Police Unions vs. Black Lives

Photo by Igal Koshevoy | CC BY 2.0

In “progressive” Portland, Oregon the city’s police stand out as political outliers. Whereas most of the city leans left the average cop is, unapologetically, on the far-right of the political spectrum. Portland’s rightwing cops mirror the politics of police across the country, reflected in the early endorsement that the nation’s largest police union gave to Trump at a time when the sleaziest politicians found him too repulsive.

It’s an open secret that Portland’s police have a racism problem, the worst example being the infamous case of officer Mark Kruger, who was caught erecting a Nazi shrine in a public park in 2010. Officer Kruger has since been promoted to Captain, and his discipline for Nazi-praising scrubbed from his personnel record.

Portland’s police problems inspired the city’s multi-millionaire mayor, Ted Wheeler, to campaign to reform and “demilitarize” the police. This pledge was nullified weeks after the new mayor’s term began, when peaceful anti-Trump protests were attacked by Portland’s riot cops and the mayor responded by… doing nothing. Later, when white supremacists came to Portland, the police attacked peaceful counter-protestors while allowing a pro-fascist militia to “assist” police in arresting an anti-fascist counter protester.

Under pressure from the public, the mayor politely asked the police if they could refrain from wearing their scary riot uniforms. The police union president curtly replied that it was their “right,” enshrined in the union contract. And that was the end of the conversation.

The police union contract — and the organization that bargains the contract — the Portland Police Association, is the centerpiece of police power in Portland. Police unions across the country play similar roles, acting as powerful barriers to any substantive reform, ensuring that real police accountability is unachievable. Without organizing against this barrier to reform, police will continue to act with impunity, knowing there’s no real accountability for their actions.

Not all police reform advocates agree that police unions should be an organizing target. Rosa Squillacote recently wrote against the strategy:

“…ultimately, power over police policy is located in liberal ideology, courts, executive offices, and the structure of an institutionally isolated administrative agency. These are the places where power lies; focusing on police unions is a distraction.”

Squillacote argues that police should be treated as individuals, and existing divisions within the police can be nurtured, such as the recent example of police protesting by “taking a knee.”

It’s true that reformers should embrace every opportunity with every individual police officer. But so long as police function mainly as a “union” or “brotherhood,” they need to be organized against as such.

Police unions are not coming closer to embracing reforms, but militantly closing ranks against them. Police unions view the Black Lives Matter movement as an existential threat, heightened by cell phones and social media that are exposing longstanding abusive practices. The well intentioned police officer (and there are certainly many) or sporadic symbolic gesture cannot change this essential dynamic.

And although Squillacote is correct in noting that there is existing power over police in the hands of politicians and institutions, it’s also true that police unions have tremendous “influence” over the city powermap through their militant organizing and threats, as we’ll see below.

Ultimately, most city governments have long ago lost control over their police departments, and are either too afraid to directly challenge their power, or too appreciative of the services the police provide to the local political establishment, such as enforcing pro-business anti homeless laws, and heavily policing newly-gentrified areas to incarcerate those — mainly people of color — who are forced to eek out a living in the informal economy.

Portland is regularly reminded of the lack of control it has over its police whenever riot police brutalize peaceful protestors and unarmed Black men are killed with impunity. There are always minimal — and usually zero — consequences, so that bad behavior is reinforced. Police power will thus continue to expand, unchecked, at the expense of both vulnerable communities and municipal democracy, until police unions are directly confronted and defanged.

Why are police unions so powerful?

Police unions allow cops to collectively organize and function independently, while funneling member’s dues into attorney protection and donations to campaigning politicians. The real power of the police union is two-fold: their role as a vital organization to the daily functioning of society (a strike threat terrifies city officials) and more importantly, the internal solidarity of the police that enables them to act collectively in a way that all unions should be jealous of (meaning that a powerful strike is actually achievable).

A powerful example of police union organizing occurred in New York, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Not long after the murder of Eric Garner at the hands an NYPD officer, the New York police union (under increased scrutiny) organized a citywide action using a tactic as old as the labor movement, the “slowdown,” where the workforce agrees to collectively work less, displaying their power by removing a chunk of their labor.

The New York Post called the NYPD’s slowdown a “virtual work stoppage,” resulting in:

“…overall arrests down 66 percent…citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent.. Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent…Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent…”

This kind of work action brings a city government to its knees, not only by starving it of funds but by issuing a credible threat that further conflict may result in a full fledged strike. The NYPD action brought New York City Mayor De Blasio to the negotiating table, and certainly terrified many in the Mayor’s administration.

The police union also came at De Blasio with public protests, at his house and at the gym he worked out in. After the slowdown and protests De Blasio’s appetite for police reform was stymied, his supporters in the reform movement demoralized.

