Confronting the Tragedy: Law Enforcement Unionism & Communities, Part I


The reaction of many officers against criticism and accountability is perhaps an unconscious protest against having been called upon to fix a mess they cannot possibly correct. Law Enforcement can and will change for the better when its unions are guided by the understanding that working conditions cannot fundamentally improve until the community members, inmates, and immigrant families its members labor among enjoy the benefits of living-wage employment, full public investment, humane conditions, and rational laws.

By Cameron Orr

A forum was held on Friday, October 21st, at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies in New York City entitled Confronting the Tragedy: Law Enforcement Unionism & Communities. The purpose of the event was to begin a conversation about the social divisions between civilian workers living in their communities and the workers among them who are employed to enforce the law.

The talk was moderated by Ed Ott, Distinguished Lecturer in Labor Studies at the Murphy Institute and former director of the New York City Central Labor Council.

The panel included Carmen Berkley, a radical activist, writer, and trainer who currently serves as the youngest director with the Civil, Human, and Women’s Rights Department of the AFL-CIO in Washington; Joo-Hyun Kang, Executive Director of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) in NYC; and Eugene O’Donnell, former NYPD officer, prosecutor with the District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn and Queens, a former police academy instructor, and professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In response to questions submitted by the audience, the panel discussed relationships between labor and community concerns and how the AFL-CIO is bringing together the concerns of many different kinds of workers, including police, to address issues of race and racism.

Affiliates of the AFL-CIO represent both public and private employees, uniformed officers, and civilian workers.

Carmen Berkley insisted on the importance of including workers hired by law enforcement to be a part of the broader labor movement.

After Mike Brown was killed in St. Louis, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that “our brother killed our sister’s son.” When Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police, Trumka released a letter to make the point that labor must fight for reforms to address the police violence that continues to disproportionately impact people of color. “People feel it on both sides of the issue,” said Berkley. “They are grateful that unions are addressing the fact that we represent law enforcement workers and we represent someone like Lesley McSpadden, who is a United Food and Commercial Worker.

“The approach we decided to take was, let’s talk about how race hurts all people. Right to work, for example, was originally a racist piece of legislation where Vance Muse was trying to pit white workers against Black workers. When the murder of Mike Brown happened, we said we have to talk about how implicit and explicit bias shows up in the labor movement – not just from a law enforcement perspective, but in general.”

“The fear that police officers have when they put on the uniform is the same fear that I have as a Black person. That’s why in all of our professions we have to be more comfortable saying we might have a race problem.”

Berkley emphasized how the struggle to find common interests between law enforcement workers and workers in other fields has been essential to uncovering how racialized police violence is rooted in the larger political and economic system of the U.S.

This was made poignantly clear when Eugene O’Donnell responded to the question of whether or not police are being asked to do too much.

Speaking to the recent case of Deborah Danner, an elderly woman living with mental illness who was killed by police in her Bronx apartment, O’Donnell said, “That woman needed a doctor; the doctor wasn’t there. She needed a social worker; the social worker wasn’t there. She needed EMS; the EMS wasn’t there. The cops were the only people to be there. Who’s worse to send to the case of an emotionally disturbed person than law enforcement?”

It should come as no surprise when the use of police where social services are needed results in disastrous consequences.


Working conditions for police could be improved by properly investing in the neighborhoods they serve. As Kang and Berkley made clear, safety is not only produced by police, but also by proper social investments, good jobs with living wages, benefits, by good education, and nutrition. “If you look at the federal budget,” said Ms. Kang, “there’s more than $200 billion going into enforcement, including corrections, police, courts, and immigration enforcement. That’s the equivalent of about a million living wage jobs. We have many schools without guidance counselors, music or arts programs, but they have police.”

It was also pointed out that data collection on crime is skewed since it only reflects enforcement, not violation, of the law. “As we say at the AFL-CIO on our criminal justice team, ‘there’s just as much crack cocaine on Wall St as there is on the street where I work.’ ” Berkley said. “Rich white people break the law, too, but because they have really great attorneys and connections they’ve been able to figure out how to maneuver through the system.” “In white communities, drug use is treated as a public health issue. Why can’t we treat it as a public health issue across the board?” added Kang.

Joo-Hyun cited quotas for tickets and arrests as drivers of disproportionate enforcement of the law with regard to minor infractions like possession of weed, public drinking, or riding a bike on the sidewalk. For police, quotas are also a labor issue.

Other disparities include responses to cases of armed civilians. Joo-Hyun said, “It is true that more white folks are killed by cops than Black folks, but the nuance there is the number of Black folks killed who are unarmed versus white folks who are armed.”

“As a country we make a determination of whose life is worth putting the funding into,” Berkley remarked. “Mass incarceration is directly connected to the fact that we don’t have jobs. If white folks are at 4% unemployment, Black folks are at 8%. When the U.S. was at 8% that was a crisis, but for Black people that’s just business as usual. At the AFL-CIO, we don’t always do the best job of articulating the relationship we want to have with the movement for Black lives, primarily because not every one of our 55 affiliates is jazzed that we are working with the movement for Black lives, but that community wants to have transformative justice and reconciliation, too. We are trying to figure out together how can we reform the criminal justice system.”

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