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Recent Opinion Pieces

Police Violence and Police Unions

In November 2014, when the news arrived that the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would not be indicted, I was in my home town, Portland, Oregon. I went to a hastily called demonstration in front of a courthouse. One of the speakers recited a list of young black men who had been killed by Portland’s police in recent years, which made me wonder: in my years away had I been taken in by Portland’s reputation as a city with green policies, good schools and public transportation, and respect for diverse population?

The answer is, yes I had. In the last five years, 22 people were shot by police, 13 of them killed. All were male, 25% were African American (a disproportion, since Portland is 6.3% African American). The record of police departments in the smaller towns that surround Portland was even worse—in many cases the name of the officer responsible could not be obtained. This data was not published by the Portland police or city government; it took a grassroots group, Portland Cop Watch, to dig out the information. (The Department of Justice had sued Portland in 2012 for “improper use-of-force,” then settled with a finding that excessive force had been used against the mentally ill, six of whom had been shot dead in the preceding six years. )

It took a grassroots group to compile this information because the government doesn’t. Neither national nor local data is consistently collected, despite the fact that the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act ordered the Attorney General to collect and report this data annually. The Justice Department itself admits that their data are extremely incomplete. Data collection responsibility is divided among several federal agencies and—believe it or not—their data systems use different categories so they cannot combine or compare the information they collect. Even the data collected by two Justice Department agencies, the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, don’t match. The latter agency quit releasing numbers after 2009 because it considered its information unreliable! Besides, these federal agencies depend on local police forces to report and the large majority of the roughly 18,000 police departments do not do so. Ten years ago a study of police killings in Central Florida showed that national databases included only a quarter of the shootings reported in the local news media. A Wall Street Journal study of the 105 largest police forces found more than 550 police killings between 2007 and 2012 missing from national data. Moreover, in official data the killings are labeled “justifiable homicides,” which presents a staggering conundrum: on the one hand, anything that is counted is automatically labeled justifiable; and if there are rare cases in which police departments label a shooting unjustifiable, it won’t show up in the reports.

Protests about recent police killings have generated several citizens’ groups that attempt to compile data, such as Fatal Encounters (www.fatalencounters.org), launched in 2012 by a journalism instructor at the University of Nevada-Reno, and Regressing Deadspin (regressing.deadspin.com). Fatal Encounters estimates that between Michael brown’s death on August 9 and September 1, 2014, that is, in only 22 days, 83 more people were killed by police—almost four a day.

Unsurprisingly, some activists charge that the federal government doesn’t want us to know about these shootings. What seems more likely is that localities don’t want the scrutiny that releasing this information would stimulate, and that federal agencies lack the incentive and/or the ability to confront police forces. Law enforcement in the US is a complicated, inefficiently divided and remarkably unaccountable system. This is partly a matter of our constitutional design, in which units of government range from federal through state to county and municipal authorities.

It is also, however, a matter of a history of collective self-defense on the part of the police, a defense that rests on corruption of the function of labor unions. True, one of the tasks of labor unions is protecting their members from unjustified firings or other job penalties. But the “blue” unions, sometimes called Patrolmen’s Benevolent Associations (PBAs) or Fraternal Orders of Police (FORs), have developed into organizations that operate more like criminal syndicates. They not only resist external oversight but enforce collusion with their corruption among their members. The penalties for speaking out against such a syndicate are severe. Only by looking at the unions can be understand, for example, why so many African American and Latino cops have been partners in racist policing. Back in Portland, one black police officer reported, “Every black officer has to listen to `nigger’ jokes and doesn’t feel he can object.”

Consider just a few of the major campaigns of these unions in the last half-century. In New York City, mayor after mayor, from John Lindsay in 1966 to David Dinkins in 1992, tried to establish civilian review boards. In every case, the PBA responded, using the weapons with which it is familiar, violently: once it ordered a rampage through the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods, “with thousands of cops waving their guns, banging on trash cans, blowing whistles,” literally terrorizing residents; ten years later it responded with a work slowdown, as it did against Mayor DiBlasio this winter, making the population fear loss of protection; in 1992 it organized a rally at which officers jumped on cars, blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, many of them carrying signs with racist slogans and racist images of Dinkins. This is a form of terrorism. Its purpose is to terrify the population that any attempt to cross the police unions will produce chaos.

There are historical reasons that police organizations identify so often with conservative politics. In the 19th century, they grew accustomed to expectations that they bust up labor protests, i.e. control the “dangerous classes.” Criminologist Samuel Walker argues that contemporary police unions grew stronger precisely in response to their own violence against civil rights protests. A dangerous spiral has developed: the more police officers misbehave, the more their unions function as defenders of misbehavior; and the more they get away with misbehavior, the more they feel themselves entitled to misbehave with impunity. Moreover, the police are not like other workers. Unlike most of the rest of us, they are armed. Because their official understanding of their job is stopping criminals, they begin to understand anyone they engage with as a criminal. Since their work is separate from judicial processes, nothing remains to remind them of the presumption of innocence. They are accountable only to a chain of command in which the union officers often sit at the top.

The solution is not that complicated in principle: the US needs to build a system of holding police responsible for violations of the law and human rights. What will be difficult is rescuing ourselves from the many politicians who fear the gangster-like police unions.