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

Racialized violence by law enforcement personnel against other working people is rooted in the disproportionate allocation of social investment and meaningful, sustainable employment. This means that the employer with discriminating hiring practices, the poverty-wage-paying corporation, the government official who opposes the use of public funds where they are needed, those who voted or bought them into office, and the suspicious neighbor willing to call law enforcement into any situation in which they feel uncomfortable, are just as implicated in the murder of the Black youth, or the Brown mother as the officer who is left holding the gun in the midst of a community he or she has been taught to fear.

Attendees of a talk at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor studies in New York City entitled Confronting the Tragedy: Law Enforcement Unionism & Communities asked former NYPD officer Eugene O’Donnell why the police unions did not do more to fight racism internally and to remove violent or racist cops from the force. They argued that police might receive more support from the community if their unions took on this role.

Unions such as 1199 and 32BJ were noted by Joo-Hyun Kang, an organizer with Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), as having been hugely supportive in securing the necessary votes in the City Council to pass the Community Safety Act (CSA), two bills CPR had fought for to create a basic oversight framework of the NYPD.

According to Eugene, being a cop is a job nobody wants, and retaining police is a challenge.

Speaking to the tremendously negative atmosphere within the police department, he seemed to communicate fears police might have about additional pressures accompanied by measures to hold them accountable to the public. “To the outsider, police are all-powerful. It’s different when you get in there. It turns out to be one of the most bullying, demeaning, intimidating, disempowering workplaces you could think of. The thing the cops hate is not the public; they hate their institutions.”

Kang pointed out that the comportment of the police department constitutes part of the training and part of the problem. “In any profession, people go through formal training, but the real training is how they’re supervised in the field. The other part of training is when people see that officers who brutalize people continue to get promoted. When we talk to officers about how they are treated by their supervisors, they talk about the institutional culture within the police department as being really challenging to change.

In response to the question of what police unions are doing to protect whistleblowers, O’Donnell replied by simply saying the department does not tolerate dissent. “It’s a quasi-military organization. If you fight the police department, you’re going to lose. They’ll take you out. They’ll take you later, but they’ll take you. I guess this is true for private corporations, too.”

The NYPD 12 are suing the department right now over a quota system that forces them to do tickets and arrests in Black and Brown communities in ways that are not enforced the same way in white communities,” Kang related. “Many of them have been retaliated against for speaking out and they fear for their safety at different times. Police union leaders have spoken out about it, but what we hear all the time from rank and file is that no one on the inside is actually pushing to reform it.”

Retaliation against whistleblowers is a problem that Ed Ott noted as being rampant in all public sector work, though perhaps even more so for police.

O’Donnell frequently stated that “the police are the rule of law.” Reminding the audience that politicians write the laws, he said, “I think it’s morally cowardly to give cops that responsibility and then disown your responsibility.”

He fears that partisanship is feeding into a fearful, extremist Trump phenomenon within the law enforcement community.

“It’s true that police are instructed to enforce the rule of law,” said Carmen Berkley, director of the Civil, Human, and Women’s Rights Department of the AFL-CIO. “Perhaps the question we should be asking is, ‘Are there some laws that need to change?’ ”

Joo-Hyun agreed that the Fraternal Order of Police endorsing Trump is a sign of extremism. “Donald Trump has unearthed everything that is wrong with the U.S. We have someone on television talking down to Muslims, Mexicans, women, and Black people and we’re kind of okay with it,” Carmen added. “But, I don’t think that calling for police accountability is a sign of extremism,” Kang responded. “That’s a position to try to save lives.”

Eugene also blamed the media for playing a provocative role and of not providing context in its reporting on police violence.  “Extremism is fueled when you leave facts out,” he said.

While a few media programs may have given some focus to the issue of police violence, perhaps not many of them are showing how police are being used to cover up cycles of neglect including discrimination in hiring, housing, wages, and disproportionate public funding. Such one-sided reports may have the unintended effect of heightening conflict where solidarity is needed, and letting the culprits higher up – employers, developers, and right-wing politicians at the highest levels of government – off the hook.

Eugene’s participation was at times a reminder of other culprits who are rarely held accountable – suspicious neighbors who raise unnecessary alarms and automatically dialing for police. For communities of color, this is one of the real dangers associated with gentrification.

In concluding the conversation, Berkley stated, “I am really happy we can have this dialogue because I’m going to be able to say, ‘This is how police officers show up and think about these issues, so the next time we have a conversation we can do it differently.

“CWA has law enforcement, and corrections officers inside their unions. They also represent Verizon workers and many other folks. At their national convention, they pushed a resolution that spoke to Black Lives Matter. This was not an easy conversation for them, but they were able to push each other to see everything together. In San Diego, they work with border patrol, faith communities, community organizations, and labor. In this instance, there are a ton of people of color who work for border control and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The fact that they have a coordinated coalition is a miracle. It can happen, but there has to be an acknowledgement that there are things that are wrong with the system, and a willingness on all of our parts to change.”

It may take the support of unions in other sectors to provide law enforcement employees who are organized as workers the confidence to confront their own institutions, but there is no reason to doubt that reinforcements will show up if these public employees are also fighting for the level of social inclusion necessary to uplift and secure their own day-to-day lives at work.

The Murphy Institute will be hosting a similar conference on April 28th & 29th. Participating organizations and individuals are being encouraged to host their own discussions leading up to this event to dig deeper into the critical issue.

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