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Why police unions protect the worst cops

Police officers stand guard during protests in New York City.
Police officers stand guard during protests in New York City.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images News

A recent spate of police shootings has shined a new light on the role of police unions — and their generally unflinching support of cops in all circumstances — in public and political discourse.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio experienced some of this first-hand. After de Blasio said he, like many other parents of minority children, told his biracial son to take extra care around police officers, the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association urged its members to ban the mayor from their funerals.

"Don't let them insult your sacrifice," the union's website stated. "Download and sign a request that Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito stay away from your funeral in the event that you are killed in the line of duty."

From the public debate in the media to more secretive lobbying in legislatures, police unions maintain a major role in discussions about America's criminal justice system. The unions tend to view their actions as simply what they're legally required to do, but that might understate the unique impact they have on police departments and public perception.

Police unions are often the most aggressive defenders of their members

This past week, Cleveland's police union pushed back aggressively against a football player who wore a T-shirt protesting recent police shootings that killed African Americans.

During the warm-up for a game on December 14, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a shirt calling for "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford," both of whom police in Ohio shot and killed after mistaking toy guns for real firearms. Protesters, including Hawkins, cited the shootings as examples of racial disparities in the criminal justice system and police use of force.

Cleveland Police Patrolman Union President Jeff Follmer quickly fired back in a statement to local news station NewsNet5, calling Hawkins's actions "pretty pathetic" and demanding an apology from the Browns. After Hawkins refused to apologize, Follmer told MSNBC's Ari Melber that the Rice shooting was "justified."

"I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it," Follmer said. "If you're wrong, you're wrong. If you're right, then the courts will figure it out."

Not all law enforcement officials agreed with Follmer's approach. Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams later said Hawkins "was certainly well within his rights to express his views and no apology is necessary."

But for a union operating outside the police department's desire for positive public relations, defending the officer who shot and killed Rice was a battle worth taking up in every corner of American life — from MSNBC to the football field.

The Cleveland Police Patrolman Union isn't unique in its ardent defense of its members. After five St. Louis Rams players walked on the field making a "hands up, don't shoot" gesture associated with the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis Police Officers Association called on the NFL to discipline the Rams players and apologize for their actions. And when a grand jury decided to not indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold, union officials told CBS News that Garner was complicit in his own death due to his bad health and alleged attempts to resist arrest.

Thomas Nolan, a criminologist at Merrimack College of Massachusetts who previously served as a police union official, said this is standard practice for unions.

"I think police unions are always going to default to the position that the officers are blameless in instances where they use deadly force," Nolan said. "Even though internally unions and union officials might express reservations among themselves, at least publicly the position is always going to be that the officer feared for his life or feared for the life of another person and that his use of deadly force was entirely warranted. That's textbook."

But unions may be stepping up the defense of their members as public attention continues to focus on racial disparities in police use of force.

"Those in the police profession right now feel they are being unfairly characterized," Ed Maguire, a criminal justice professor at American University, said. "Any time you have a group that perceives that they're under threat, … there's a natural tendency to adopt a defensive posture."

The law requires unions to defend all their members

police Ferguson Missouri

Police stand guard in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson / Getty Images News)

Unions are required under the duty of fair representation covered by the National Labor Relations Act and state laws to give the best possible protections, including legal aid and support in job negotiations, to all their members.

"It's our legal responsibility to represent our members," said James Pasco, legislative director of the union Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). "That's our job."

The issue with unions' loud and clear defense of all their members, critics say, is they take it too far — and it's helped build a culture in which police feel they can get away with nearly anything.

Unions play a big role in protecting cops after such shootings, Nolan of Merrimack College said, by paying for officers' legal representation, which can make police much more confident that they'll avoid criminal charges or a conviction. "The better representation you have," he said, "the more likely you are to at least mitigate your legal exposure."

Police unions, in acts that go beyond their legally required duties, also leverage the public's high regard for law enforcement to impede policy changes. Unions have aggressively lobbied against prison sentencing reform and reducing police militarization. And they've been some of the most vocal critics and skeptics of police-worn body cameras that would record officers in the line of duty.

Some criminal justice experts worry unions' power and single-mindedness — and the attention devoted to unions in public discourse — make it more difficult to bring change from within police departments. By going after anyone who dares criticize police officers, unions may stamp out real dissent within the rank and file of police departments.

"[Y]ou may have a group of black police officers who feel very differently than the union does, but those folks don't have bargaining power," Phillip Goff, director of the UCLA's Center for Policing Equity, told Vox's Jenée Desmond-Harris. "They don't have the political power that the official bargaining union does."

But Pasco of FOP said unions are just doing their jobs. "If people have a problem with an individual officer … the union didn't recruit him, didn't hire him, didn't train him, didn't supervise him, and didn't promote him. Management did that," Pasco argued. "All we have done is what we're legally required to do."

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