The Guardian said that the NYPD has “… experienced decades of sustained militancy by its police unions – from repeated work slowdowns like the one now taking place, to riotous mass rallies and public denunciations, political campaigns, and well-funded legislative pressure.”

Earlier this year a NYPD police union (there are 5 total) threatened yet another slowdown, in response to a NYPD sergeant being charged with murder for killing an obviously mentally ill person. Having used a slowdown successfully, the mere threat of one is now enough to strike terror in the mayor. Police unions across the country were watching the NYPD conflict, learning strategies that they could impose to protect their members at the expense of the public.

Interestingly, the above-mentioned article by Rosa Squillacote makes mention of the NYPD slowdown, and in order to minimize the power of the police unions Squillacote completely misdiagnoses what happened:

“That [NYPD] slowdown was instigated by the PBA [Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association] and warmly embraced by officers. It was also embraced by police reform advocates at the time, who responded with a resounding ‘yes, please, police us less’”

Huh? It’s one thing to appreciate less aggressive policing, and another to ignore that the police union strong-armed city government to prevent further police reforms. Squillacote ignores the motive behind the police action and thus the political repercussions are lost. By minimizing the action the despotic power of the police union remained hidden, even as it steered the mayor’s actions against further police reform.

Police unions are able to perform amazing feats of organizing because their internal solidarity resembles the wartime solidarity of soldiers: non-police are “civilians” while fellow cops are “comrades” who rely on each other for survival as they fight a daily war against society’s poor. Solidarity is power, and an organization that consists of armed people with little public accountability is powerful indeed.

The solidarity and social power of police is enshrined in legally enforceable union contracts, protected by federal and state labor laws. These union contracts often act as a shield for police. Slate wrote an article on Portland’s Police and remarked how the union contract prevents police accountability:

“The [Portland Police] union’s contract, like those of many police unions, shields officers from investigation, limits oversight, and impedes disciplinary action. Even the power of the city’s Independent Police Review Board, which oversees police investigations, is checked by the union contract, and the bureau retains final say in investigations and discipline matters.”

A broader study of police unions by the ‘Police Union Contract Project’ reviewed union contracts in 81 of America’s largest cities. The study found that most cities had provisions in the contracts that protected police by a variety of the following methods:

Disqualifying misconduct complaints

Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident or otherwise restricting how, when, or where they can be interrogated

Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get prior to being interrogated [such as video of the incident, so they can match their sworn statements with availability evidence]

Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct including by giving officers paid leave while under investigation, paying legal fees, and/or the cost of settlements

Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file

Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and/or the media to hold police accountable.

Many of these issues have been at play and have prevented reforms in cities across the country, and in Portland in particular.

Justice Denied: The Victories of Portland’s Police Union

Portland’s police have been involved in several high-profile deaths involving mentally ill people, including James Chassee who died in 2006 while in police custody, and Aaron Campbell and Keaton Otis who were killed in separate incidents in 2010.

Aaron Campbell, a young black man, was shot in the back, unarmed, during a mental health crisis while he surrendered to police. The officer who shot Campbell, Ron Frashour, was initially fired.

To fight this unprecedented discipline, the police union went into action by filing — and winning — a union grievance (a violation of the police union contract). The police union alleged that Frashour’s firing violated the “just cause” provision of the union contract (most union contracts have “just cause” provisions that require employers to prove that a worker was “justly” disciplined).

There was never any doubt about Frashour’s guilt. He murdered an obviously innocent person. Even Police Chief Mike Reese said in a sworn statement: “We didn’t have a right to shoot him [Aaron Campbell]. He never displayed a weapon. He didn’t take any offensive action towards the officer.”

The pro-police arbitrator (a “judge” of union grievances) ordered the city to rehire the fired officer, and initially Mayor Sam Adams refused, in a direct challenge to the police union. But eventually the mayor backtracked, in a major victory of the police union that, seemingly, legalized the shooting of unarmed black men.

The Portland police union also won big after it intervened on behalf of the officers who beat James Chasse to death, shattering his ribs and puncturing his lung. The officers responsible for his death only received two-week suspensions, but any punishment was too severe for the police union, who demanded that the discipline letters be revoked and that they receive full back pay. The result was another total victory for the police union, even though the city ended up paying the family of James Chasse over a million dollars for wrongful death.

One of Chasse’s killers, officer Christopher Humphreys, continued as a cop and was later caught on video using a beanbag gun at point blank range against a 12-year-old African American girl.

The public outrage resulted in yet another temporary suspension for Humphreys, and the police union again sprung into action by quickly organizing a public rally where 650 police officers all wore “I am Chris Humphreys” t-shirts.

Having two-thirds of the police force demonstrate near City Hall had its desired effect, and Humphreys was again cleared of all wrongdoing. Now Humphreys is sheriff of Wheeler County, a region named after Mayor Ted Wheeler’s great grandfather, timber baron Coleman Wheeler.

