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Police unions dig in as calls for reform grow

Updated 9:18 PM ET, Mon June 8, 2020

Washington (CNN) - A crowd of police officers in Philadelphia gathered outside their local union headquarters on Monday to show their support for one of their own -- a staff inspector facing assault charges after allegedly beating a college student at an anti-racism protest last week.

Like all criminal defendants, Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna is innocent until proven guilty. But it seemed like the crowd of more than 100 applauding officers already made up their minds, despite viral footage of Bologna hitting the student in the back of the head with a metal baton, sending him to the hospital.

Following the rally, the union that represents Bologna issued a statement, saying it "will not stand-by and watch Inspector Bologna get railroaded."

As public opinion shifts on issues of police violence and racial discrimination, and cities begin to rethink their approach to law enforcement, powerful police unions across the country are digging in, and preparing for a once-in-a-generation showdown over policing.

The flashpoint has been seemingly brewing for years and has flared in intensity with each high-profile police killing involving an African American. Elected officials, facing more pressure than ever after last month's police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, are pledging to take action.

"Let me be clear, we're going after the police union," Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Monday on ABC's Good Morning America, after members of the city council said they wanted to go even further and dismantle the local police department to pursue other models of policing.

But that might be easier said than done. Police unions in the US wield significant power and enjoy higher membership rates than many other unions, which have declined in recent years. Government officials and labor experts also tell CNN that police union contracts often make it tougher to remove officers that have been flagged for misconduct -- a key roadblock to reform.

"They've become far too powerful. They form political action committees. They donate to district attorneys' race or state attorneys' race, state senators and representatives and so forth," Charles Ramsey, a former DC police chief and former Philadelphia police commissioner, said Sunday on CNN. "And then we wonder why you can't get anything done."

For the first time, police unions will need to grapple with a skeptical public that doesn't automatically support law enforcement. New polls indicate that most Americans now acknowledge that African Americans are more likely to be mistreated or even killed by police.

"This is big," legendary GOP pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on Monday about a dramatic shift in how Americans are viewing police violence. After Eric Garner died in police custody in 2014, 33% of Americans said they believed police were more likely to use excessive force against African Americans. That figure now stands at 57%, according to a poll from last week.

In response to the public sentiment over the past two weeks, Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, the largest law enforcement union in the country, told CNN that his organization is willing to sit down with "anybody, anytime who wants to have a fact-based discussion" on public and police safety, and that these discussions were ongoing.

'Corrosive' police culture

For years, lawmakers from both parties passed police-friendly laws and empowered police unions in their cities. But in this moment, there could be limited opening for bipartisanship.

"We need reform in the area of the police unions to make sure that the chief can actually have disciplinary control over the force," said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is personally handling the prosecution of the four police officers involved in Floyd's death.

House Democrats unveiled a sweeping proposal on Monday to address racial disparities in policing. The bill would establish a national registry for police misconduct, among other things.

It's not clear that any Republicans will support that bill, but some are breaking from President Donald Trump's hardline stance toward the protests, which he has focused on more than Floyd's killing. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney marched in a Black Lives Matter protest over the weekend in Washington, DC.

And the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a report last year that said many police unions "run counter to the best practices of professional law enforcement standards" and are more concerned with sustaining the union than with promoting public safety.

Ronal Serpas, the former police chief in New Orleans and Nashville, said unions nationwide have successfully negotiated for control over disciplinary processes, creating a "corrosive" culture where problematic officers know their union will protect them from consequences.

"To change police culture, we have to change the way contracts are handled," said Serpas, who oversaw police reforms in New Orleans after years of corruption and after Hurricane Katrina.

Decades of collective bargaining has resulted in police forces where department chiefs have little control, and the unions have set the terms for internal investigations. Even if an officer is formally punished, nuances in the contract often help officers prevail on appeal, Serpas said.

For instance, some police union agreements have outlined how long police leadership must wait to investigate an incident, how they can ask the police officers questions and what they can ask, and how quickly the department must complete an investigation. Taken together, it puts the disciplinary power in the hands of the unions, which are set up to protect police officers' jobs.

Sometimes, police officers of color face discrimination within their own departments, and police unions have been complicit in allowing these inequalities to fester and survive, experts tell CNN.

As local governments look to pass new reforms, they'll need to rewrite many of these policies and claw back some of the powers they've ceded to the police unions, Serpas explained.

"The unions are doing what they are supposed to be doing -- finding ways to protect their employees," Serpas said. "They'll go as far as the local government will let them go."

