Police Unions

Hi friends,

We have missed you! Sorry we are so late with this (this email has been in our drafts for 3.5 weeks now but life is chaotic and what can you do?) So it goes – the past month has been all over the place but that doesn’t change our commitment to showing up here. When we were scheduled to send this email(the first week of May), it was our absolutely wonderful intern, Hayden’s 21st birthday. Happy belated birthday to our girl! Hayden runs our social media, helps set up and facilitate speakers and dialogues, and generally contributes SO much knowledge to this team! We are so thankful to have her around!!!

Before we get started, we have some announcements. First of all,


Next Sunday, June 6 at 7PM EST / 5PM MDT, we will be having a conversation with the leadership at Abolition Apostles and Notes from the Village. Both groups support incarcerated folks through penpalling, commissary support, and reentry support upon release. If you have ever considered how to be a better accomplice to incarcerated folks and their families, we strongly urge you to come!

Access Next Sunday’s Meeting Here

Meeting ID: 953 989 3647

We will be sending a mass incarceration primer + reminder email next Friday, June 4. If you have ever seen Emily’s instagram stories or had a conversation with her about her penpals who are incarcerated, you know how powerful and really just wonderful these relationships can be. Even if you’re not sure you can commit to penpalling yet, you do NOT want to miss out on this conversation. We will be donating all summer’s Patreon money (May, June, July, and August) to Abolition Apostles as they build a hospitality house for the loved ones of people incarcerated at Angola Prison in Louisiana. 


We wanted to announce that we’ll be (clearly) slower to send this summer’s emails. Our only gathering this summer will be next Sunday (sorry team, but also that doesn’t mean we’re done here). Emily is studying for the bar exam and every time she sits down at her computer she is awash with “I should be studying” guilt and Ellie is taking on the Colorado trail in a few short weeks! We’ll be back with our regularly scheduled programming in the fall but until then, we’ll send mini-roundups instead of research-heavy newsletters. We’ll still be available by email and would love for our lack of summer dialogues to propel you to engage in your own dialogues with loved ones. 


This week, we’re talking about police unions and their role in allowing police brutality (and everyday cruelty at the hands of officers) to go unchecked. Over the past few years of more widespread confrontations of police brutality, police unions have repeatedly emerged as significant roadblocks to change. It seems like a feedback loop – the greater (and less niche) the political pressure, the more police union leaders hold their foot on the gas and disallow change. Per NYT, police unions “aggressively protect the rights of members accused of misconduct, often in arbitration hearings that they have battled to keep behind closed doors. And they have also been remarkably effective at fending off broader change, using their political clout and influence to derail efforts to increase accountability.”

Police unions are the internal ‘copaganda’ unit of the force: they present protestors as terrorists* and officers as thankless soldiers. 

*The union chief who tweeted that letter linked above has been the subject of at least 29 complaints. Do with that information what you will.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois, posited that many police officers see themselves as “authority figures who equate compromise with weakness.” “A major role for police unions is basically as an insurance policy,” says Dale Belman, a labor relations professor at Michigan State University who has consulted for police unions. “The feeling of a lot of officers is that it’s very easy to sacrifice them. Something goes wrong and boom.”


In the 1950s through the 1970s, police officers, especially in the Northeastern U.S., tended to be working-class “white ethnic” conservatives: mostly Irish, but occasionally Italian or Polish. According to Aaron Bekemeyer, a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard whose dissertation documents the emergence of police unions in Philadelphia and nationally, “it’s a broader white ethnic politics that uses the language of tradition, neighborhood integrity, hard work, etc., to defend segregated institutions that they benefit from, from schools to certain union jobs in the trade to religious institutions.” These themes are common in white circles nationwide (anyone who has ever had a conversation with an older relative about the value of “hard work” in defense of a billionaire and the “undeservedness” of minimum wage workers knows this intimately), but Bekemeyer’s case study of Philadelphia is instructive, in no small part because of the influence of Frank Rizzo, who served as Philadelphia police commissioner from 1968 to 1971 and mayor from 1972 to 1980.

