Challenging Police Union Leadership in the War on the Poor and People of Color

Police Leadership in Manufacturing ‘War Zones’

Police increasingly describe the communities they occupy as war zones, their inhabitants as enemy combatants, and their jobs as wrought with danger. As a Pulaski County, Indiana Sheriff said:

The United States of America has become a war zone. There’s violence in the workplace, there’s violence in schools and there’s violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is going to protect officers, then that’s what I’m going to do.

A recent U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Cleveland Police Department not only found a pattern of unchecked violence and brutality used by police against the city’s residents and visitors. They also discovered evidence of this attitude, widespread among U.S. police, expressing that police see the community they patrol as a war zone. In the DOJ report, they wrote:

we observed a large sign hanging in the vehicle bay of a district station identifying it as a “forward operating base,” a military term for a small, secured outpost used to support tactical operations in a war zone. This characterization reinforces the view held by some—both inside and outside the Division—that CDP is an occupying force.

Union leadership is crucial in developing the discourse that normalizes these attitudes. For instance, Detroit Police Officer Association told residents and visitors of Detroit to “enter at your own risk,” and described the “deplorable, dangerous and war like conditions” officers face on the job. This is, of course, despite declining crime rates and increasing officer safety. Becoming a cop increases the odds that the officer’s spouse will be killed by her husband more than it increases the odds the cop will be killed by anyone. Police are two to four times more likely to be aggressors in intimate partner violence. It might come as a surprise to some that police officers are about 27 times less likely to be killed than civilian are and about 10 times less likely to be assaulted than civilians are. Police are safer than you and I are, and they make things less safe for those around them. But we’re not likely to hear that kind of story this week.

Police Union Response to Officers Shot in New York

Instead, since two New York Police Department officers were shot by a civilian this week, police and their supporters have been quick to ignore that officers face less on-the-job risk than construction workers. More importantly, they have been just as quick to state that police are at war with us all. Speaking for the NYPD, the police union said it is a “wartime police department” that will “act accordingly.” Pat Lynch—an appropriate last name, all things considered—head of the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) said, “If we won’t get support when we do our jobs . . . then we’re going to do it the way they want it.” Lynch says the rules that govern police are devised by “enemies with the intention to hurt the police. The formal statement from the PBA organization was more strongly worded:

The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words actions and policies and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.

The New York PBA has made it clear that NYPD officers believe:

  1. Police run the police department and the city—not the public or its elected representatives.
  2. Police are a military force—not a service organization.
  3. Police are at war—not defenders of civil society.
  4. Police are stationed in enemy territory—not in their own communities.

Where does this leave residents of and visitors to New York? Of course, this expression adds nothing more than public acknowledgement to a normal, steady historic function of the U.S. police in general and the NYPD in particular. But when union leadership makes such a declaration to their police members and to the various publics they police, these are warnings of imminent and reckless violence. Furthermore, in the context of widespread protest throughout New York and the U.S., union leadership, NYPD officers, and their white citizen supporters are quick to causally link protesters to the deaths of these officers. Anyone critical of police since the emergence of these protests “has blood on their hands.” And the police are promising retaliation.

As an aside: Isn’t it peculiar that Mayor de Blasio—who never held anyone in a chokehold—is somehow the murderer that Officer Pantaleo (the New York cop who killed Eric Garner) is not?

Police Union Political Activity

The political activity of police unions functions to preserve the status quo functions of police. I have established elsewhere that chief among these is the enforcement of the color line. Of course, all unelected functionaries in all public bureaucracies tend to resist public oversight through activities of both managers and employees. This resistance is intended to maintain their autonomy and status quo functions. But this is especially the case for U.S. police. This is partly because police unions have unparalleled influence (relative to other unions in the U.S.) in directing policy, and have a consistent history of staunch resistance to oversight and a fanatical defence of the status quo. Police unions emerged in the 1960s and 1970s partly in response to criticisms by civil rights groups and Supreme Court rulings that expanded the formal political standing of Blacks. These organisations function as lobbies to both resist accountability legislation and shield implicated officers against investigations and criminal proceedings, as Human Rights Watch documented. In extraordinary cases when officers expose or interfere with official violence, administrators target them for discipline. Though unions otherwise advocate exclusively for rank-and-file officers, in such situations, they suddenly shift support to the management position. This is how the cross-class alliance works in the world of police. Police unions defend officers fired for on-the-job racist terror. For instance, in May 2014, surveillance footage showed Nassau County Police Officer Vincent LoGiudice beating a young Black man, James Carver, so badly that he received multiple facial fractures and had to have emergency surgery to repair one of his eyes. Rarely are officers criminally charged with on-the-job violence, but this case resulted in two felony assault charges against Officer LoGiudice. When he appeared in court, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of hundreds of almost exclusively white men and women, organised by the local police union. Rather than defending whistle-blowers who violate the well-known ‘blue wall of silence’ by reporting officer and manager misconduct, police unions facilitate coercion against exposure and defend abusive officers. In October 2010, Phoenix Police Officer Rich Chrisman shot and killed unarmed Latino resident, Daniel Rodriguez, in his home. Chrisman was later charged with murder and convicted of a lesser charge, mainly because his partner, Officer Sergio Vergillo, claimed the shooting was unnecessary. The union, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, immediately defended Chrisman and maintained support after his conviction. They also publicly assaulted the character of Vergillo, including releasing his employment personnel information to the press and accusing his wife of having a criminal history. What’s happening now in New York is part of ongoing political agitation by a fanatical organization, the PBA. As an organization, they are solely tasked with advancing the political position of police officers. This not only means negotiating for better pay and benefits, more autonomy, and less oversight, but it also means ensuring continued carte blanche in the police use of racist terror and extreme violence. Prior to the killing of two NYPD officers, unions were attacking Mayor de Blasio, both as part of their routine political work, and also in response to public protests after the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York (among others). Additionally, the union was active in organizing public protests of white citizens and cops to support police. This included printing t-shirts mocking the dying words of Eric Garner, who choked out the phrase “I can’t breathe” as Officer Pantaleo was strangling him. These shirts instead read “I can breathe.” These officers and their supporters mix their messages: Are police under constant threat, or are they invincible executioners?

