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Time to Curb Police Unions

Despite the chilling combination of detachment and brutality shown by Chauvin in the profoundly disturbing eight minutes and 46 seconds displayed in the video, not everyone is repelled or angry. Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, certainly wasn’t marching with the protesters. In fact, he has called them part of a “terrorist movement.” He also stated that the four officers fired for their participation in Floyd’s death were “terminated without due process.” Floyd was certainly terminated without due process. The reason for Floyd’s arrest? He was suspected of buying a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.

Kroll, who called the alleged lack of due process “despicable behavior,” also criticized the Obama administration for its “oppression of police” and hailed President Trump as someone who “put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.” Police union lawyers are reportedly representing the four cops who were fired. Kroll cited “lack of support at the top” on the part of elected officials who were “minimizing [sic] the size of our police force and diverting funds to community activist with anti-police agenda.” Kroll has held his position since 2015. Former Minneapolis police Chief Janeé Harteau said, ”I believe Bob Kroll was elected out of fear.” Kroll’s message to officers was, “We are the only ones that support you. Your community doesn’t support you. Your police chief is trying to get you fired.”

When the city’s mayor banned so-called “warrior training” of officers that teaches methods of violent confrontation, Kroll cut a deal with a private company to provide that training, in flagrant opposition to the mayor’s ban. Harteau cited Kroll’s comments as “another example of why unions and arbitrators must be held accountable and support the discipline decisions of police leadership.’’ At the time of Floyd’s death, the city was in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the police union.

‘Misaligned With the Moment’

Minneapolis city Council Member Steve Fletcher at one point attempted to divert money from hiring officers and into the city violence protection office. In response, cops began delaying responses to 911 calls placed by Fletcher’s constituents. “It operates a little bit like a protection racket,” he remarked of the union, as The New York Times reports. “I struggle to know if they have gotten more extreme, or if the world has changed and they haven’t. Either way, they are profoundly misaligned with the moment.”

The OfficeofViolence Prevention, meanwhile, uses city-employed “violence interrupters” walking the streets six nights a week to check on residents and business owners.

In April, Kroll said he had been involved in three shootings, “and not one of them has bothered me.” He deplored the idea of training cops to de-escalate tense situations. “Certainly getting shot at and shooting people takes a different toll, but if you’re in this job and you’ve seen too much blood and gore and dead people, then you’ve signed up for the wrong job.” At the time of Floyd’s death, Kroll had 29 complaints against him pending; Chauvin had 18 complaints. Jonathan Smith, a Department of Justice attorney, said, ‘‘If you leave a bad officer on the street, that has a damaging effect on every other officer. No one on the street is going to say that’s a good officer and that’s a bad officer.” And regarding the complaints against Chauvin, he said, “Had those been addressed in an appropriate way, not only would Mr. Floyd be alive, we wouldn’t have the disruption in the community and you might have actually saved his career if you put him on the right path earlier on.

A 2017 Reuters report that examined police union contracts said that unions are instrumental in “using [their] political might to cement contracts that often provide a shield of protection to officers accused of misdeeds.”

Separately, a scholarly overview of 178 police union contracts negotiated in the U.S. highlighted how reform and accountability have been thwarted.

Bob Kroll certainly doesn’t stand alone. Other police union officials are on the same page. In 2017, Patrick J. Lynch, head of the patrol officers’ union in New York City, said Mayor Bill de Blasio had “blood on his hands” from the shooting of two uniformed officers by a man who mentioned the police high-profile killing of Eric Garner in 2014 by officer Daniel Pantaleo, utilizing a chokehold that was prohibited according to department policy.

Pantaleo was not indicted by a grand jury and remained on duty until about five years later when an NYPD administrative judge ruled that the chokehold was, indeed, a violation, and Pantaleo was fired. Lynch berated the city for surrendering to “anti-police extremists” and said, “We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job,” a deadly violation of NYPD’s own policy apparently being viewed as part of the job.

‘A Blanket System of Covering Up’

Lynch’s support of cops “just doing their job” reaches back a number of years, pre-cellphone video ubiquity and police bodycams everywhere, to the infamous 1999 case of unarmed 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, who was fatally shot by four plainclothes NYPD officers in a hail of 41 bullets. Officers had mistaken her son’s wallet for a gun.