Rizzo made his fame by being pretty much as publicly racist as anyone could be at that time (we try not to buy into the whole “degrees of racism” perspective but this feels… not just systemic). During his 1978 reelection bid, he urged supporters to “Vote White”; he ran on an anti-integration platform, fighting efforts to desegregate Philadelphia schools and build public housing in white neighborhoods. In a deposition, he stated he “considered public housing to be the same as Black housing in that most tenants of public housing are Black. Mayor Rizzo therefore felt that there should not be any public housing placed in White neighborhoods because people in White neighborhoods did not want Black people moving in with them.”

This attitude was only emboldened by Rizzo’s governance over the police. He prided himself in his particular cruelty toward protestors, once famously declaring that his treatment of (Black) protestors would “make Attila the Hun look like a [slur used toward gay people].” His track record includes ordering a raid on Black Panther headquarters in which suspects were publicly stripped in front of photographers and ordering police to beat stationary protesters with nightsticks. To say he was needlessly inhumane would be the understatement of the year.

Rizzo became well known not just for his blatant rhetoric, but for the way he appealed to white ethnic conservatism (we usually like to note that whiteness isn’t itself an ethnicity, but a power construct. However, in cases of white nationalism, there is certainly something to be said about a collective cultural identity in whiteness. Think: J*e R*gan’s (a man who gets paid millions of dollars to produce three-hour tirades about whatever’s got his goat today) comment about “silencing white men.” There is something to be said about the way that the risk of “silencing white men” has become a rallying cry for those who want to believe they are being oppressed, when the opposite is true).

This appeal to preserving whiteness and “white interests” was heavily supported by police unions, eager to back up police acts of violence against protestors and Black panthers alike with political representation. Police unions became Rizzo’s strongest allies, paving the way for their present-tense support of officers, especially when they’re behaving in ways that are blatantly racist.  And Rizzo’s rhetoric is anything but uncommon in police facebook groupsprivate conversations, and treatment of those they encounter today. This is, in no small part, because police are trained to believe that their role is to act as a barrier between “civilians” and “chaos”: the problem being, who will the officers see as worthy of protection? What obscene behavior will police unions defend? 


It should come as no surprise to our readers that the International Union of Police Associations endorsed Trump for president in late 2015. When they did so, they specifically cited as a root cause what they viewed as the Democratic presidential candidate’s “slander” of Darren Wilson, the white officer who in 2014 shot and killed 18-year-old Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. This endorsement (coupled by the 2020 election’s endorsements by the Police Benevolent Association, who by and large represents the NYPD, the Fraternal Order of Police, and many, many others).

This is, in no small part, in explicit accordance with police unions’ history of conservatism and their immediate defense of pretty much any and every officer who has killed or wounded an unarmed civilian, particularly Black and Latino civilians. On a more local level, this attitude of complete defense of officers involved in civilian death or injury has meant police unions making public statements in support of officers who have killed, police unions providing paid leave on the off chance that an officer was disciplined at all, and even paying for the officer’s defense team in the few cases where officers have actually gone to trial. 

In some cases, police unions will encourage “slowdowns,” “pullbacks,” and “depolicing” in areas where unions perceive “disrespect” toward officers, often as a result of an officer being fired after they kill a civilian. It is worth noting that many times in areas where police slow down their usual activities (particularly “stop and frisk” activities), crime has actually fallen.

There is some evidence that police unions can intensify use of force problems. According to a study from the University of Chicago Law School’s Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard McAdams, and John Rappaport, collective bargaining itself caused a rise in misconduct, perhaps by making sheriff’s deputies feel like they could get away with it. The study examined how police misconduct cases increased after a 2003 ordinance gave collective bargaining power to sheriff’s deputies in Florida, using unaffected departments as a control group.  Another study, made more available through NPR’s Planet Money podcast, “used the varying times at which different states rolled out collective bargaining rights to police unions starting in the late 1950s to see if introducing police unions made a difference in police killings.” According to one of the economists behind the study:

“We found that after officers gained access to collective bargaining rights that there was a substantial increase in killings of civilians — 0.026 to 0.029 additional civilians are killed in each county in each year, of whom the overwhelming majority are nonwhite. That’s about 60 to 70 per year civilians killed by the police in an era historically where there were a lot fewer police shootings. So that’s a humongous increase.” (See: Vox & Planet Money)


Unlike other labor unions, police unions’ collective bargaining agreements affect more than just their own workplace. These provisions, built into federal, state, and local police forces and governance, make it difficult to prosecute (or even internally discipline) officers after bad behavior. Most of these collective bargaining agreements include unnecessarily lengthy appeals processes for officers accused of misconduct, tied to a “stunningly high percentage” of officers that were fired for misconduct being rehired within the same force, and even to work the same beat.

