically, with an influx of African Americans moving their families to the cities of the north. By the early 1960s, police departments saw their budgets increase and swarms of new white officers join the force, largely as a way of policing these new black populations, Ellora Derenoncourt, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton, wrote in a paper last year.

The combination of strong union protections and a culture of racial animosity might partly explain how American policing laid its current foundation. Today, policing has a “foundation that I believe, and many believe, is fundamentally racist in its impact,” Seattle City Councilman Girmay Zahilay tells Rolling Stone.

That sentiment is nothing new to broad swaths of people of color in America, though it’s now gaining traction among white people. “Our history has not fully accounted for how we’ve managed race in this country, and that’s what you’re seeing on the streets,” says Goff.

IT TOOK DECADES for police unions to gain recognition within the labor movement, but they are now an entrenched power-player across the country. Their influence is cemented in pervasive ways. With protesters flooding the streets in defiance of widely decried police killings, the public is finally waking up to this reality.

Police union power begins with their contracts — governing documents that establish officer salaries, vacation packages, and a multitude of other provisions related to employment. Though they’re always agreed via a bilateral process involving union representatives and city officials, these contracts have enabled departments to amass enormous budgets and ironclad job security for officers — even if they beat, choke, and sometimes kill non-violent people in the line of duty.

Though it’s not an outlier in terms of the benefits afforded to its officers, the RCFOP’s contract includes several clauses that demonstrate just how hard it is to fire problematic officers like Hankison. One of those clauses is a “requirement to erase documentation” of misconduct charges after a year, Samuel Sinyangwe, the co-founder of the police reform organization Campaign Zero, explained to Rolling Stone. The issue extends a lot further than Louisville.

Stephen Rushin, the Loyola Chicago law professor, has gone to great lengths to correlate stronger police union contracts with upticks in officer misconduct. Through an examination of 834 contracts across two studiesRushin highlighted how unions have orchestrated a system of non-accountability spanning the nation. He determined that contracts stymie oversight, with policies that “limit officer interrogations after alleged misconduct, mandate the destruction of disciplinary records, ban civilian oversight, prevent anonymous civilian complaints, indemnify officers in the event of civil suits, and limit the length of internal investigations,” one paper says.

Speaking of his experience trying to reform the Seattle Police Department after they recently used pepper spray and flash bangs to disperse protestors, Zahilay explains: “The only types of oversight that we can implement over our sheriff’s department, are the types of oversight the sheriff’s department agrees to. You can imagine how much of a conflict of interest that is.”

Given the seeming impunity afforded to police via their contracts, it’s easy to understand how the recent Black Lives Matter protests quickly turned so violent. Though many officers acted with restraint while sporadic looting and violence gripped American cities, the internet was soon consumed by a bloody highlight reel of police brutality. In Austin, Texas, police struck a pregnant woman with a beanbag projectile. In Buffalo, New York, 75-year-old activist Martin Gugino was shoved to the pavement by members of a riot squad, smashing his head open on the sidewalk. (Two officers were eventually charged with felony assault in the incident, though all 57 officers on the BPD Emergency Response Unit quit their positions in that unit protest). Journalists covering the unrest were sometimes deliberately targeted by police forces, in over 470 incidents of aggressions counted against reporters by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Many cops may not have feared consequences from brutalizing protestors simply because it’s so difficult to fire unionized police officers. This is because fired cops often earn reduced punishments through various layers of appeal. Often, they’re granted reduced punishments after a closed-door hearing with an arbitrator. “That arbitrator is usually selected with at least some significant input from the police union or from the officer who’s filing the grievance,” says Rushin. Arbitrators are usually “repeat players” who seek good working relationships with police unions due to monetary incentives. They aren’t afraid of brokering compromise between unions and department leadership to get more work down the line.

“Compromise is OK in other ways,” Rushin says, “but it’s not always an acceptable outcome when it means putting a dangerous person back on the street with a badge or a gun.”

While contracts and arbitration have made it more difficult to punish dangerous or otherwise unfit officers, police unions have embedded their machinery deeply within the political system in other ways. Because of their swelling, dues-paying rank and file, police unions “have access to very, very large sums of money” and use it “to influence the political system,” says George Gascón, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer and current candidate for Los Angeles District Attorney. Police unions “are almost intoxicated with that power of the money,” he says.

