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Police Unions Are Racist Power Brokers in Opposition to Movement for Black Lives

Racist police violence did not originate with police unions but is wholeheartedly aided and abetted by them.

Police confront protesters in front of the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn on May 29, 2020, in New York City.

The scene is all too frequent — a Black person is slain or wantonly brutalized on camera by police officers, most often white, and in response, a white police union leader steps to the microphone and unequivocally defends the actions, no matter how indefensible they are. A police chief or mayor, under pressure from the community, attempts to invoke modest reforms in response, and the union wields the power of its contract to defeat the measures. Progressive-leaning prosecutors are mercilessly attacked and judges plied with union contributions to support “law and order.” Killer cops are supplied with lawyers, at union expense, when they are administratively charged or criminally prosecuted. When a department, pursuant to a consent decree or community pressure, implements de-escalation and peer intervention training, the union provides alternative “warrior mentality” training free of charge. The union leaps to the defense of a cop who sends a defenseless 75-year-old peace activist to the hospital in critical condition. Several police union leaders are notorious “repeater beaters” with long records of shootings, beatings and other misconduct. Cops in their union garb pack courtrooms to intimidate cops who break the code of silence and bravely testify about police torture and murder. Union leaders rally for Trump, while he encourages their violence. And the list goes on.

Police unions are not the origin of racist police violence, which is inherent in the institution of policing. That violence would not disappear if corrupt union leaders were removed. However, police unions operate as racist power brokers, aiding and abetting the worst of policing’s manifestations, including police-perpetrated murders. It’s important to understand their history and how they function, if we are to understand what we’re up against in this pivotal moment.

Union Leadership Defends Murder in Minneapolis

Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis seems like he was sent straight from central casting — a “repeater beater” cop who has accumulated 30 citizen complaints and has previously been suspended and demoted by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). He has sported a white supremacist badge on his biker jacket, was named in a 2007 racial discrimination lawsuit against the police department filed by five Black officers who alleged he called then U.S. congressman Keith Ellison, who is Black and Muslim, a “terrorist,” and has been sued several times for use of excessive force. He appeared at one of Trump’s rallies and has publicly supported him. In a letter to the rank and file a week after the killing of George Floyd, Kroll vowed to fight the firing of the four officers criminally charged in Floyd’s murder, made no mention of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, but rather highlighted Floyd’s “violent criminal history.” He called the protests a “terrorist movement,” and criticized political leaders’ response as “despicable behavior,” saying police officers were being made “scapegoats.”

Yet Kroll does not appear to be winning this battle. More than one thousand demonstrators gathered at Federation headquarters calling for Kroll’s resignation. Fourteen MPD officers, saying that they represented the vast majority of the Minneapolis police force, signed an open letter to the city saying, “We wholeheartedly condemn Derek Chauvin,” and “stand ready to listen and embrace the calls for change, reform and rebuilding.” Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak supported the 14 officers, the Minnesota AFL-CIO called for Kroll to immediately resign, and MPD Police Chief Medaria Arradondo proposed circumventing the police contract to implement the sweeping reforms passed by the Minneapolis City Council. Meanwhile, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council had voted to abolish the MPD.

Unions Dismiss Police Killings in Louisville and Atlanta

In Louisville, the police, using a no-knock warrant, and without announcing their office, broke down the door to Breonna Taylor’s apartment. After her boyfriend Kenneth Walker fired a shot at the unknown intruders, they shot Taylor, who was unarmed, eight times, killing her. They then charged Walker, who had called 911 to ask for help when he heard intruders breaking into the apartment, with attempted murder.

When Jessica Green, a Black Louisville councilwoman and chair of the council’s public safety committee, called Walker a “hero” for defending Taylor, Louisville Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President Ryan Nichols called on Green to apologize and was quoted as saying: “To say that I was disgusted and appalled by that statement is a dramatic understatement.” It is “a slap in the face” to police everywhere and “cannot be tolerated by city leaders.” Green responded, “what I said yesterday is that I believe that Kenneth Walker was a hero because he acted to defend himself and [his] significant other due to threats unknown. I stand by that statement.”

In Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back and killed by two white police officers in an incident that started when Brooks was questioned by the officers because he had fallen asleep in his car. The entire incident was recorded on video. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called the killing a “murder.” The chief of police resigned. The shooter, Garrett Rolfe, was fired and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard Jr. promised criminal charges.