Retired NYPD commander Corey Pegues said, “The unions, at least in New York City, outright just protect, protect, protect the cops. It’s a blanket system of covering up police officers.”

Katherine Bies wrote in the Stanford Law & Policy Review that following “the rise of police unions in the 1970s” those unions have successfully blocked their members from direct public accountability.

“Police unions have established highly developed political machinery that exerts significant political and financial pressure on all three branches of government. The power of police unions over policymakers in the criminal justice context distorts the political process and generates political outcomes that undermine the democratic values of transparency and accountability.”

Labor historian Sam Mitrani, of the College of DuPage in Illinois, said, “These are armed, trained people who are totally not accountable to the community they are policing.”

Until public outrage forced it to discontinue the practice, an Albuquerque union paid $500 to cops who had killed an individual in the line of duty. They called it “a supportive service to the officer during a traumatic time.” Critics dubbed it a bounty.

In Phoenix, union officials tried to obtain a deal that offered its members a service that scrubbed their social media profiles, following incidents where officers had posted allegedly racist memes, including one where an officer thanked vigilante George Zimmerman “for cleaning up our community one thug at a time” in reference to his shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

More recently, the head of the NYPD Captains Endowment Association issued a statement in support of James Kobel, the deputy inspector hired to combat workplace harassment who is under police inquiry. Kobel is accused of posting racist and anti-Semitic comments to the Law Enforcement Rant message board using the name Clouseau. He has denied the allegation.

In St. Louis, circuit attorney Kimberly Gardner, the first Black woman to serve as lead prosecutor in that city, sued the police union for allegedly blocking her attempts to reform the police force. She was supported by a separate union of Black cops, who said the union, and the department itself, are “accepting of racism, discrimination, corruption.”

In Louisville, undercover cops operating under a no-knock warrant used a battering ram in the middle of the night to topple the door and fatally shoot an unarmed young Black woman, Breonna Taylor, in her own home. Mayor Greg Fischer warned those calling for the firing of the cops that the process would be slow, blaming the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union. Fischer lamented, “The system is not a best practice for our community.”

No Union Should Shield Misconduct

Big labor is primarily silent about police unions. When sought comments from the leaders of 10 major unions and labor groups, no one was willing to talk. However, on June 3, 2020, in response to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, it said, “I think we have to do something nationally about the demilitarization of policing.” She also noted that collective bargaining is a “false choice” and that no union contract should shield employee misconduct.

Labor historians trace the beginnings of the tensions between mainstream labor and police unions to the late 1800s, before the latter even existed. City officials often called in cops to break up strikes and then arrest leaders, as well as beating workers with batons. Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at City University of New York, said, “Police were seen as tools for repressing unions.” A particularly infamous example is the Haymarket massacre of 1886, where Chicago cops killed a worker and injured seven others, who were on strike demanding an eight-hour work day. 

In those days, workers in the private sector were the only ones who could organize and band together. The public-sector workers and government employees (such as teachers and sanitation workers) began to have the same opportunity in the 1920s. The American Federation of Labor – later the AFL-CIO – began letting police officers into its organization in 1919. By the 1950s and 1960s, police unions had become commonplace. Their current power seems to have been consolidated mainly in the 1970s. Freeman is not surprised that the labor movement in general declines to focus on police unions, noting that it wasn’t until the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 that they began to acknowledge racism in policing. “It’s a very delicate subject, it’s rarely discussed openly and out loud,” Freeman said. 

Qualified Immunity

Providing the impetus to boot the police unions – or at the very least rein in their power considerably – may well hinge on the Supreme Court rethinking its doctrine of qualified immunity from 1982. Patrick Jaicomo and Anya Bidwell, attorneys with the Libertarian Institute for Justice, said, “When the Supreme Court conceived qualified immunity, it promised that the rule would not provide a ‘license for lawless conduct’ for government officials. Plainly, it has,” and “whether the official’s actions are unconstitutional, intentional or malicious is irrelevant....”

An analysis from sums up the necessity of booting police unions in one sentence: “If the goal is to keep bad cops employed indefinitely, it’s been super-effective.” [See: A Mass Purge of Misconduct Records by Phoenix, Arizona Police, CLN June 2020] 


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