In addition to union protection, most police officers are protected by police-friendly district attorneys, who share the police’s outlook on mass incarceration while relying on police testimony to get “wins” in court. Thus, a district attorney-led “grand jury” is likely to clear an officer of any wrong doing before any independent inquiry is instigated into a police killing.

Portland’s district attorney is especially cop friendly, as one of its prosecutors is Cody Berne, a former police officer who was directly involved in the shooting death of Keaton Otis. As a district attorney, Berne will likely treat cops as he was treated during his grand jury experience, when he was quickly exonerated of killing Keaton Otis, whose death provoked a monthly vigil for justice that continues to this day, seven years after the shooting.

In March 2017 Portland’s district attorney caused outrage yet again when it cleared officer Andrew Hearst of any wrongdoing for killing 17-year-old Quanice Hayes, who died unarmed, on his knees (as ordered by police), shot in the head. Officer Hearst said he feared for his life and that’s all the district attorney needed to hear.

Days after the murder of Quanice Hayes a Portland police sergeant, Gregg Lewis, made “blatantly racist” and violent comments during roll call in front of other officers, and was placed on paid leave during the investigation. The fact that Lewis felt comfortable enough to make racist comments during roll call is indicative of a deeper racist culture that remains unaddressed.
The Feds vs. Portland’s Police Union

The outlandish killings perpetrated by Portland’s police caught the attention of Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ), which concluded that Portland’s cops engaged in a “pattern of excessive” force against people with mental illness.

The outcome was a 2014 negotiated settlement where a local Community Oversight Advisory Board was created to help track the progress of DOJ reforms. Similar DOJ-initiated reforms have been meted out to other cities’ police, and have been similarly unsuccessful.

The Obama DOJ negotiated similar agreements with 11 other cities, and as an investigation by “In These Times” uncovered, the agreements were more often than not smashed against the rocks of the local police union.

The In These Times study concluded that, “In at least seven cases, collective bargaining agreements presented a roadblock to achieving key reforms required by the [DOJ] settlements. Police unions watered down measures that contradicted their contracts, or they launched legal challenges that, even when unsuccessful, delayed implementation.”

The report gives special attention to Portland’s police union for ensuring the DOJ process would be stillborn. When the DOJ began discussions with the city the Portland police union sued to get a seat at the table, and they won. Their argument was that “…proposed changes to use-of-force rules, oversight and training encroached on collective bargaining rights [i.e., the union contract].

The early and deep involvement of the police union ensured that Portland’s DOJ process would be tipped in favor of the police, against the reformers. To oversee the progress of the DOJ reforms Portland hired

Criminology Professor Dennis Rosenbaum, who expressed continual exasperation of the police’s obstinacy. Here he’s quoted in the Oregonian:

“…Without the buy-in from the rank and file [police officer], “we’re fighting an uphill battle just to reform the organization [police],”

This says it all. Sometimes the police contract was used as an excuse not to implement the DOJ reforms; others could simply be ignored. A poll of Portland police showed that over 80% disagreed with the DOJ reforms, and by refusing the reforms collectively, as a union, the city council was brought to its knees.

Consequently, dozens of recommendations from the Community Advisory Board were ignored by city council, and after the settlement process had all but failed, Trump came to power and implied that a Trump-led DOJ would not enforce any Obama-era DOJ agreements.

Recognizing the process dead, new Mayor Ted Wheeler decided to adjust himself to the balance of power rather than challenge it: he disbanded the Community Advisory Board and put in its place a smaller and hand picked board that ensured that there would be even less police accountability, reburying the problem.
Should the Labor Movement Support Police Unions?

Since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, this question has come under scrutiny. Some police unions are part of the AFL-CIO labor federation, though many remain , such as Portland’s police union.

Police unions pose a real contradiction for the labor movement since they are protected by the same federal and state labor laws that protect other public employee unions. Consequently, some unions understandably fear that a successful attack on police unions will provide a legal precedent that can be used to attack other public sector unions. This fear, while valid, cannot be used by the labor movement to support police unions at the expense of social justice and municipal democracy.

Police themselves do not feel any solidarity with the labor movement; they see themselves as an independent social force that opportunistically uses labor law when it benefits them.

The police are independent agents, much more likely to smash a picket line than join it. As the labor movement becomes increasingly militant — using civil disobedience and other tactics — it’s the police who will be called by employers and local governments. The police will “protect and serve” employers against their workers and especially, growing social movements.

If the labor movement believes that Black Lives matter they cannot simultaneously believe that the police are members of their labor family. And if the labor movement continues its trajectory of adopting more militant tactics — and it must to survive — it will increasingly fall into direct combat with the riot police.

Fighting Back

Police reformer Rosa Squillacote is correct when she says that “Abolition [of the police] is not around the corner: we have a long way to go in this battle. Reforms are therefore necessary, and happen as a result of strategic political action, not grandstanding.”

