Unsolicited Advice for a Police Union

Rockwell cops I write this from the perspective of a former public sector union member and officer. I write this without rancor for other public section union members and their officials, but I write this because there is a difficult line to walk between protecting the interests of the membership and drawing lines between the members and the communities they serve.  Once those lines are drawn they are very difficult to erase.

There is always a temptation on the union side of the ledger to focus  on protecting the individual member from disciplinary actions, from demotions, involuntary transfers, dismissals, or refusals to re-employ.  That’s part of the job.  However, some disciplinary actions are both appropriate to the situation and often inevitable. Therefore, the focus of the union representatives is more productive in the long run if the philosophy is to protect the due process rights of the member, and the provisions of the master contract.  Put ever so much more bluntly, there are times when it’s necessary to tell a member, “I’m here to help you offer the best defense you can, if you can dream one up.”  

What is not helpful is to operate on the assumption that every member (or non-member in some instances) is worthy of full throated public support.  Nor is it helpful to assume that criticism of one, or a few, is necessarily criticism and vilification for all.    Yet, that seems to be the standard operation in a few high profile union/community examples.

“The St Louis Police Officers Association claimed that officers found the actions of (St. Louis Rams) Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Tre Mason to be “tasteless, offensive and inflammatory”, and demanded that they be disciplined.

Five of the players emerged for their game against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday with their hands aloft, a gesture used by protesters who claim that Brown was surrendering when he was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson on 9 August. Last week a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.” [Guardian] December 1, 2014

Wouldn’t it be nice if ALL police officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses, aviation employees, letter carriers, and state and municipal employees were respected for the countless hours of service they provide?  If everyone understood that first responder vocations are of paramount importance? If everyone understood that teaching and nursing are high stress occupations with long hours and little overtime?  However, respect doesn’t necessarily indicate adoration, reverence, and exaltation.   Further, demanding veneration means there will be higher standards applied to the members of the organization.  The old line applies: If you want to be respected do your job; if you want to be worshipped you have to do your job perfectly.

Mix a bit of racial tension into this toxic stew and there’s a recipe for unhelpful recrimination.  

“Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, blasted de Blasio for his inflammatory remarks, which followed Wednesday’s decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict cop Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

“What police officers felt yesterday after that press conference was that they were thrown under the bus,” Lynch said.

De Blasio had called the Garner case “profoundly personal for me,” saying that because of “the dangers [Dante] may face, we’ve had to literally train him . . . in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.” [NYPost] December 4, 2015

That a father would have The Talk with his son about interactions with police officers is common in the African American community.  I have yet to meet an African American who hasn’t been followed in a department store at least once, or hasn’t had The Talk with a son, grandson, or nephew.  Yes, The Talk implies a negative perception of the police, but an essential part of The Talk is to show respect for the officer and the directions given.  No one is getting tossed under the wheels of any imaginary bus – this is simply generational wisdom passed along regarding how to cope with some people in authority.  There are also  Talks about how to cope with cranky teachers, or how to behave in a department store.  These same talks are replicated in the white community, although without the sense of urgency and fear.  “Respect your teachers, respect police officers, keep you nose clean and mind your manners.”  Aren’t those things what we want all kids to do?

When the dust settles, let it settle. The outcome of mediation, arbitration, or litigation may not be the desired outcome for the union, but once it’s done it should probably “stay done.”  Such as in the case of the Eric Garner settlement in New York:

“Sergeants Benevolent Association head Ed Mullins, meanwhile, had a different take. In an interview with the NY Post (who else?), Mullins described the settlement as “obscene” and “shameful,” asking the tabloid’s readers, “Where is the justice for New York taxpayers? Where is the consistency in the civil system? In my view, the city has chosen to abandon its fiscal responsibility to all of its citizens and genuflect to the select few who curry favor with the city government.” [Translation: AL SHARPTON AL SHARPTON AL SHARPTON.] [Also: AL SHARPTON.]

“Mr. Garner’s family should not be rewarded simply because he repeatedly chose to break the law and resist arrest,” Mullins concluded. (Police claim Garner had been selling loose cigarettes outside a Staten Island deli when officers approached him.)” [Gothamist]  July 14, 2015

Or, in the case of Tamir Rice’s family in Cleveland:

“The head of the Cleveland rank-and-file police union says the family of 12-year-old Tamir Rice should use money from a $6 million settlement to educate children about the use of look-alike firearms.

Steve Loomis, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association association, was criticized on a national scale for statements he made to the media in the weeks and months after two officers in his union were involved in Tamir’s death.” [Cleveland PDealer] April 25, 2016

When enough has been said, enough has been said.  Until it happens again —

“Four off-duty Minneapolis police officers working the Minnesota Lynx game at Target Center on Saturday night walked off the job after the players held a news conference denouncing racial profiling, then wore Black Lives Matter pregame warm-up jerseys.  Lynx players did not wear T-shirts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement ahead of Tuesday’s game in San Antonio.