The role of the white citizen is to certify the criminalization of people of color and to justify police violence against them.

Of course, NYPD officers and their union leadership are not alone in this political work. The role of the white citizen in policing the color line has always been to publicly assert their certification of racist terror; to initiate ‘service calls’ for police to purify racial ‘outsiders’ who ‘invade’ white spaces; to demand proximity of police and intensive surveillance within Black neighborhoods; and to supplement police violence with vigilante activity. This “I can breathe” protest by white citizens in solidarity with NYPD—especially at a time of public rebellion over racist police murder—articulates a consistent history that pervades white space and white identity. What it means to be a member of the white race is not only to be relatively immune to police violence, but also to vocalize support for racist police violence to go unchecked.

Similarly mocking this civilian murdered by police, a police officer in Indiana manufactured and sold shorts bearing the phrase “Breathe Easy—Don’t Break the Law.” Here, the message clearly expresses the belief that police have the right to kill civilians who they believe have broken a law. The shirt effectively says, “If you want to keep breathing, make sure no police officer believes you have broken the law—otherwise, he has every right to kill you.”

Shirt made by Indiana cop justifies police murder of those police believe have violated any law.

While the cop who made these shirts was ordered by the South Bend City Council to stop selling the shirts, some civilians had something else in mind: they vandalized his store where the shirts were sold. This ought to remind us of similar political work by police after the emergence of rebellion after Mike Brown was murdered by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. White citizens and police rallied together under the “I Am Darren Wilson” banner. Police across the country visibly showed their support for racist murder by wearing “I Am Darren Wilson” ribbons over their badges and other similar symbols of sympathy.

Portland, Oregon police stand with racist murderer from the Ferguson, Missouri police force.

Declaring identity with a white man who shot a Black teenager does more than build political support in the public certification of unaccountable police killings, but also works to reproduce white racial identity. White citizens and police by announcing their identity with Darren Wilson are recognizing the historic linkage between racist police violence and the white race—the two were co-constructed and they remain reproductive of one another. Anti-racist activity must fundamentally sever this historic alliance between those advantaged by their white skin and the police. The political work of police unions is consistent and powerful. It needs to be counteracted through organized resistance, thoughtful strategy, and effective tactics. To begin this work, those committed to stopping police violence must politically challenge police power. One crucial site of such contestation is to threaten the political power of police unions.

Abolish Police Unions

There are many reasons U.S. police are involved with fabricating the color line and many reasons for why this has such violent consequences. However, there is one site of political struggle where local organizers can effectively challenge police power: abolish police unions. Some considerations for activists:

  1. Target unions with routine responses. Every time they speak or act, confront them directly by exposing how their actions promote police violence and white supremacy.
  2. Leverage local politicians against police unions. Members of city councils, for instance, should be pulled off the fence on the issue of police union abolitionism: they are on the side of the union or the people—which is it?
  3. City union contracts should never be renewed, and efforts should be made to cancel existing ones.
  4. Collective bargaining by police unions should be otherwise effectively nullified.
  5. In city council meetings, all existing rules should be applied to police and police union leadership. For instance, most city councils only allow residents of the city to address the council members. Most police and union leaders are not citizens of the cities they occupy and should therefore have no standing in these forums.
  6. Activists should opportunistically exploit broader anti-union bias while demonstrating solidarity with real labor unions. Consider making this solidarity conditional by forcing other union leaders to act against police unions.
  7. In cities where union leadership threatens slowdowns, refusal of service, and violence against residents—as is currently the case in New York—city officials should be pressed to immediately suspend or fire all police union members. Force union attrition by immediately and permanently threatening their jobs.
  8. Press District Attorneys for criminal obstruction investigations to be opened against local police unions when they interfere with internal and criminal investigations after a use of force incident.
  9. Press the F.B.I. and U.S. Department of Justice to open RICO (racketeering) investigations against police unions that have consistently obstructed criminal investigations against police officers.
  10. Be determined to win. Undermining police unions, especially in a time like this, is a real political possibility. It should be treated as such, and with a recognition of how powerfully this kind of intervention would threaten police power.

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