Police unions are enemies of reform. It's time we take them head on.

  • The nation's largest police union used a two-year-old boy — whose mother had just been violently thrown to the ground by Philadelphia police after breaking her car's windows — as a prop in a social media post.
  • Under a "Blue Lives Matter" banner, police unions demand hate crime protections while rolling their eyes at "systemic racism" or a pervasive culture of police acting like troops occupying a hostile nation.
  • During the months of protests over racism and police brutality, talk of "defunding the police" distracted the national conversation from more practical, broadly popular reforms. Meanwhile, police unions all over the country quietly snuffed out attempts at minor, incremental reforms.
  • Police unions are their industry's grievance lobbyists. We need to demand local lawmakers in both parties get some courage and take them on. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The nation's largest police union used a two-year-old boy — whose mother had just been violently thrown to the ground by Philadelphia police after breaking her car's windows — as a prop in a social media post. The family's lawyer called the post "propaganda…using racism and fear."

More than five months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, this story out of Philadelphia served as a timely reminder of why police unions remain the greatest impediment to meaningful and lasting criminal justice reform. 

After months of protest, some reforms have been passed, like bans on chokeholds and increased body camera requirements. But all these reforms are opposed by police unions. In New York, police unions are fighting basic efforts at greater transparency regarding officers' disciplinary records. 

Unfortunately, the protests have had little effect on actual policy. And nothing's going to change unless citizens demand that local lawmakers — of both major parties — resist police unions' influence and deflate their political power.

Police beat an innocent woman and then exploited her baby

During a protest following the death of Walter Wallace, Jr., a Black man whose shooting by Philadelphia police was captured on video, a 28-year-old woman made a wrong turn into an area where police were confronting protesters last week. 

As she tried to turn her car around and flee, nightstick-wielding officers surrounded her car and busted up the windows. Then they yanked her and her 16-year-old nephew from the glass-strewn vehicle and threw them both violently to the ground. 

While the woman was bleeding out of her head, another cop took her two-year-old son to "safety." The whole thing was caught on video. (The woman was later released without charges, but she did have to get medical treatment at a hospital.) 

At some point during the fracas, someone snapped a photo of the terrified baby clinging to a concerned-looking female police officer. The National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) — the largest police union in the country — posted the photo with a caption that deserves to be judged in its totality: 

"This child was lost during the violent riots in Philadelphia, wandering around barefoot in an area that was experiencing complete lawlessness. The only thing this Philadelphia police officer cared about in that moment was protecting this child.

We are not your enemy. We are the Thin Blue Line. And we ARE the only thing standing between Order and Anarchy."

The woman's lawyer, Riley H. Ross III, called the post a "lie" and a "blatant attempt to use our clients to peddle propaganda by using racism and fear to force compliance."

Police unions can't fix the problem because they are the problem

While the idea of a union is to protect the interests of workers, police unions have demonstrated a willingness to take this to a level that's decidedly not in the best interests of the public.  

They myopically defend the worst officers, resist any reasonable attempts to increase accountability or curb their ability to act as extralegal enforcers, and ridiculously depict police officers as a besieged minority in need of hate crime legal protections. 

Seriously, that's what Blue Lives Matter is. While rolling eyes at the mere mention of "systemic racism," or the pervasive culture of police in the US acting like they're troops occupying a hostile nation, police unions are their industry's grievance lobbyists.

That's how you get police unions in New York completely fabricating a story about Shake Shack employees allegedly poisoning officers. They need to push the fictions that being a police officer is a uniquely dangerous profession (which it isn't, not even close) and that it's in the public interest if police approach every interaction with civilians with the utmost fear and force. 

A report from the US Conference of Mayors this August said that police unions' political power has led to collective bargaining agreements that curtail independent investigations into alleged police abuse, purge or otherwise obscure disciplinary records, and resist attempts to better train officers in de-escalation tactics. Mayors are telling us flatly: We'd like to help, but the unions have contracts. 

During the months of protests over racism and police brutality, talk of "defunding the police" dominated the national conversation. It quietly failed in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed. 

Meanwhile, police unions all over the country have quietly snuffed out attempts at minor, incremental reforms. And there's an entire industry built on training police in a "warrior" mentality and lobbying for more and more instruments of war in the hands of local police. (A recently surfaced Kentucky State Police training slideshow is literally titled, "The Warrior Mindset," features three Adolf Hitler quotes about using violence as a tool for success, and really needs to be seen to believed.)

Despite the protests and public opinion on the side of reform, the warrior cop industry continues its work unabated.

This is all far less publicized, which is how the police unions like it. They'd prefer us all to flip out over the radical and wholly impractical proposition of "defunding the police," while they dig in their heels behind the scenes. 

It's a shame and a waste of the energies of a massive protest movement that when non-violent, remains overwhelmingly popular. 

The movement to reform police should be conducted with laser-focused efforts to decrease police unions' political power and influence. 

On the state and local level — the only places where real reform can take place — Republicans need to be challenged on their fealty to police and Democrats need to be challenged on their fealty to public sector unions. 

Police unions can't be trusted to reform themselves, and judging by their participation in spreading hoaxes and willingness to use a two-year-old boy to propagate a "compassionate warrior" image, they can't be trusted to even tell you the truth in front of your own two eyes. 

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