Policing the Unions is a five-part series that examines the renewed friction between police unions and politicians in the wake of unrest over George Floyd’s death, and the dynamics at play in efforts to reform law enforcement. Part One looks at the political pressure unions are facing in the immediate aftermath.
In the days since George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, long-influential police unions have been shoved into the spotlight, called out as the problem and abandoned by lawmakers who have rejected their campaign donations.
After the horrifying video of an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck shocked the nation – and amid new unrest over a fatal shooting in Atlanta – politicians are plowing forward with policing reforms that previously had been rejected by unions. Collective bargaining agreements for police are getting renewed scrutiny for provisions critics say shield bad cops from accountability. And fellow unions have distanced themselves from the police and with one calling for the International Union of Police Associations to be expelled from the nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO.
The tensions with the police union were on full display in Minneapolis, ground zero for the unrest that has rippled throughout the nation. Mayor Jacob Frey called out the union that represented the officers now charged in connection with Floyd’s death as an obstacle to police brutality reforms, while the Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo targeted the union contract as a starting place for reform, arguing police chiefs should have more control over which officers are on their force patrolling the streets.
“The police union needs to be put in its place,” Frey told protesters earlier this month before getting booed for not agreeing to defund the police.
Police have widely denounced the conduct of Derek Chauvin who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and the three other Minneapolis police officers who stood by. All four of them have been fired and criminally charged in connection to Floyd’s May 25 death.
Public anger toward police and mounting criticisms have put unions on defense, and while some powerful union leaders have acknowledged reforms are needed to combat police brutality, others have fought back and demanded respect.
“Stop treating us like animals and thugs, and start treating us with some respect,” Michael O’Meara, the president of the New York State Association of Police Benevolent Associations, said in an emotional speech last Tuesday, arguing actions of one bad officer shouldn’t stain the badge of good officers who protect and serve their communities.
‘We’re being demonized’
The union that represents big-city police chiefs ticked off the police unions by putting out a statement after Floyd’s death that targeted police union contracts as an obstacle to police accountability. The Major Cities Chiefs Association acknowledged institutional racism and police brutality and called for “bold and courageous action” to right the past wrongs.
“We’re being demonized,” Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston police union and vice president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, told Fox News. He ripped the police chiefs for “blaming police unions for all the ills of law enforcement.”
“Police unions don’t do background checks,” Gamaldi continued. “We don’t investigate new recruits. We don’t hire people. We don’t train them. We don’t set policy. We don’t discipline them. And we don’t fire them. That is all under the control of police chiefs. And it’s just funny that they would blame us, when they really should be looking in the mirror.”
Police chiefs and local leaders, however, argue that unions have negotiated contracts and pushed for state reforms that make it harder for chiefs to boot out problematic cops and replace them with fresh officers who embrace policing reforms. The Center for Public Integrity found that police contracts typically include language to hide complaints against police officers from the public, arbitration clauses that sometimes force police departments to rehire cops and provisions to bar police departments from immediately interrogating or firing officers after egregious acts of misconduct, known as a “cooling off” period that critics pan as time for cops to get their story straight.
“Union contracts themselves often contain provisions that are antithetical to the kind of reform that you’re seeking,” Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, told Fox News.
Unions have benefited from political clout in Washington and with local elected leaders. Since the 1994 election cycle, 55 police union and law enforcement PACs have donated over $1.1 million to congressional campaigns, with sitting Democratic members of Congress being big beneficiaries, along with Republicans, according to the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.
In 2016, the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, endorsed President Trump over Hillary Clinton. In the years since, he’s remained close to police, famously telling a crowd of law enforcement officers in New York “please don’t be too nice” when arresting people. While Trump has called Floyd’s death a tragedy, he’s largely stood by the police during the unrest — and directed his fire toward rioters, Antifa and looters, repeatedly calling for “Law and Order.” Trump is eyeing an executive order on reforms and now wants policing done in a more “gentle fashion.”
Meanwhile, Joe Biden has resisted calls from the left to “Defund the Police.” But the former vice president who wrote the 1994 crime bill is facing blowback from police unions who were once close to Biden over his calls for police reform overhauls, the Wall Street Journal reported. Unions say Biden has not done enough to praise the vast majority of police officers who are acting properly.
In New York, unions have spent big to ward off police reforms and — until now — thwarted multiple attempts to allow the public release of police misconduct records. From January 1, 2015, through May 13, 2020, the PAC for the Police Benevolent Association of New York City funneled $650,000 to New York politicians, according to records examined by THE CITY. The union also spent $768,000 from 2017-2019 on lobbying government officials and $320,000 on political ads in 2018, the report found.
“Part of the challenge with respect to police reform has always been the strength of the police union,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y, told WNYC, citing police opposition to his long effort to ban chokeholds since the 2014 death of Eric Garner.