Let us begin with a small thought experiment. Imagine the typical situation of a high school in a coming-of-age movie or TV show. There are the bullies, who, in addition to tormenting those perceived to be weaker in general, have a special taste for targeting racial minorities, girls, and queer people. Then there are the nerds, the queer students, the racial minority students, the “loser” types, and so on. Imagine that in a sudden flurry of activities, various groups decide to organize caucuses and clubs: the nerds want to have better libraries and resources and organize a book club for this purpose and present demands to the school administration; girls and queer people fed up with sexism at school decide to form a caucus to change the culture of the school; racial minority students decide to organize in order to protect themselves from racial discrimination and challenge racist programs at school.
Then imagine that the bullies, too, decide to come together and to form a “Bullies’ Union”: like everybody else, they claim that they too have the right to organize to protect their interests—for example, from retaliation from the administration or from other students after one of their bullying actions. Moreover, imagine that they reach out to the other caucuses, collectives, and groups, claiming that, indeed, they would like to be charter members in a federation with them, given that, after all, they are all students and share the same social condition.
Does this sound absurd enough? Yet, this thought experiment is not so far from the reality of what a police union is: a union of bullies who come together in order to continue their bullying undisturbed. In case of doubts about an all too easy equivalence between police officers and bullies, it may help to have a look at what your average police officer thinks about matters such as accountability, racism, and, yes, Trump.
In my thought experiment, the high school caucuses and collectives would recognize that it is not in their interest to federate with the Bullies’ Union. They would tell them to get lost and probably would prepare for self-defense in case the Bullies’ Union decided to take action. But reality is often more absurd than thought experiments based on rational interest oriented choices. It so happened, then, that in 1979 the International Union of Police Associations, which represents over 100,000 law enforcement employees and emergency medical personnel, chartered with the largest union federation in the United States, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). They are still there, for the AFL-CIO has so far refused to expel them, in spite of repeated requests, including from its rank-and-file members—especially following the Black Lives Matter movement of 2014-2015.
But confusion about this matter does not concern organized labor alone. During Occupy, many were tempted to include policemen among the 99%, and so we heard chants addressed to policemen to invite them to join the struggle against the 1%: the same policemen who were routinely brutalizing Black and Brown people during stop-and-frisk programs, and who would soon start beating and evicting occupiers across the country.
Less than three years ago, Danny Fetonte, a staffer of Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas from 2009–2014, was elected to the DSA National Political Committee (NPC). When racialized activists within the organization got hold of information about Fetonte’s past involvement with law enforcement, which he had not disclosed prior to his election, they reasonably demanded Fetonte be removed from the NPC. This should have been a no-brainer, for as these activists also discovered, “Fetonte had a direct hand in building police association power which was used by killer cops to cover for their actions. Fetonte organized the Bexar County Sheriff Deputies and successfully bargained a contract that included terms allowing officers under investigation to see all evidence before making a statement. Officers in the department Fetonte organized used that contract he negotiated to view all evidence against them after they shot and killed a man. They then made statements which omitted the fact that the man they shot had his hands up.” Yet, the majority of the NPC repeatedly refused to take this action, the purported rationale being that the DSA support unions and that police unions can be a democratizing tool against police brutality.
At the basis of these kinds of positions lies a fundamental analytical mistake: policemen and their union staffers are not “workers in uniform,” but part and parcel of the repressive state apparatus. The fundamental role of the police is the protection of property relations, a key function of the capitalist state: this role is freely chosen by policemen and, as a rule, it is chosen as a profession for life. Becoming a cop is usually not an expedient, determined by necessity, to have access, for example, to higher education or healthcare benefits; rather, it is a commitment to a profession. Whether one is already a bully before joining law enforcement is often irrelevant, for becoming a bully is the profession’s requirement: those who end up refusing this role are usually pushed out of the police force altogether. And so, the fact that cops live on wages—just as Amazon employees do—does not have any impact whatsoever on the social and political role they objectively play. For all our illusions to the contrary, they are not Amazon employees.
Besides this rather obvious point, there is also overwhelming empirical evidence concerning the absolutely negative role played by cop unions in stopping any attempt at even mild reform and in making police departments unaccountable. Based on data from 2016, there are around 18,000 police agencies across the country, which employ more than 1.1 million people, 750,000 of whom are sworn officers. In a country where only 12% of the workforce is unionized, police officers have one of the highest unionization rates, in line with the unionization rate of public employees. In addition to ILPA, for example, there is the Fraternal Order of Police, with 340,000 members (which endorsed Trump in 2016), the National Association of Police Organizations, and then a myriad of locals and associations at city level. On a formal level, cop unions understand their role as equivalent to the role of labor unions: protecting the interests of their members from the management and from hierarchical excesses within the police administration. But given the particular social and political role of police in the repressive state apparatus, this unavoidably translates into protecting police officers from accountability, hence, enabling them to kill and brutalize at will. This is the case, again, because policemen are not workers: receiving a wage is a grossly insufficient marker of class belonging.
Police union contracts tend to contain a number of provisions that make transparency and accountability a mirage: provisions that slow down misconduct investigations, prevent public access to complaints and disciplinary records, offer special procedural protections for officers during interrogations, restrictions on which complaints will be investigated, limit civilian oversight, and so on. As recently documented by the New York Times, moreover, cop unions have actively and successfully lobbied lawmakers to stop or slow down proposed legislation and concrete actions for police reform, even though most of these proposed reforms were rather mild and a matter of cosmetics more than substance.
What this means concretely can be better expressed through numbers. Between 2005 and 2015, only 110 law enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting, and only five were convicted of murder, in spite of the fact that around 1,000 people are fatally shot by police annually. Of these, only forty-two officers were convicted, while fifty were acquitted and 18 cases are still pending.
Following Ferguson in 2014, police unions in many cities, from NYC to Chicago, issued public statements in defence of police officers accused of police brutality. They also criticized the adoption of body cameras promoted by Obama, which, by the way, turned out to be worse than useless. They did not react that differently to the social uprising following the horrifying murder of George Floyd. And yet, Chauvin the Strangler is a poster child for the kind of policeman this corporatist self-defense produces. He had already been cited several times for use of excessive force and had been involved in two other police shootings (including the shooting a Black woman in 2008), but without paying any consequence whatsoever. How surprising is it that he ended up killing George Floyd in cold blood in front of the cameras?
As argued by Tim Kelly in an article in the New Republic, the AFL-CIO should immediately expel ILPA, and we should demand the abolition of cop unions as part of the process toward police abolition. And, at the very least, let’s immediately stop calling them “unions”: they are no better than mafioso gangs, protecting their own at the expense of everybody else.
This piece was originally printed in Spectre 2020