All too predictably, Vince Champion, the Southeast Regional Director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, called the firing of Rolfe premature, saying, “there was no investigation into what happened. His due process was violated.”

New York’s Police Union Has Long Terrorized the City

In 1966 the NYPD’s Police Benevolent Association (PBA) began a decades long campaign against efforts to establish a civilian review board after powerful community protests against police violence compelled Mayor John Lindsay to call for establishment of such a board. As 5,000 off-duty cops rallied against the proposal at City Hall, the president of the PBA lamented, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting. Any review board with civilians on it is detrimental to the operations of the police department.” After the PBA mounted a powerful publicity campaign in opposition to the proposal, it was voted down at the polls

In 1975, the PBA ordered a rampage through the city’s Black and Puerto Rican communities, with thousands of off-duty cops waving their guns, banging on trash cans, and blowing whistles for several nights until Mayor Abe Beame obtained a restraining order.

Ten years later, after Mayor Ed Koch revived the issue of civilian review in the wake of a white cop killing Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly and mentally ill Black woman, the PBA again condemned the idea, staged a work slowdown in response to the attempted prosecution of the officer, and pressured Koch into reinstating the officer even though he had been criminally charged.

In 1992, when Mayor David Dinkins sought to institute civilian review, the PBA organized another City Hall rally in opposition. This time, the crowd numbered 10,000 officers, with PBA members hurtling barricades, jumping on cars, blocking the Brooklyn Bridge and kicking a reporter. Some of the PBA cops carried signs showing Dinkins with a bushy Afro haircut and swollen lips, with racist slogans, including ones that ridiculed him as a “washroom attendant.”

In 1994, the independent Mollen Commission found that corruption within the NYPD “is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.” Senior NYPD officials and prosecutors agreed with the commission’s conclusion that the PBA protected corrupt police officers by helping them evade accountability.

In 1997, an NYPD officer sexually assaulted Abner Louima in a precinct station bathroom by violently shoving a broken broomstick into his rectum. His attacker and three of his police accomplices were charged with criminal civil rights offenses. Evidence at trial revealed that a PBA official had chaired an early meeting with the implicated officers, one of whom was a PBA delegate, at which they fabricated a false story designed to exonerate one of the conspirators. Even after the officers were convicted, the PBA continued to defend the officers, and to advocate for them, using their fabricated version of events — with PBA leader Patrick Lynch claiming that “people with a political agenda have fanned the flames of this incident,” leading to an “innocent man . . . being punished beyond belief.”

In August of 2014, after the medical examiner determined that Eric Garner’s death at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was a homicide by means of a chokehold, Lynch declared that the examiner’s finding was “mistaken” and further claimed that it was “not a chokehold. “He condemned Mayor Bill de Blasio for not “support[ing] New York City police officers unequivocally,” and later praised the grand jury’s decision not to charge Pantaleo. He accused Garner of resisting arrest, and praised Pantaleo as “literally an Eagle Scout,” a “model” cop, and a “mature, mature” officer.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings that followed, Lynch, still at the helm of the PBA, complained in an official PBA statement that “in a knee-jerk reaction to the mob in the street, state legislators have passed a raft of bills that will have a chilling effect on law enforcement. And city elected officials are being led down an even more extreme path, under the vague ‘Defund the police’ slogan.” In conclusion Lynch urged that the city and state “[reject] the rhetoric that demonizes police officers and tries to separate us from our communities,” and to “slow down the frenzied response to protests in which lawmakers are passing bills first and reading them later.”

Chicago Police Union Defended Torturers

In 2009 the Chicago FOP held a reunion during which it attempted to rewrite history about the wanton police brutality at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In a false narrative that mirrors current police statements about today’s protestors, the FOP declared that “the time has come that the Chicago Police be honored and recognized for their contributions to maintaining law and order — and for taking a stand against Anarchy. The only thing that stood between Marxist street thugs and public order was a thin blue line of dedicated, tough Chicago police officers.”

In 1990, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution that declared December 4 “Fred Hampton Day.” On December 4, 1969, Hampton, the charismatic young chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was slain in his bed by Chicago police in what, by that time, had been documented and widely accepted as a politically motivated assassination. FOP President John Dineen launched a campaign to repeal the resolution, publicly belittled the Black Panther Party and slandered Hampton, who was considered to be a martyr by many Chicagoans. Again in 2006, after the City Council unanimously voted to rename the block where Hampton was murdered “Chairman Fred Hampton Way,” FOP President Mark Donahue lobbied for its rescission, while publicly voicing his membership’s “outrage” and “disbelief” at the decision.

