Bust The Police Unions
The Atlantic|July - August 2021
They don’t just protect members at all costs—they condition officers to see themselves as above the law.
By Adam Serwer

In May 2020, Darnella Frazier, a 17-year old with a smartphone camera, documented the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Most Americans who watched the video of Floyd begging for his life, as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, saw a human being. Robert Kroll did not. The head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis saw a “violent criminal” and viewed the protests that followed as a “terrorist movement.” In a letter to union members, he complained that Chauvin and the three other officers involved in Floyd’s death had been “terminated without due process.”

Kroll’s response was typical. In the apocalyptic rhetoric of police-union leaders, every victim of police misconduct is a criminal who had it coming, and anyone who objects to such misconduct is probably also a criminal, and, by implication, a legitimate target of state violence. Due process is a privilege reserved for the righteous—that is, police officers who might lose their jobs, not the citizens who might lose their lives in a chance encounter with law enforcement.

In the Floyd case, the effectiveness of this rhetoric, so powerful in years past, was blunted by what Americans could see with their own eyes. That eight-minute-46-second video became the spark for what were reportedly the largest civil-rights protests in the history of the United States. It also led to the trial and conviction of Chauvin and the indictment of the three officers who stood by while their colleague committed murder.

But what if Frazier hadn’t had the presence of mind to record what she witnessed? Floyd might have been remembered by the public as Kroll had described him, and that could have been more than enough to spare Chauvin and the others from indictment. The headline of the police department’s statement on the day of Floyd’s murder—“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”— might have become the accepted version of events.

Like any other type of union, police unions view their duty as protecting the interests of their dues-paying members. Yet these unions are fundamentally different, because their members are armed agents of the state. In practice, this means police unions reflexively come to the defense of men like Chauvin, while opposing any meaningful reforms of department procedures. The most modest attempts at change—banning choke holds or even gathering data on misconduct— are met with fierce resistance.

Americans are presently engaged in a debate about how to reform police departments to prevent the unlawful killing of civilians by officers, as well as other, nonlethal abuses of power. Reining in police unions may not seem like the most urgent response to this crisis. But no reform effort can hope to succeed given their power today. As long as they exist in anything like their current form, police unions will condition their members to see themselves as soldiers at war with the public they are meant to serve, and above the laws they are meant to enforce.

The first efforts to establish police unions, around the time of World War I, were largely unsuccessful. Today’s unions took root in the 1960s and ’70s, in part because of new state laws allowing public-sector employees to collectively bargain. But this was also the moment when the most heavily policed communities in the country sought to turn America into a true multi-racial democracy, and this profoundly influenced the growth of unions, and their shape today.

The civil-rights movement was a rebellion against the law. It had to be. And the police were called upon to crush it. Many of the most iconic images of the era were representations of police brutality: the Birmingham police siccing dogs on protesters, Alabama state troopers beating marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Atlanta cops manhandling Martin Luther King Jr. after arresting him at a sit-in. For police, this moment of radical social change proved to be both a threat and an opportunity.

The threat came in the form of attempts to resolve issues endemic to American policing. These weren’t the first such efforts. In the early 20th century, the widespread ineffectiveness and corruption of police departments had sparked a reform movement. In 1931, the Wicker sham Commission, appointed by Herbert Hoover, issued a report on “Lawlessness in Law Enforcement,” which documented a range of abuses, including “physical brutality, illegal detention, and refusal to allow access of counsel to the prisoner.” These were particularly common when police interacted with Black people and immigrants.

That initial reform movement was more successful at professionalizing police practices and ending corruption than addressing such abuses. But in the ’60s, as the civil-rights movement brought graphic images of police brutality into the national spotlight, the Supreme Court stepped in. In a series of decisions, the Court compelled cops to inform suspects of their rights, barred the use of evidence obtained through illegal search and seizure, and gave all defendants a right to counsel. These decisions curtailed, even if they did not eliminate, many of the lawless practices described by the Wickersham Commission. Cities began looking for ways to prevent police misconduct, such as civilian review boards.

To many police officers, the reforms were simply pro-criminal. These incursions on their long-standing prerogatives spurred unionization efforts around the country. “The police unionism movement, which emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a reaction to new efforts to bring the police under democratic control,” David Sklansky, a Stanford Law professor and the author of Democracy and the Police, told me.

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