Why Black Lives Matter Is Taking On Police Unions

Adeshina Emmanuel July 22, 2016

The focus is no longer just on individual officers; it’s on the institutions that protect and shield them. (Vision Planet Media/ Flickr)

Activists in the move­ment for black lives are work­ing to lift the veil on one of the most pow­er­ful influ­ences in law enforce­ment: police unions.

The focus is no longer just on indi­vid­ual offi­cers; it’s on the insti­tu­tions that pro­tect and shield them. Orga­niz­ers protest­ed at the offices of two of the nation’s largest police unions this week as part of a nation­wide week of action under the ban­ner #Free­dom­now.

Protest­ing orga­nized labor may seem like a sur­pris­ing move for a rad­i­cal group. We’re def­i­nite­ly pro-labor union,” explains Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) orga­niz­er Clarise McCants.

But our mes­sage is that the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police (FOP) is not just like any union,” she said. They are a fra­ter­ni­ty — and they are the most dan­ger­ous fra­ter­ni­ty in America.”

As evi­dence, activists point to the out­sized role that police unions often play in nation­al pol­i­tics, as well as a spe­cial set of pro­tec­tions, grant­ed to offi­cers through union con­tracts and state police offi­cer bill of rights” laws, that may help insu­late them from account­abil­i­ty. The fact that police are empow­ered to use dead­ly force on the job makes them dif­fer­ent from teach­ers or fire­fighers — and their unions’ suc­cess in secur­ing far-reach­ing con­tract pro­vi­sions that effec­tive­ly block pub­lic over­sight puts them in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry from oth­er beleagued pub­lic-sec­tor unions.

An In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion recent­ly found that cer­tain pro­vi­sions in col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing agree­ments have repeat­ed­ly cre­at­ed road­blocks to fed­er­al­ly-man­dat­ed reforms. Even where local police depart­ments have been found to be in vio­la­tion of civ­il-rights laws, con­tract rules effec­tive­ly thwart­ed Depart­ment of Jus­tice-led efforts to improve the han­dling of police mis­con­duct, cre­ate or extend civil­ian over­sight, and estab­lish ear­ly-warn­ing sys­tems for prob­lem cops. Guar­an­tee­ing fair­ness and due process for mem­bers is one thing, say crit­ics, effec­tive­ly block­ing polic­ing reform is another.

On Wednes­day, McCants, 25, and oth­er demon­stra­tors with BYP100 and Black Lives Mat­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., shut down traf­fic out­side the FOP’s leg­isla­tive office.

Activists charge that, as a lob­by­ing heavy­weight on Capi­tol Hill, the FOP is a con­stant foil of civil­ian over­sight of police, one of the main dri­vers of so-called Blue Lives Mat­ter bills pro­lif­er­at­ing around the coun­try and a major foe of fed­er­al laws that would crack down on racial profiling.

The leg­isla­tive office is basi­cal­ly like the ALEC for cops,” says McCants, refer­ring to the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil, a con­ser­v­a­tive lob­by­ing group that helps draft and pass state leg­is­la­tion nationwide.

Mean­while, in New York, 10 activists chained them­selves and staged a sit-in at the head­quar­ters of the Patrolmen’s Benev­o­lent Asso­ci­a­tion (PBA) before cops cut the chains and hauled them away in handcuffs.

Oth­er orga­niz­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in the demon­stra­tion by pick­et­ing out­side, includ­ing mem­bers of Black Lives Mat­ter, a Mil­lion Hood­ies and BYP100.

Accord­ing to BYP100 mem­ber Jew­el Cadet, a 28-year-old Brook­lyn native, the action had two goals: to demand the fir­ing of a cop recent­ly involved in the shoot­ing of an unarmed black motorist and to draw broad­er atten­tion to the ways that unions cov­er up police crimes. In addi­tion to con­tract pro­tec­tions that crit­ics say cre­ate a web of obsta­cles to exe­cut­ing time­ly, effec­tive and thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tions, police unions some­times dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion that is false or misleading.

We know a lot of peo­ple are not as aware of the PBA and don’t under­stand or have access to under­stand­ing how the PBA works to pro­tect and defend cops,” says Cadet.

On July 4, New York Police Depart­ment offi­cer Wayne Isaacs fatal­ly shot Del­rawn Small, 37, at a red light in Brooklyn.

Author­i­ties’ pre­lim­i­nary account says Small approached the offi­cer’s car and punched Isaacs through an open win­dow, but, as The New York Times report­ed, video footage of the inci­dent showed Mr. Small recoil­ing from gun­fire short­ly after he approached Offi­cer Isaac­s’s car, leav­ing a lim­it­ed win­dow in which Mr. Small could have attacked him.” Isaacs was put on desk duty pend­ing an investigation.

PBA Pres­i­dent Patrick Lynch told the New York Dai­ly News that activists are aim­ing at the wrong folk.

City Hall makes pol­i­cy,” he said, accord­ing to the news out­let. The police offi­cers and the PBA don’t make pol­i­cy. They should be protest­ing out­side of City Hall. They should be sup­port­ing the police offi­cers, who are out here pro­tect­ing their right to protest.”

Saman­tha Mas­ter, a 28-year-old orga­niz­er with the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., chap­ter of BYP100, con­tends that PBA’s influ­ence is far broad­er. Peo­ple usu­al­ly think of unions as enti­ties that fight for bet­ter wages and work­place pro­tec­tions, she says, and that is true for most unions. How­ev­er, when police cause harm to civil­ians under any sort of cir­cum­stances the unions play a par­tic­u­lar role in cov­er­ing up the mis­deeds of police,” Mas­ter says.

I think that as we learn more about the ways black peo­ple are denied jus­tice,” she notes, the more we peel back that onion, the more lay­ers we see about the cor­rupt sys­tem that sup­ports and enforces this culture.”

Adeshi­na Emmanuel is an edi­tor at Injus­tice Watch, a non­prof­it jour­nal­is­tic research orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to expos­ing insti­tu­tion­al fail­ures that obstruct jus­tice and equal­i­ty. He is a for­mer reporter for DNAin­fo Chica­go, the Chica­go Sun-Times, the Chica­go Reporter and Chalkbeat.
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