One such study found that many police departments “offered officers four layers of appellate review in disciplinary cases. This review was usually followed by another appeal to a third-party arbitrator — more than half of the departments studied even allowed the accused officer input in selecting who that arbitrator was.”

Another study of police union contracts found that 88 percent “contained at least one provision that could thwart legitimate discipline.” These provisions included limiting “officer interrogations after alleged misconduct,” mandating “the destruction of disciplinary records,” banning “civilian oversight,” preventing “anonymous civilian complaints,” and limiting “the length of internal investigations.”

Limiting questioning, wiping records clean, allowing people accused of *literally killing civilians* to determine who will oversee their cases, not allowing anonymous tips and limiting the time for investigation… if used on anyone BUT people in positions of power, any one of these would cause reverberations of complaint from police officers, prosecutors, and undoubtedly, the public.

(Thank you Police Union Facts for this helpful explanation) 


Though the terms used to describe police unions are virtually the same as any other labor union, it’s important to understand where police unions fall in the context of other national and international labor movements. Put simply: police officers possess a power that no other profession holds: the power to use force (and to do it with unbridled impunity).

Since the dawn of the labor movement, police have been on the wrong side of the generations-old struggle between workers and employers. Police simply do not side with other members of the working class, rather, historically, police have used their authority to protect businesses and private property, enforcing laws viewed by many as anti-union (and thus, anti-worker).

From breaking up marches and picket lines to dispersing union gatherings, police have repeatedly been on the anti-worker side of the frontlines, using violence and mass arrests to dismantle efforts for workers rights. This strain goes back to the mid 19th century and the dawn of the labor movement: workers “formed unions to fight for wage increases, reduced working hours and humane working conditions” and police were dispatched by the employers the workers organized against, as  foot soldiers defending the status quo.

While collective bargaining agreements and arbitration exist in other occupations where unions exist, there is a meaningful difference between advocating for safe working conditions and advocating for the ability to harm others under the color of the law without risk of consequences. Police unions are different from labor unions because policing is unlike any other profession: when the existence of your job is predicated upon being able to use force against civilians, you aren’t simply a “worker” in need of protection, but someone from whom civilians may, at times, need protection themselves. There is something uniquely troubling about police unions and their perpetual defensiveness of their members, in part because no other union has this measure of unparalleled and unchecked power (and in part because no other union ensures that its members will not be fired for killing a person while on the job. Seriously this is so bananas I cannot believe we even have to spell this out because I cannot believe that police unions allow such impunity).  



With our accidental almost 4 (!!!) weeks off, we wanted to share a few other things we have loved in our absence

  • This article by Clint Smith III about the myth of the Confederacy and why it persists (we are also sooo excited for his new book, How the Word Is Passed which you can preorder here)
  • Speaking of Clint Smith III, he will be teaching Crash Course in Black American History
  • We just started listening to a new podcast, Seizing Freedom, about how Black Americans risked their lives to free themselves from enslavement (and uprooting so many of the myths we’ve been taught about the Civil War). 
  • And this Medium piece by Oyalemi Olurin, a public defender based in NYC, about centering the people most affected by harms when we advocate for them.
  • Emily just started watching Netflix’s High on the Hog last night and… just wow. We could have a dialogue after every single episode. Just phenomenal.

Again, we apologize for this forever delay. Personal life sometimes comes at you fast! We are thankful for your support, your check-ins the past few weeks, and your patience with us as we walk into ONE YEAR (!!!) of Unlearning Racism together.

In solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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