How Police Unions Fight Reform

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tags: labor, Police, urban history


The Police Benevolent Association of New York City, which represents rank-and-file officers in the N.Y.P.D., is the largest municipal police union in the country, with twenty-four thousand dues-paying members. When the P.B.A. was founded, in the eighteen-nineties, it was a feeble thing, dedicated to raising money for the widows of fallen officers. The job was brutal then. Officers were badly paid, untrained, overworked—and thrown out of their jobs every time political power changed hands. They could plead for a living wage or an eight-hour day, but the rising labor movement wanted nothing to do with them. Cops were strikebreakers or worse; the first unionists killed in the American labor struggle, in 1850, were tailors clubbed to death by the New York police, at Ninth Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street.

After the First World War, the American Federation of Labor began issuing charters to police locals—in Cincinnati, St. Paul, Boston, Los Angeles. Management was horrified. Police were not ordinary workers, the argument went; they were more akin to soldiers or sailors, and unions would divide their loyalties, undermining the chain of command. The Boston Police Strike of 1919, when the nascent union demanded recognition from the city, forced a reckoning. There was extensive looting and reported rape; eight people were killed by the state militia. President Woodrow Wilson called the strike “a crime against civilization,” and most of the city’s policemen were fired. The fledgling unions in other cities were destroyed, and the cause of police unionization was set back for generations. It didn’t help that, in 1937, Chicago cops fired on striking steelworkers and their families, killing ten.

In the early sixties, white racial anxiety helped strengthen the unions’ position. The civil-rights movement was gathering force, street crime was increasing, and white flight was transforming cities. Public-sector unions were also flourishing. In New York, the teachers’ union secured the right to collective bargaining in 1961—a major victory. The city’s police were next. In 1963, Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr., a progressive, signed an executive order granting them collective-bargaining rights. Other cities followed, and police unions were eventually accepted in much of the country.

The N.Y.C.P.B.A. reassured politicians by promising not to strike or to affiliate with any other union, but it quickly asserted its power in other ways. The next mayor, John Lindsay, a Kennedyesque Republican, came into office vowing to establish a strong civilian complaint-review board, to provide police oversight. The P.B.A. mounted an overwhelming campaign against the plan. One poster showed a young middle-class white woman emerging from the subway onto a darkened street, looking frightened, with an accompanying text that read, “The Civilian Review Board must be stopped! Her life . . . your life . . . may depend on it.” A TV commercial surveyed damage from rioting in Harlem in 1964, with a voice-over intoning, “The police were so careful to avoid accusations that they were virtually powerless.” The P.B.A. leadership was, if anything, blunter. The president, John Cassese, said, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” In a citywide referendum, Lindsay’s side was defeated, by a margin of nearly two to one, and New York’s mayors have been on notice ever since.

In the city’s large, and largely segregated, Black community, police brutality had been a first-order issue for decades. The 1964 riots had been sparked when an off-duty policeman killed a fifteen-year-old Black student, James Powell. Activists, led by the N.A.A.C.P. and by Black newspapers such as the Amsterdam News, had been calling for more police accountability since at least the twenties, and for civilian oversight since the forties. Another frequent demand was for the hiring of more Black officers. One of the less-remembered lines in Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s soaring speech at the March on Washington, in 1963: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”


Read entire article at The New Yorker

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