“The Lynx organization was made aware about the concerns of the off duty Minneapolis police officers,” the team said in a statement. “While our players message mourned the loss of life due to last week’s shootings, we respect the right of those individual officers to express their own beliefs in their own way. … We continue to urge a constructive discussion about the issues raised by these tragedies.” [MSTrib]

[…]

“Kroll (Minneapolis Police Federation) criticized Lynx players, citing the “false narratives” in the past two years in which some allegations of police misconduct in the killing of black people were refuted. “Rushing to judgment  Police sign up for off-duty jobs to work Lynx games, Kroll said. “They can start or stop a job whenever they want,” he said. “They are working on an independent contract.”

Asked about a report that seven or eight officers had walked off the job, Kroll said, “They only have four officers working the event because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.” [MSTrib]

Here we go again.  Lt. Bob Kroll commends the officers for walking off, and then slathers on a bit of misogyny about the “pathetic draw.”  Putting distance between your union and your community doesn’t serve most positive purposes – in terms of  issues both philosophical and practical.

On a philosophical level, if we assume  there is already a divide between the African American community and the police – how does walking away from a potential opportunity for “constructive discussion” help anyone? What of, “I protect and defend your rights, including freedom of speech, until you say something I find offensive?” From a practical standpoint, the Lynx organization already hires private security; does it help other police officers trying to earn  extra pay if they are perceived as potential ‘walk outs’ should they be in any way offended by players’ statements?   The police chief tried to tamp down the rhetoric:

“Walking off the job and defaulting on their contractual obligation to provide a service to the Lynx does not conform to the expectations held by the public for the uniform these officers wear,” she said. “While I do not condone the actions of the officers, I realize how every member of law enforcement throughout this country, including myself, is feeling right now.” [MSTrib]

Here’s a thought: When the employer is trying to smooth the waters for the union, there’s a possible need to curtail wave making actions.  There are already calls for the privatization of police  [HuffPo] popular in some libertarian quarters, and touted as a ‘solution’ to police/community relations.  If your opponent wants to make a cudgel, refrain from handing him a tree branch.   Or a tree trunk, as in Denver:

“It’s only natural that some police departments reassess how they handle protests after the terrible shootings in Dallas last week that left five officers dead. But the demand by the Denver police union in the wake of the tragedy that local cops wear riot gear during protests was truculent and out of line.

The union has been pushing for the use of riot gear at protests for two years, ever since demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., spread across the country. But the tone adopted by Nick Rogers, president of the Denver Police Protective Association, in a letter to Mayor Michael Hancock and police Chief Robert White, was rude and combative, while some of its factual content was questionable.

Basically, Rogers warned those two officials that if any officer not wearing riot gear is injured during a protest, the union will attempt to hold them personally liable, citing federal court decisions that “officials can be liable for the acts of third parties where those officials ‘created the danger’ that caused the harm.” Presumably he means the union will sue the mayor and chief in an effort to blame them.” [DenverPost]

There’s also something to be said for an employer who is trying to maintain the public image of police as public servants and not an armed militia out to suppress citizens, some of whom are already reluctant to give the police the benefit of the doubt.

Highly publicized emotional comments in highly volatile times, too often made from intransigent positions predicated on “us vs. them,” may garner approval from some quarters but approbation from others.   It’s best to function from the position that there are those who will always be in support no matter what the issue; however, it’s the increasing level of approbation which ought to be of primary concern.  Listening to supporters is always comforting; listening to the adversaries is always necessary.  On a more tangible level one thing the police unions would do well to avoid is the perception (now conveniently applied to public school teachers) that the union will protect the “bad apples.”

The recent devolution of respect for the teaching profession includes the argument that “schools are bad, they are bad because of bad teachers, and unions are bad because they protect those bad teachers.”  That none of this makes any sense isn’t the point. We certainly don’t need for some elements in the political spectrum to start arguing that “policing is bad, it’s bad because of bad officers, and the unions are bad because they protect those bad officers.”  Once this contamination spreads it’s more difficult to resist the privatization proponents.

If the perspective is truly to defend the due process rights of police officers, and to protect the provisions of the master contracts, then it’s much easier to defuse confrontations.  Due process and contractual elements aren’t personal.  Personalizing them adds emotion, emotion reduces discourse, and reduced discourse increases confrontations.  Negotiations are rarely improved by adding confrontation into the milieu. There is, indeed, a time for more collaboration and less conflict.

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