A centerpiece of the national debate about police brutality and racism against black men and the urban poor is on disbanding and defunding the police. But the geyser of headlines about this reform tactic hardly emits a single stream of thought around another reform approach: disbanding the police unions.
That stratagem, focusing on police unions, is significant because its basic concept focuses on the core commitments of a police officer. This seemingly overlooked concept was articulated by Baltimore Police Commissioner Beverly Ober in 1950.
He preached about police officer character, about temperament, about disposition and about indebtedness to society, according to a 1958 book about police unions by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. And, he proclaimed, these characteristics cannot be followed by officers associated with a police union, which doesn’t support those obligations. His memorandum was short and swift: “I will not recognize the existence of any union of members of the police department.”
At the time, many members of the police department had affiliated themselves with the American Federation of Labor. It was a clear violation of department rules and regulations. During Mr. Ober’s tenure, the union grew to more than 1,400 members and became financially strong by assessing dues.
Mr. Ober insisted that officers were not just employees, but officers of the city and state government. They were charged with maintaining public order and administering justice. Union members, he said, were not committed to the public peace. Moreover, insisted Mr. Ober, officers take an oath of office to execute their duties without prejudice. The public relies upon its police force to maintain law and order and to protect life and property. They were the only citizens in the city allowed to carry firearms.
How, he wondered, could officers carry out these duties in the spirit of the law if they were answerable to any other body than the police commissioner? Mr. Ober maintained that it is intolerable for officers to be members of any other organization that may influence or intimidate their conduct and performance.
The same could be said today.
It’s time to change the calculus. Job protection means more than character to police unions. The blame for our dire predicament of police brutality cannot be eliminated by solely disbanding police officers. Their very existence goes against the reform movement, and cohorts of police disbanding miss this point.
These “blue” unions, with names like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBAs) and Fraternal Order of Police (FORs) operate like illicit syndicates, resisting oversight and enforcing collusion among their members. Severe penalties are directed against those who speak out.
Exploring the racial brutality that has caught the public’s ire, we see that the more armed police officers misbehave, the more the unions defend their wrongdoing. Throughout the country, police unions have shown that they are more powerful than city councils and police chiefs by aligning themselves with politicians and corporations.
The International Union of Police Associations has 100,000 members. Some, like Patrick Lynch, head of New York City’s branch since 1999, have held their leadership positions longer than several mayors. When Eric Garner died from a police officer’s chokehold in 2014, screaming, “I can’t breathe!” it catalyzed the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Mr. Lynch’s judgment: “Scapegoating a good and honorable officer, who was doing his job in the manner he was taught, will not heal the wounds this case has caused for our entire city.” Others continue to spurt out disdainful comments, declaring, like Chicago’s FOP president John Catanzara, that he will kick out any police officers who kneel with protesters, or Minneapolis police union John Kroll who called protesters terrorists.
The unions consistently resist civilian insight, community boards, bodycam and chokehold regulations, officer interrogations and records transparency. The fact of the matter is that police unions are a major impediment to the kinds of reforms that society is crying out for to eliminate pervasive racist violence.
Today’s thrust to disband police officers as the remedy is a striking disregard of Beverly Ober’s answer 70 years ago in Baltimore: to hold officers accountable to their obligations without the interruption of police unions.
A more visceral response to the defund police movement comes from labor reporter Hamilton Nolan, writing in the Guardian: “Let’s put police unions on a raft and set them adrift.”
Barry Beckham (email@example.com) is novelist, president of Beckham Publications and member of the Author’s Guild Advisory Board. He lives in Silver Spring.