To confront a powerful entity requires organizing a similar level of power. Protest alone cannot achieve meaningful and lasting reforms to the police, unless the energy is funneled into a broad movement that makes the opposition submit.

Different sections of the Black Lives Matter movement have previously targeted their city’s police union by protesting and demanding that excessive funding to police be funneled instead into housing and social services.

These protests raised excellent demands and were certainly successful in raising awareness, but their demands were not met, in part because winning such militant demands requires enormous political leverage. City officials only relent to such demands when they fear the public more than the police, which is rare.

Inspiring demands are important in any movement-building, and a common pitfall for organizers — including police reformers — is demanding overly-technical reforms that the public doesn’t fully understand. The result is less public support. Police reform is intentionally complicated; there are too many people and institutions involved, to the point where justice is always another legal proceeding or committee meeting away, always out of reach.

Any set of demands regarding police reform should include a strategy to directly confront the police union in order to limit its power and influence, and to smash the provisions of the union contract that specifically protect against the reformers’ demands.

Confronting Police Unions with Labor Movement Tactics

Last year in Portland outgoing Mayor Charlie Hales sensed that a police reform attitude was gaining traction in the city, and in response he negotiated, in total secrecy, a new three-year union contract that gave the police fat raises and prevented any serious reform in the meantime. After the news broke city council met to vote on whether to approve the contract, and in front of a packed room of reformers demanding a ‘no’ vote, the council voted ‘yes’ in a major blow to the Black Lives Matter movement. After the vote angry protesters were literally thrown from the doors of City Hall, and the building surrounded by riot police.

A secretly negotiated contract is reason enough to ignore its legitimacy, and it’s up to reform advocates to decide how much they want to respect the contract, or directly challenge the lack of accountability it protects.

Reform advocates across the nation can insist that the police contracts be “re-opened” for negotiating before the contract actually ends. Union contracts are protected by labor law, but often labor issues are settled outside of court, by one side imposing its demands on the other. If a particular issue is protected by the union contract that prevents a reform from being implemented, the city can issue a “demand to bargain” to the police union, just as American Airline pilots demanded their contracts be reopened before they expired.

Even New York’s main police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, repeatedly demanded that its contract be reopened before its expiration date. Either side of a labor conflict can make such a demand, and in any labor conflict it’s organizing that ultimately trumps labor law: if there’s is a critical public interest — backed by public mobilizations — city government can be pushed into fresh negotiations.

Once new negotiations begin (before or after the contract expires) a long standing demand by reformers is that the union contract negotiations happen in the public view. By making these meetings accessible and by mobilizing the public with specific demands, enormous pressure can be put on the police union — and on city government — to accede to the movement’s demands. Imagine thousands of people attending contract negotiations to demand that any provision that prevents accountability be stricken, or that the city not agree to any continuation of the police contract.

If egregious acts are protected by a police union contract, reform advocates should insist that city council ignore that provision of the contract, or remove it during the bargaining process. A police shooting, for example, needn’t be protected by the “just cause” provision of a union contract, since there is simply too much at stake for the broader community to let a pro-police arbitrator decide, or for that matter a pro-police district attorney. By educating the public about the anti-justice elements of police union contracts, new pressure can be created to directly challenge police power.

But a direct challenge to the police union will create a direct response: a police union that feels threatened will take collective action, such as was done in New York. This level of high-stakes politics will require a well-organized movement to confront, lest the police out-organize and demoralize reform advocates by bringing city government to its knees.

In Portland a fresh opportunity may open up for police reform. Longtime police reformer Jo Ann Hardesty is running for city council. In the past Hardesty has said of Portland’s police union:

“Any time a police chief or commissioner tries to change policing, the union fights back. They file lawsuits, they take out ads, they make life miserable for the people pushing for reform.”

A win for Hardesty would galvanize the reform movement while creating an inevitable confrontation with the police union. Hardesty’s campaign will make use of the momentum and awareness raised by the organizing done by “Don’t Shoot Pdx” and “Portland’s Resistance.” Both have been engaged in militant actions with Portland’s Resistance recently winning an important reform that ended the police “gang database,” which kept records of “suspected” gang members and “associates,” increasing the likelihood that these individuals would find themselves trapped in the legal system.

If Hardesty wins reformers could demand that she be granted the position of police commissioner to exercise direct power over the police. Beyond that, Hardesty would need to work strategically with allies to mobilize the population if she has any hope of deep reforms, lest she become yet another victim of police union organizing.

Another world is possible, but only by confronting power with power, using the broader community as a hammer to the police unions. Long Term “abolition” of the police will depend on a deep revolutionary movement, which can be triggered, in part, by mobilizing the broader community to fight for populist reforms against police power.

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com