Police brutality has been seared into the consciousness of many Americans — especially blacks — since the 1960s, when TV showed civil-rights protestors being clubbed and hosed by Jim Crow police departments.
After every nationally publicized incident — the latest being the horrific death of George Floyd — there are calls for change. Experts demand better police training, more civilian oversight, and the hiring of a more diverse force. Many police departments have taken those steps.
But New York mayor Bill de Blasio had to admit on Sunday, “We need faster, speedier discipline when it comes to policing.” Yet it never seems to happen.
Maybe it’s finally time to consider the role that police unions play in perpetuating police brutality. Mayor de Blasio has frequently tangled with his city’s powerful unions, but he’s never challenged their vast political power. And make no mistake, that power is often used to cover up and deflect charges of police misconduct.
“The unions, at least in New York City, outright just protect, protect, protect the cops,” retired NYPD commander Corey Pegues wrote in his memoir, Once a Cop. “It’s a blanket system of covering up police officers.”
Writing in the Stanford Law Review, scholar Katherine Bies notes that ever since “the rise of police unions to political power in the 1970s,” they have succeeded in shielding their members from public accountability. “Police unions have established highly developed political machinery that exerts significant political and financial pressure on all three branches of government,” Bies writes. “The power of police unions over policymakers in the criminal justice context distorts the political process and generates political outcomes that undermine the democratic values of transparency and accountability.”
Take the issue of cellphone cameras, which proved of such value in establishing the horrific nature of George Floyd’s death. Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police, told Fox News’s Chris Wallace earlier today: “I believe cellphone videos are game changers. . . . They weed out the bad apples. Video is definitely the key in this case as it is in so many other cases in this day and age.”
But Jim Pasco, the 73-year-old executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, with 342,000 members, is a clear obstacle to transparency. Pasco believes that it should be illegal for someone to record cops with their cellphones. He even supported a now-defunct Illinois law that made recording an on-duty police officer punishable by 15 years in prison.
“At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures,” he told Radley Balko of Reason magazine in 2011.
Police unions — like all unions — will often stop at nothing to protect the interests of their members. Booker Hodges is the assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. He is a longtime union member, but in 2018, writing in PoliceOne.com, he acknowledged that “a union is required to represent an officer, but in cases where someone has clearly violated our oath of office, publicly defending an officer who has clearly violated our oath of office strains neighborhood relations and erodes trust.”
Nor is Hodges alone in his concerns. Skoogman told Chris Wallace that the arbitration process that police-union contracts have imposed often prevent the removal of bad apples: “We have officers that violate public policy, they have a pattern of doing that, and chiefs and sheriffs try to fire them, and our courts reinstate those jobs.”
Indeed. Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, had 18 prior complaints filed against him with the Minneapolis Police Department. Like many departments, “privacy” regulations negotiated as part of police-union contracts make it impossible to know the details.
Take California. Even after that state’s legislature finally moved to open up police records last year, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, fought a lawsuit by KQED-TV that sought to compel the release of prior serious police misconduct and use-of-force records. Becerra even demanded that journalists destroy some police records that had been “inadvertently provided” to them.
We do know that only two of the 18 complaints against Chauvin resulted in even a letter of reprimand being issued. Former officer Tou Thao, who stood by while Chauvin restrained Floyd, had six complaints filed with internal affairs, one of which is still open. Thao was also part of a 2017 lawsuit settled for $25,000 by the city of Minneapolis. It alleged that he and another officer subjected a suspect to “cruel and unusual” punishment.
I have long taken an interest in weeding out “Bad Boys in Blue.” My brother served on the police force of Tucson, Ariz., for more than 30 years, rising to a high position in that department’s leadership. He has long maintained that police unions can undermine effective disciplining of officers and can protect people who should have long ago been booted.
But no one believes that another killing of a civilian by cops is going to change the entire culture of silence that permeates many police departments.
Perhaps it’s time for the Supreme Court to step in. The court will announce tomorrow whether it will reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity it created back in 1982. That doctrine shields police and all other government officials from accountability for their actions unless victims can show that the rights were “clearly established.”
But “whether the official’s actions are unconstitutional, intentional or malicious is irrelevant to the test,” as Patrick Jaicomo and Anya Bidwell, attorneys for the libertarian Institute for Justice, noted this weekend in USA Today. “When the Supreme Court conceived qualified immunity, it promised that the rule would not provide a ‘license for lawless conduct’ for government officials. Plainly, it has.”
The Institute cites many examples. Just last November, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that Tennessee cops who let their police dog bite a surrendered suspect did not violate his rights.
The issue of rogue police officers who routinely violate constitutional rights and their superiors and unions who protect them is no longer a Right-versus-Left issue.
It should be an issue that unites all Americans. Because if we can’t trust the authority figures who exercise vast power over us, the breakdown in law and order we will see may be more of our own making — not the criminals’.