In the early 1990s, the FOP began its campaign of defending Jon Burge, the notorious Chicago police torturer, and his crew of racist co-conspirators. When the emerging evidence of systemic police torture of Black men by Burge and his cadre of enforcers compelled the city to initiate proceedings before the Chicago Police Board in order to fire Burge and two of his cohorts for the electric shock torture of Andrew Wilson, the FOP financed the officers’ defense, and mounted a vicious attack on Burge’s victims and their lawyers who had brought much of the damning evidence to light. The FOP also organized a fundraiser at a local union hall where Burge was lionized by thousands of cops and prosecutors.

After Burge was fired by the police board in 1993, FOP boss Dineen called the decision a “travesty of justice,” and the FOP announced that it intended to enter a float honoring Burge in the annual South Side Irish Parade — a parade in which mayor Richard M. Daley and other prominent politicians regularly marched. Public outrage and cries of racism forced the FOP to withdraw the float.

In 2008, after Burge was indicted for lying under oath about torture, the FOP board pushed through a resolution to pay for Burge’s criminal defense. Defending its decision, FOP President Mark Donahue asserted that Burge, despite being accused in more than 100 documented cases of racist torture, had been unfairly tarnished by allegations from criminals, and that politicians and lawyers for Burge’s victims had “caused Jon Burge to be the ‘poster child’ of alleged police torture in this city for an entire generation.” Donahue vowed that the FOP “will stand with the police officer every time.”

In 2010, Burge was convicted of three felonies and, in 2011, sentenced to federal prison. Nonetheless, the police pension board, in a split vote, ruled that he could continue to receive his pension despite his felony conviction. The FOP defended the ruling on appeal, and the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the ruling. When Burge died in 2018, former FOP president Dean Angelo defended him, telling the Chicago Tribune “Jon Burge put a lot of bad guys in prison that belonged … in prison. People picked a career apart that was considered for a long time to be an honorable career and a very effective career. I don’t know that Jon Burge got a fair shake based on the years and years of service that he gave the city.”

The FOP also championed the cause and financed the defense of Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times and was later convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.

Recently elected FOP president John Catanzara, like Kroll, has a long record of disciplinary offenses and is presently serving a suspension for writing a false report. In 2017, he posted on his Facebook page “STAND FOR THE ANTHEM. I LOVE THE AMERICAN FLAG. I SUPPORT MY PRESIDENT AND THE 2ND AMENDMENT.” After protestors asked Chicago cops to take a knee in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, Catanzara declared, “If you kneel, you will be brought up on charges and thrown out of the [FOP] Lodge.” After he publicly defended a phalanx of CPD officers who invaded Congressman Bobby Rush’s Chicago office and were caught on video expropriating coffee and popcorn and lounging on couches while nearby stores were burning in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, Rush likened Chicago’s FOP to the Ku Klux Klan, saying that they were “like kissing, hugging and law-breaking cousins. The number one cause that prevents police accountability, that promotes police corruption, that protects police lawlessness, is a culprit called the Fraternal Order of Police. They’re the organized guardians of continuous police lawlessness, of police murder and police brutality.”

The Chicago FOP, Rush continued, “is the most rabid, racist body of criminal lawlessness by police in the land. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the Ku Klux Klan then and the Ku Klux Klan now.”

Willful Enabler of Police Violence

The police murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and most recently, Rayshard Brooks, have thrust the media spotlight on police unions, bringing to public consciousness what those who have fought against police violence have known for more than 50 years — that police unions, often standing to the right of the police department itself, are unabashedly racist, are willful enablers of police violence and the culture of silence and cover-up, champion false narratives about policing, and wield enormous power when it comes to law enforcement and criminal justice. Some commentators on the left have understandably cautioned against placing too much emphasis on police unions as a primary culprit for racist police violence, partly due to the fear that the right will utilize the attack to further its campaign to destroy the union movement, and because it shifts the discussion from the fundamental role of the police as agents of repression who operate as an occupying force in communities of color and as frontline guardians of capitalist interests. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the racist history of police unions, both over time and in the harsh light of today, in order to effectively combat their reactionary resistance to change, while continuing the fight for Black lives and against the violence of policing.

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