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Police unions create one of the biggest barriers to efforts to reform policing. When their political contributions and endorsements are not enough to stop the election of public officials committed to reform, they have targeted those officials with personal attacks, lawsuits, and obstruction. The NYC PBA president accused the city administration of having “blood on their hands” in response to the Mayor suggesting that racial disparities in policing exist.
Since taking office in 2016, Chicago district attorney Kim Foxx has used her discretion to refuse to seek bail for and deprioritize prosecution of nonviolent offenses, moves which have led to a decrease in crime overall. But in 2019, the Chicago FOP, along with white nationalist organizations, staged a protest at her office in which police officers rubbed photos of her over their genitals and crudely heckled her. The police group also organized white police chiefs from the suburbs to denounce Ms. Foxx at a news conference. At the same time, supporters of the police forced a member of her staff to go on leave by harassing her with phone calls, berating her as an “N-word whore.”
Lawmakers are responsible for reforming police departments, but they are frequently lobbied by police interest groups. They wield strong influence in Congress where they have spent more than $2.9 million since 2017 lobbying the federal government to resist reforms such as qualified immunity, which prevents officers from being sued for misconduct.
In New York City, the Police Benevolent Association paid lobbyists more than $780,000 to block legislative action that would require police disciplinary records to be made public. The Police Benevolent Association of New York City has spent more than $1.4 million on campaign contributions and lobbying fees since 2015, records show.
Police unions leverage their power and political connections to keep their opponents buried in litigation and block any legislation they don’t like.
In 2015, for example, in response to a U.S. Department of Justice report that found a pattern of unconstitutional arrests and use of force within the Newark police department, the Newark municipal council created the city’s first civilian complaint review board (Newark CCRB) as a measure of oversight. As soon as it went into effect, the Newark FOP litigated against the Newark CCRB, effectively stopping it from functioning.
While a state’s appeals court overturned the initial judgment in favor of the CCRB, writing that the ordinance creating the review board was valid, in August of 2020, New Jersey’s high court ruled in favor of the FOP, stripping the CCRB of the powers to investigate, subpoena, and overall weakening the power of the CCRB immensely.
In the wake of Eric Garner’s death, the Washington Post writes, “slowdowns have been perhaps the most common approach to resisting police reform nationwide… an attempt to leverage violence over residents to prevent reform.” When Steve Fletcher, a Minneapolis city councilman and frequent local police department critic, tried to redirect funding from hiring new officers and invest in creating a new office of violence prevention, he felt the full wrath of police defiance and retaliation. The police stopped responding as quickly to 911 calls placed by his constituents. “It operates a little bit like a protection racket,” he said.
In the wake of the murder of Breonna Taylor, Louisville’s Fraternal Order of Police advocated for a slower judicial process, accused the mayor of misresponding and called on the city to take down #JusticeForBre banners across Louisville. FOP and Louisville’s police foundation cosponsored a pro-police rally. Meanwhile, SWAT teams have been used in protest repression as police have continued to escalate their response against peaceful marchers. When police officers were told to take off their riot gear, they responded by calling in sick.
After Freddie Gray’s death, Baltimore attempted comprehensive police reform but it failed. According to The Washington Post, “Members of the department undermined every new policy in an open revolt. Some cops decided that if the city didn’t have their back, they’d stop working hard and allow chaos to reign, showing how important they were. Others, particularly plainclothes officers, took the opposite approach…And some cops seized on the moment to rob and steal, creating more disorder.” Instead of reform, police overtime, unconstitutional stops and police corruption soared. West Baltimore residents describe themselves as “over-policed and underserved.”