R.T. Rybak needed support from the police, or so he thought. In 2001, not long after he won the Democratic primary in Minneapolis’ mayoral race, he met with the local police union in an attempt to earn its support and shore up his public safety bona fides. It worked: Rybak won its endorsement, and the general election two months later.
But when he was up for reelection four years later, the union decided to campaign against him. Police even held an event on a street corner near his home.
The police union, Rybak recalled, was “relentlessly” hammering him over his handling of crime in the city. But then he got 61.5% of the vote.
The killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, has ignited protests against police violence across the country. His death has also drawn renewed scrutiny to police unions from progressive lawmakers and activists who argue that the labor groups improperly shield officers from accountability and wield their power to thwart police reform efforts nationwide.
But Rybak’s initial effort to win support from the local union is also evidence of the power the police have wielded within Democratic politics for decades, and why cities they control have been and still are so slow to adopt meaningful reforms even as they find themselves at the center of protests over police killings.
Although police unions are typically more conservative than other labor groups and often support Republican candidates in municipal elections, their endorsements can still help bend local primaries toward Democrats whose views hew closely to those of the rank and file. Even in cities where their preferred candidates don’t win, police can scare leaders off of the most modest rhetorical criticisms or policy changes that threaten to provoke the slightest confrontation.
And “the most obvious manifestation of political power” unions hold, especially in Democratic cities, is their ability to negotiate disciplinary procedures via collective bargaining, and in some cases score more favorable rules in exchange for concessions on pay, said Stephen Rushin, an assistant professor of law at Loyola University Chicago who studies police accountability.
Rybak said his experience is a lesson for Democrats, who need to get over their fear of the perceived power of police unions — even if it seems counterintuitive to openly position themselves against an organized labor group.
“Police federations are obviously unions, but in an urban election, they’re given way too much credit,” Rybak told HuffPost. “If I was going to run for an office in the city of Minneapolis right now, the very last thing I would do is get an endorsement from the police union.”
“Urban politicians shouldn’t be afraid of them and shouldn’t treat them like a traditional union,” he added.
The police are one of the most trusted institutions in the United States, according to a Gallup poll. And many Americans — especially white Americans — see them as a proxy for public safety writ large, an incredible source of power for the unions that represent officers.
But Democrats have long offered another form of support, unwittingly or otherwise. They have largely bought into the idea that police and public safety are one and the same, setting up a dynamic in which both political parties have a shared agenda on law enforcement that protects the status quo, said Ed Chung, a criminal justice expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
“Regardless of political party, there continues to be a reliance on policing to provide our public safety,” Chung said. “It’s like they’re synonymous with each other: Public safety equals policing. Policing equals public safety. If you’re saying that the police are fully, completely responsible for public safety, you’re not going to go against what police want.”
The image of police as the vanguard of public safety for all Americans has cracked over the last five years, as the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the reality of policing to white Americans who had otherwise ignored it.
Police have reacted with violent crackdowns on protests across the country, and their unions have repeatedly placed blame for the unrest on everyone but themselves. On Monday, Minneapolis police union leader Lt. Bob Kroll issued a statement highlighting Floyd’s criminal history, calling protesters a “terrorist movement” and criticizing Mayor Jacob Frey for firing Chauvin and three other officers who stood by at the scene of Floyd’s killing.
Groups such as Campaign Zero have helped shift the tide against them, too, targeting what the campaign says is the true source of officers’ power: the union contracts that have helped create “a culture of impunity” among American police, as University of Nebraska Omaha professor Sam Walker told The New Yorker in 2016. Rushin, the assistant law professor at Loyola, has found in his research that “police departments’ internal disciplinary procedures, often established through the collective bargaining process, can serve as barriers to officer accountability.”
That organizing has dented the power of police unions. Activists and organizations have won the passage of police accountability referendums in Washington state and in cities like Rochester, New York, with opposition from police proving futile. Progressive prosecutors have won elections with activists’ backing, and more progressive police chiefs have attempted to reform entire city police departments. In Austin, Texas, activists forced their way to the bargaining table during police union contract negotiations. They won provisions that took the city’s police force from a “retrograde contract to one that offers transparency and accountability,” two members of the coalition wrote in The New York Times last year.
This is evidence that police unions aren’t as powerful as many activists say they are, said Ron DeLord, an Austin attorney and former head of the city’s police union who still helps negotiate union contracts.
“The police have become a viable political force, but they’re no more powerful than the NRA, the NAACP or anybody else,” DeLord said. “Having said that, if you go for the last year or two and you look at every referendum on police reform, it passed despite police union opposition. No matter what the union said, the will of the people ― they agreed that they wanted more reform. If the police are so powerful, how come they’ve not defeated a single referendum based on reform?”