Taking action in New York

New York, home to the largest police department in the country, has sprung into action.

Answering a question Monday from CNN's Mark Morales on police unions and reform, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that "every union argues the interest of their employees, their workforce," and that he will "listen to all voices," including the unions, as he pushes reforms.

Lawmakers in New York are moving forward this week with a series of measures to address police misconduct. This includes repealing a state law commonly known as 50-A, which prevents the public from seeing disciplinary records for officers, including those who kill civilians.

Activists have said this law has made it harder to hold abusive police officers accountable, while police unions have said that this change could jeopardize the privacy of individual officers. Cuomo cast those concerns aside Monday, saying the bill includes ample privacy protections.

"All its doing is reversing an exemption on police records, so now a police officer is like a schoolteacher," Cuomo said. "It's just parity and equality with every other public employee."

The legislation is being taken up by the Democrat-controlled state legislature, along with other bills that would establish a new office under the New York attorney general to investigate police misconduct, and also would require officers to turn on their body cameras in specific situations.

The spotlight in this state isn't only on efforts by the New York Police Department to enforce curfews and maintain order in New York City. Last week, two officers from the Buffalo Police Department were charged with assault after allegedly shoving an elderly man at a protest.

After the officers were suspended, all 57 members of the police force's emergency response team resigned from that team. The local union said they quit in solidarity with the two officers, though some officers told local news outlets that the union's public statements weren't accurate.

"The Buffalo police union is on the wrong side of history, they are wrong in this situation, they have been a barrier to further police reform in the city of Buffalo and that barrier that the police union presents needs to be addressed," Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said Saturday on CNN.

Unions flex their muscle

While union membership has declined nationally, membership among law enforcement remains high. Those membership dues can be funneled toward litigation, support for political candidates or lobbying on legislation that can impact police forces. Police unions also say they work to secure better pay and benefits for officers, and that they have a duty to defend their members.

"Police unions have a tremendous amount of influence," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and a former Justice Department official who worked on police issues. "There's a lot of police officers in this country and the dues accumulate a large war chest that can be used to enhance their political agenda."

Local officials have also benefited from endorsements and donations from police unions, making it less politically palatable for some officials to try to take on police unions or cases involving individual officers.

In an interview with the New York Times, one Minneapolis city councilman even recently compared the local police union to a "protection racket" that slows down services in areas with unfriendly officials. A spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department declined to comment on the accusation to the Times.

To flex their political muscle, police unions have used aggressive and at-times threatening rhetoric to attack elected officials who were trying to rein in their local police departments.

The head of a St. Louis police union said last year that the city's chief prosecutor, an African American woman, should be removed "by force or by choice" because she was supposedly sowing distrust of law enforcement. And after an attempted assassination of NYPD officers in February, a major police union in New York City said its members were "declaring war" on liberal-leaning Mayor Bill de Blasio because they blame him for creating a dangerous climate for police officers.

In 2016, the Fraternal Order of Police threw its support behind then-candidate Trump. The organization counts more than 300,000 members nationwide.

In an interview with the Washington Post last year, Pascos said, "I would say at least 80% of our membership nationwide is solidly supportive of President Trump."

Across the country, the actual work of a police union can be much more mundane than it appears in this moment, when tensions are high after a spate of high-profile incidents.

Like other labor unions, police unions will advocate for better benefits and workplace conditions for their members, through collective bargaining. When officers face issues, ranging from citizens' complaints to criminal charges, the police union will often provide legal representation.

Brian Luciano, the president of the Police Benevolent Association in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said police officers facing accusations of misconduct can often become victims of political considerations and a public rush to judgment. Police unions will step in to make sure that officers in trouble get the same consideration as a civilian under arrest, Luciano said.

"Municipalities don't always have the officers' best interest at heart. They will do what's expedient for them for their political purposes," Luciano said. "We see our role as protecting the rights of the accused. And in some cases, the accused is the police officer."

As the political winds change, police unions are set to face more scrutiny than ever. Some union leaders, like Edward Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association in New York City, say that politicians are changing their views about policing for political expediency.

"The elected officials who are now anti-police almost all of them have taken money from police unions," Mullins said. "They were all pro-law enforcement until they realized November is coming up. Now because the narrative is anti-police and they are becoming anti-cop, you really have to question that. If you're trying to make changes now, why did it take riots to get you to do something that should have been done a long time ago?"


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