Their lobbying efforts are robust. In response to Democrats’ recent efforts to establish new federal policing restrictions, Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, told the New York Times, “We’re going to come out swinging. We’re not going to back down.”

Police unions have a history of banding together to kill legislation around jail sentencing reform, and many other initiatives they might deem detrimental to their interests. In Wisconsin, where police were exempted from controversial right to work policies enacted by former governor Scott Walker, police unions have spent around $2.3 million in the last decade on lobbying and elections, Urban Milwaukee reported this month. Across the country, police union lobbying efforts have reached a total of $87 million spent in major cities over the last 20 years, according to an analysis from the Guardian. Police union and political action committee money has flowed to a bipartisan faction of Congressional leaders for decades. Out of the top 10 recipients of police money in both the House and Senate since 1994, six are current Democrats, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio), an analysis by Open Secrets found.

The unions “have been successful in getting lots of very deferential legislation passed like officer bills of rights,” says Rushin. “One the one hand, that looks problematic, but they don’t have some sort of magical power, they have the power we give them.”

THE PROTEST MOVEMENT has been a force this summer, with demonstrations cropping up in small towns and major cities alike. The sustained momentum from multiple sectors of activists, politicians and labor leaders may provide an indication that a structural upheaval could, finally, be around the corner.

Much of the recent backlash against police unions has come from within the labor movement itself. The president of the Service Employees International Union, Mary Kay Henry, recently said the labor movement has to consider expelling police unions. The Kings County Labor Council, the largest labor union in Seattle, expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild from its organization early this month, while the Writers Guild of America, East, unanimously passed a resolution calling for the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate with the International Union of Police Associations. (The AFL-CIO so far has said it won’t expel the IUPA).

Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association president Larry Cosme, however, sees no difference between police unions and their comrades in organized labor.

“We do not ask why teachers should have a role in setting education policy or why workers should have a role in policies surrounding workplace safety,” comments Cosme via a written statement to Rolling Stone. “These organizations deserve a seat at the table when policies impacting their safety, wages, and benefits are set because they represent the voices of the rank and file employees who serve as a vital check on management. Police labor organizations serve the same important function.”

Rather, Cosme asserted that elected officials and police department leadership are a more deserving target of national scorn than rank-and-file officers. “Perhaps there also needs to be a better mechanism for holding those individuals accountable for failures in or a complete lack of leadership on these issues rather than a focus on rank and file law enforcement and the groups who represent them,” he says.

Legislators across the country are siding with the growing movement for police accountability. In New York on June 12th, Governor Andrew Cuomo repealed 50-A, a controversial law that allowed police departments to shield officer misconduct records from public view. In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis signed a bill that ended qualified immunity, enabling the public to bring lawsuits against individual officers over civil rights complaints. The Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle its police department following the mass demonstrations, while Louisville officials voted to ban the kind of no-knock warrant used in the killing of Breonna Taylor.

The progress has heartened activists. “I’m more hopeful now than ever,” Samuel Sinyangwe, of Campaign Zero, says. “I think there’s a political consciousness among legislators that’s increasing now that [supporting police unions] is not OK.”

Gascón has made the campaign promise of not accepting any donations from police unions. “We’re going to try to make police money toxic, just like fossil fuel money or tobacco money,” he tells Rolling Stone.

Advocates like Phillip Atiba Goff are imploring people to keep the pressure on their elected leaders. “Who is your police chief or sheriff or superintendent? Who can hire and fire them? Is there a civilian review board? Who’s the head of your union and how long have they been there?” he asks.

What’s different about this moment, is the multitude of factors driving a multiracial coalition of activists into the streets to demand change. The collision of a pandemic with mass unemployment and racial unrest stoked by the gruesome murders of Floyd, Taylor and others has finally elevated the Black Lives Matter movement to a position of international prominence.

“2020 has been a year where generations of unjust and unsustainable systems have played out in a way you can clearly see,” Seattle City Councilman Girmay Zahilay says.

Goff sees a parallel between the police reform movement and the toppling of Confederate monuments around the country, which have become a new focus of protests against systemic racism. “In these moments, policing isn’t at the center of this, racism is,” he says. “And it’s the long history of racism. The reason that we slid so effortlessly from Minneapolis to confederate statues, is because they are the same thing.”