Public opinion paints the picture of a political ― and policing ― system out of step with its citizens. The public is split on the protests, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found this week, but 42% of respondents said they believed the charges against Chauvin were appropriate. Nearly half said they believed the charges should be harsher, and just 4% said they believed Chauvin shouldn’t have been charged with a crime. In 2017, 86% of police said more officers were needed on the streets to combat crime, but only a third of Americans agreed. Two-thirds of officers said they saw use of deadly force against Black people as isolated incidents, while 60% of the public, including 54% of white people, said police killings of Black people were a sign of a larger problem, according to Pew Research Center.
Until Black Lives Matter gained traction as a movement, police and their unions were able to run a “public relations operation” that went “completely unopposed,” said Tahir Duckett, a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C. “For 30 years, nobody said anything bad about police except for Black people.”
That’s beginning to change. Still, Duckett said, “the thing that feels most frustrating to me with how this is going in Democratic cities is that without any real reason, they have ceded ideological ground to some of the most reactionary organizations in their communities.”
Rybak’s time as mayor coincided with the post-Sept. 11 recession that hammered local budgets and the Bush administration’s efforts to flood local police departments with the high-tech gear and weapons that came back from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many cities, including those led by Democrats eager to help fight the war on terror on home soil or scared to seem like they weren’t, splurged on the goods and militarized local police.
“That’s one of the many mistakes I’ll own up to,” Rybak said.
But many aren’t so willing. Democratic mayors and governors have continued to plow public money into police budgets even as shortfalls have forced cuts to social services and programs that would address homelessness, fund education, better assist drug users or boost other initiatives that experts say should be part of any policy plan actually focused on public safety.
Democratic fealty to tough-on-crime policies and the party’s reticence to support policing reforms have done them few favors. It’s won them no support from police unions, which have turned sharply to the right since the Obama era. Activists and protesters, meanwhile, have targeted Democrats for not doing enough to address the deep history of segregation and police violence in cities they control ― including Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, where protests erupted this week over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician whom police fatally shot in her home in March.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, is now facing calls to fire the three police officers who killed Taylor while executing a “no knock” warrant in March ― a move that may be complicated by the police union’s contract with the city. (Fischer has suspended the use of such warrants, and on Monday he fired Louisville Metro police Chief Steve Conrad after officers did not turn on body cameras during a shooting that killed David McAtee, a 53-year-old Black man.)
DeLord, the Austin attorney, credited local activists with working with the police union to put new reforms into its contract. He also argued that ensuring due process is all police unions want in such cases, and that police officers shouldn’t be subject to the whims of protesters.
Police officers are not the only party at the negotiating table, DeLord said, and they don’t determine department policies on their own. It’s on politicians and the police chiefs they appoint to draft the laws and policies to which officers should be subject. Many police unions have willingly adopted reforms, he added, but they also want protections for their jobs.
“Does it need constant review? Yes, it does,” DeLord said. But police “want certain procedural due processes. We’re bargaining over whether you should keep your job, and those are based on whether you followed the procedures of the department. And if you did not, you’re subject to discipline.”
But activists and experts have argued that even collectively bargained disciplinary procedures should be far stricter for public employees who have the state’s license to use lethal force against its citizens than they are for other public employees. Nearly one-quarter of the 1,881 police officers fired between 2006 and 2017 were reinstated, a Washington Post investigation found, and Duckett, the civil rights attorney, said police often enjoy more protection from and discretion over their contracts than many other public workers.
Democrats who want police reform don’t have “to bust the union,” Duckett said. “But at least start to actually bargain with them. Why is it that in city after city, you have police contracts that might as well have been written by rank-and-file police themselves? Teachers don’t get to write their own contracts and get them rubber-stamped by Democratic officials. So why are you doing that with the police?”
Ryback, the former Minneapolis mayor, doesn’t believe there are “simple solutions” to the problem of policing. But he said that cooperation between unions and the communities they police is necessary for real reform, and that the onus is on police to make that happen.
“I used to say there are plenty of good cops who just need to speak up. But now I say, you can’t be a good cop unless you do speak up,” Ryback said. “You’re either saying something or you’re part of the problem.”
And though it may not seem like it now, as police continue to crack down on protesters nationwide, the progress that Black Lives Matter and other activist groups have made without much political help suggests that neither police unions nor Democrats will have a choice but to eventually get on board with major overhauls, Duckett said.
“That argument is going to win long term, and it’s going to win one way or another,” he said. “Either the police are going to change enough that they start to become much more tolerable, or they’re eventually going to get defunded.”
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