Last month, we scratched the surface on police budgets. We found it necessary to focus this newsletter on further understanding how police unions thrive and the violence this cycle has on the Black community, specifically in “urban” areas like Boston and others like it. Despite demands to reduce police spending and defund the police, an analysis by the ACLU of Massachusetts found that the 2022 budget is effectively no smaller than the previous years’ budgets. When examining how this happens throughout the nation, we’ve found that police unions serve as a shelter from police accountability, terror, funding, and killings.
Where did this begin?
The Boston Police Department is one of the oldest in the country, claiming heritage dating back to April 12, 1631, when the local court ordered that “watches be set at sunset, and if any person fire off a piece after the watch is set, he shall be fined forty shillings, or whipped” (PAX Centurion, 2015). While police departments in Southern states can be traced back to slave patrols, the formal creation of the police force in Northern states was largely spurred by a desire to contain immigrants, union activism, and demonstrations like the Haymarket protest of 1886, a response to anti-union violence by police.
By the turn of the twentieth century, many police officers were frustrated, like many other workers, with low pay and long hours. Barred by mayors and police commissioners from forming unions, a group of Cleveland police officers petitioned the American Federation of Labor to grant them a union charter in 1897, but the A.F.L. responded, “It is not within the province of the trade union movement to especially organize policemen, no more than to organize militiamen, as both policemen and militiamen are often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement” (New Yorker, 2020).
In 1919, again frustrated by their low pay, poor working conditions, and requirement to pay hundreds of dollars for uniforms, Boston’s city police contacted the A.F.L. for a union charter. Edwin Upton Curtis, the police commissioner, forbade his officers from unionizing, and when the police proceeded to unionize, he suspended nineteen of the union’s leaders for insubordination. 80% of Boston’s police force of fifteen hundred went on strike. Calvin Collidge, the then governor of Massachusetts (1919-1921), announced, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” All 1,147 striking officers were fired and replaced.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy passed Executive Order 10988, which gave federal employees “the right…to form, join, and assist any employee organization or to refrain from any such activity,” effectively extending collective-bargaining rights to state and local government employees, and therefore, police officers.
“The police have a history of cracking heads on picket lines, and yet anytime you try to lean into a reform, they recede into this labor solidarity movement that they’ve never been a part of,”
Jeremiah Ellison, Minneapolis City Council member 1968
One of the elements of police unions that has made them virtually impenetrable is the inaction that they’ve encouraged on both sides of the political aisle This is due to the bipartisan reluctance to take on police and their unions. Democrats are afraid to criticize police unions because of they fear consequences from labor unions. The Republican party, which has not shown support for labor unions, tends to show support for the police in general. This can be understood as an attempt to sway votes, gain campaign contributions, whilst creating a narrative of the need for militarized police under the guise of patriotism and public safety.
“We never rejected reforms. We accept no responsibility of what’s going on in our city.”
Rich Walker Sr., a Minnesota police union board member
In states like Massachusetts, most union negotiations are restricted to matters like general working conditions, salaries, and benefits, yet the police unions remain virtually immune to discipline and accountability. Police unions are grossly hypocritical in that they loudly state that they are open to reform while fighting every measure that is introduced to protect the people that they are meant to serve. Police unions in Massachusetts staunchly oppose the implementation of body cameras, leaving us to wonder, if they’re doing their job, what do they have to hide? The executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, James Pasco, said, “Their work is constantly scrutinized to a higher degree. You very seldom see any phone-cam indictments of trash collectors or utility workers” (Chicago Tribune
2017). But no other unions protect workers that are so regularly executing acts of violence, brutality, and corruption.
Police and their unions have a long history of twisting seemingly progressive legislation to benefit themselves rather than communities that have been historically marginalized, harassed, and attacked by those in law enforcement. When Massachusetts legalized marijuana, which could have potentially restored wealth to Black and brown communities, police required marijuana operators to hire a police detail at 3% of each company’s annual revenue, despite how jarring the presence of armed officers can be to cannabis consumers, particularly those in marginalized communities.
Police unions also have a history of not only endorsing (overwhelmingly Republican) political candidates, but also retaliating against those who oppose them, including politicians. “We know the right-wing has infiltrated law enforcement and the military extensively over the past 25 years minimally” (Dhoruba Bin Wahad
). Steve Fletcher
, a Minneapolis city councilman and critic of the police department, reported that police stopped responding as quickly to 911 calls placed by his constituents after he sought to divert money away from hiring more police officers, saying, “When they came, they said, ‘We would love to help you, but talk to your Council member about why we didn’t have more officers on this shift.” When Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City tried to advance reform proposals, the head of the sergeant’s union in New York shared a police report on Twitter revealing personal information about Mayor de Blasio’s daughter, who was arrested during a protest in the summer of 2020 (New York Times
, 2020). The police are supposed to be “protecting” our communities - how can they do so when it has become so clear the emphasis is on preserving colonial capitalism and not keeping lives, specifically Black lives, safe?
“Virtually all of the published items that express an opinion on the impact of police unions regard them as having a negative effect, particularly on innovation, accountability, and police — community relations.”
Samuel Walker, The neglect of police unions: exploring one of the most important areas of American policing
Unions embolden officers to see themselves as untouchable.
In law enforcement, unionization has increased the likelihood of excessive-force complaints, civilian killing, primarily of those who are not white, and lengthy appeal processes, making it almost impossible to permanently fire police officers. A high percentage of police officers fired for misconduct are rehired after union supported appeals processes, with 45 percent of the officers fired from 2006 to 2017 rehired on appeal, 62 percent in Philadelphia, and 70 percent in San Antonio. In Boston, the department fired only four officers between 2017 and 2020, and three of them got their jobs back either through arbitration or hearings at the state Civil Service Commission (Washington Post, 2017).
