Law enforcement unions across the country appear to be bracing for a political fight as calls to “defund the police” stir a controversial national debate over how to root out police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Republicans have seized on the issue, framing it as the latest example of Democrats pushing a leftist agenda in the months before the November election. But Democratic legislation passed earlier this week in the House makes no calls to defund the police, while the bill does seek to ban police chokeholds, limit legal protections for police, and create a national database of excessive-force encounters.
There have been numerous accusations against police officers during protests that have gripped the nation since Memorial Day. The first week of the unrest was intense, and officers have doused crowds with pepper spray, struck protesters with batons, steered police cars into throngs, and shoved demonstrators violently while yelling profanities.
Some police action has been directed against people smashing windows, breaking into stores and burning cars, but many question whether the tough tactics made the violence worse.
In the resulting political fallout, police departments around the country have demonstrated resolve and solidarity through social protests of their own — resigning en masse, gathering the rank-and-file for morale speeches and applauding fellow officers who have been charged with excessive force.
The officers are backed by police unions, which have emerged as one of the most significant roadblocks to policy change. The greater the political pressure for reform, the more defiant the unions often are in resisting it — with few city officials, including liberal leaders, able to overcome their opposition, The New York Times recently noted.
Officers with the Philadelphia Police Department stood together Monday outside a union headquarters to support Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna, who faces assault charges after allegedly hitting a college student in the back of the head with a metal baton at a protest last week.
The union representing Bologna issued a statement, saying it "will not stand-by and watch Inspector Bologna get railroaded," CNN reported.
A walkout in Buffalo
Elsewhere, two officers in Buffalo, New York, were suspended from their department’s tactical unit and charged with felony assault after video showed them shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground. The man was hospitalized with a serious head injury.
All 57 officers who served alongside the men resigned from the unit the next day to protest their suspensions and then stood outside the Buffalo courthouse cheering after both pleaded not guilty and were released on bail.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said the police union pressured the officers of the special emergency response team to step down.
“The Buffalo police union is on the wrong side of history,” he said. “They are wrong in this situation. They have been a barrier to further police reform.”
Facing more pressure than ever city leaders around the nation are promising action.
The mood in Minneapolis
In Minneapolis where Floyd died, nine out of 13 city council members said they plan to vote to dismantle the city’s police department in favor of taking department money and steering it toward community initiatives that strengthen safety.
“We’re not going to tomorrow all the sudden have nobody for you to call for help. There will be thoughtful and intentional work that’s done, research engagement, learning that happens in a transition that will happen over time,” council member Philippe Cunningham said.
“Let me be clear, we're going after the police union,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Monday on ABC's Good Morning America.
Minneapolis Police Union President Lt. Bob Kroll, meanwhile, has called the nationwide protests over Floyd’s death a “terrorist movement” and has vowed to fight for the jobs of the four fired officers.
‘Treating us like animals’
More than 700 law enforcement officers have been injured in clashes during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, according to the Department of Justice. At least 16 officers have been shot, Fox News reports.
During protests in Washington, DC, 60 Secret Service agents and 40 US Park Police were also injured — 22 of those officers hospitalized with serious injuries, Attorney General William Barr told reporters last week.
At a Tuesday press conference, Michael O’Meara, the president of New York’s Police Benevolent Association, accused the media of “vilifying” police officers.
“Stop treating us like animals and thugs. And start treating us with some respect,” O’Meara said. “We’ve been left out of the conversation. We’ve been vilified. It’s disgusting.”
Standing behind O’Meara were dozens of mostly white plainclothes officers in face masks.
“We all read in the paper all week that in the black community, mothers are worried about their children getting home from school without being killed by a cop,” O’Meara said. “What world are we living in? That doesn’t happen. It does not happen.”
O’Meara then said that police officers are the real victims.
“Everybody’s trying to shame us. Legislators. The press. Everybody’s trying to shame us into being embarrassed of our profession.”
That’s when O’Meara took out his police badge and held it up for the cameras. “You know what? This isn’t stained by someone in Minneapolis,” he said, referring to Derek Chauvin, the former officer charged with kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. “It’s still got a shine on it, and so do theirs,” he said, pointing to those behind him. “Nobody talks about all the police officers that were killed in the last week in the United States of America, and there were a number of them.”
Footage of the press conference were widely shared on social media, and O’Meara’s comments have been criticized as tone-deaf and hypocritical.
The mood on Capitol Hill
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress on Monday proposed an overhaul of police procedures and accountability over the deaths of black Americans at the hand of law enforcement.
The Justice in Policing Act is among the most ambitious law enforcement reforms from Congress in years and confronts several aspects of policing that have come under strong criticism, especially as more and more police violence is captured on cellphone video and shared across the nation and the world.
The package limits legal protections for police, creates a national database of excessive-force encounters and bans police chokeholds, among other changes. The changes, if enacted, would have massive implications on policing in the U.S.
It’s not clear whether the legislation will pass, let alone receive any Republican support, especially in an election year and amid calls to “defund the police” and growing protests. President Donald Trump has tried to set himself up as a “law and order” leader and has criticized the package, claiming Democrats have “gone CRAZY.”
An uphill battle
Redirecting police funding will likely be an uphill battle.
National police unions wield enormous political power in local jurisdictions and typically have higher membership rates than other unions, CNN reported.
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, the largest law enforcement union in the country, told CNN his organization is open to “a fact-based discussion” on current law enforcement policies.
But the unions are certain to stand in the way of the meaningful reform that many voices are calling for.
Police union contracts have made it difficult to remove police officers involved in misconduct, CNN reported, citing government officials and labor experts.
“They’ve become far too powerful. They form political action committees. They donate to district attorneys’ race or state attorneys’ race, state senators and representatives and so forth,” Charles Ramsey, a former D.C. police chief and former Philadelphia police commissioner, said Sunday on CNN. “And then we wonder why you can’t get anything done.”
American civil rights activist Maya Wiley told MSNBC: “Police budgets have been growing and staffing of police have been growing, despite the fact that we have had three straight decades of rapid drop in crime.”
According to CNN, decades of collective bargaining has resulted in police forces in which department chiefs have little control and left disciplinary power to the unions, which have also set the terms for internal investigations and made the appeals process fool-proof for officers.
CNN reports that bad cops are often protected by powerful police union contracts that through the years have limited officer interrogations for misconduct, required the destruction of officer disciplinary records, and prevents top brass from reviewing past discipline when an officer is up for promotion or removal.
“The unions are doing what they are supposed to be doing — finding ways to protect their employees,” Ronal Serpas, the former police chief in New Orleans and Nashville, told the network. “They’ll go as far as the local government will let them go.”
Shift in public opinion
New polls reveal a dramatic shift in how Americans view police violence, with most now acknowledging that black people are more likely to be targeted, mistreated or even killed by those who are sworn to serve and protect.
As the divide widens, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have clarified in recent days that they do not support defunding the nation’s police departments but are pushing for meaningful reform.
Biden’s campaign issued a statement Monday, saying the former vice president “hears and shares the deep grief and frustration” of Americans calling for reform, however, he “does not believe that police should be defunded.”
Biden later followed up in an interview with CBS News.
“No, I don’t support defunding the police,” he said. “I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness.”
“I can’t imagine that happening in a federal way,” Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said when asked about defunding the police. Bass said she supported the “intent” behind it, including more investment in communities, but “I think it can be used as a distraction and that’s my concern.”
Name could be problematic
Supporters of the “defund” movement say the name is a misnomer.
The movement is calling for increased police accountability, better training in methods of de-escalation and systemic reforms, including taking funds that are being used to pay officers overtime and redirecting them to mental health, social services and community youth programs that have been defunded in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, which gave rise to “police-friendly” laws.
Some voices thought the title “defund the police” would give Trump the perfect campaign slogan to use against Democrats.
“If you’re explaining, you’re losing, and there’s a lot of explaining going on,” Meghan McCain said Tuesday on “The View.” “If you mean reform, say reform. If you mean defund, say defund. People are confused.”
Floyd died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis officer held him down with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, sparking the protests around the world.
— Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.