Most reinstated officers are awarded back pay for their time away from the police force, which can stretch back several years. This sets the precedent that mistakes or blatant violence will be rewarded, and there is little to no room for consequences and reprimanding. We’ve seen this time and time again where police handle weaponry out of turn and/or mistake Black bodies for criminals when they are simply going about their daily lives—sleeping in their beds or cars, entering their own homes, or playing outside.
Boston, as well as many other cities, gives police officers and their unions significant authority in choosing the arbitrator that will hear a case on appeal. If an arbitrator finds that the penalty imposed on an officer is tougher than it was in a similar previous situation, the disciplinary action is often overturned. This cycle allows for the nonexistence of penalty within police departments. In June 2020, Minneapolis police Chief Arradondo said, on being unable to fire an officer for misconduct, “There is nothing more debilitating to a chief, from an employment matter perspective.” The misconduct is often undisputed, but arbitrators are able to overturn disciplinary actions because the departments had been too harsh, missed deadlines, lacked sufficient evidence, or failed to interview witnesses. This dereliction of duty is intentional in order to uphold police as the image of untouchable in a world that codifies disregard for Black life. In order to properly understand how this impacts Black communities uniquely, we can apply the critical framework of Afropessimism as explained in our previous newsletter. When an officer was fired in 2015, after being caught on video, for attacking a shoe store employee, he was reinstated because an arbitrator concluded that the D.C. police had missed the deadline to take disciplinary action by seven days. “It’s the frustrating part of my job. Most of the people we terminate [it] is clearly for good reason,” said Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans, who has rehired four previously fired officers. What constitutes good reason when Black people are being unduly harassed, traumatized and shot dead with impunity.
The reinstatement of fired officers is difficult to track as there is no national database. All 50 states and D.C. allow police departments to withhold records that they deem investigatory. In 35 states, police misconduct records are exempt entirely from disclosure, while in Massachusetts, law enforcement misconduct records were just opened in December of 2020. Still, police unions require most departments to erase disciplinary records, in some cases after only six months. Important to note is when an officer is actually fired for cause, they are often hired in different police precincts. “There can be a band-of-brothers ethos among police officers, where they feel that they are duty bound to unconditionally support each other” (Washington Post 2020). In addition to this abhorrent employment practice, it demonstrates a complete disconnect between policing and the needs of the community they are meant to serve.
While Black and brown communities pay for police misconduct with their lives, police unions are devouring funding that could be better allocated to anything else—education, healthcare, housing, community resources, and more. In Boston, the police union negotiated a 25% pay raise over 6 years in 2013 and another 29% pay raise over 6 years in 2016. In 2018, 46 troopers who primarily patrolled the Mass. Pike were implicated in an overtime fraud scandal. Eight of those troopers are paying restitution but were never criminally charged and therefore are still entitled to their pensions, about $80,000 a year for the rest of their lives. In 2021, five members of the Boston Police Department were also implicated in an overtime fraud scandal, with thirteen current or former officers collecting more than $270,000 in fraudulent overtime pay over a five-year period. This includes former president of the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, Thomas Nee, who was replaced by Patrick M. Rose, who was “already charged with raping a young relative now faces 16 new charges and accusations that he sexually assaulted and abused four more children” (NBC Boston 2020). The Boston Police Department was aware of the sexual assault allegations against Rose, but rather than investigate, they kept him on the force for another two decades and allowed him to have contact with young victims of sexual assault (WBUR 2021).
As we unpacked in a previous newsletter, police budgets are notoriously under-monitored. The Boston police spent $627,000 on a cell site simulator known as a stingray that secretly obtains locations and other potentially identifying information from cell phones and can pinpoint someone’s location down to a particular room of a hotel or house. Because the stingray equipment was purchased with civil forfeiture funds (money that is typically taken during drug investigations even if no criminal charges are brought), it wasn’t a part of the budget, and the Boston Police Department was able to circumvent city council to purchase invasive spy technology with hidden money.
So where do we go from here?
Angela Davis says, “We knew that the role of the police was to protect white supremacy.” Police and their unions have historically not aligned with their mission to protect and serve anyone other than their own. If reforming police unions has proven inconsequential, the next logical step would be to abolish police unions. But abolition of police unions alone would not prevent police officers from forming organizations that advocate for avoiding accountability, spreading colonial capitalism, spewing racist propaganda or promoting white supremacy.
The safest communities don’t have the most cops, they have the most resources. What would it mean to find community alternatives to policing? What would our communities look like if we instead funded better living conditions, healthcare (including mental health) and clean energy? We must turn to the people, the advocacy of alternatives ought to come from us.
The Kerner report reveals that poverty breeds crime, so a logical solution could be for the people to advocate for things such as a living wage and better education (Kerner Report 1968).
Decriminalizing all nonviolent crimes, What is considered criminal is something too often debated only in critical criminology seminars, and too rarely in the mainstream (Vox 2020).
Try Restorative, “reparative or transformative justice, these models represent an alternative to courts and jails.” “Unarmed but trained people, often formerly violent offenders themselves, patrolling their neighborhoods curb violence right where it starts” (Vox 2020).
Direct democracy at the community level is about “giving people a sense of purpose. Communities that have tools to engage with each other about problems and disputes don’t have to consider what to do after anti-social behaviors are exhibited in the first place. A more healthy political culture where people feel more involved is a powerful building block to a less violent world” (Vox 2020).
“There are plenty of models out there of how we could transfer these responsibilities to non-police personnel and, in doing so, make the use of lethal force far rarer. The question is: Are we willing to give them a try?” (Vox 2020). There is power in the people, we must educate ourselves, unite and act.