Blood on their hands: the racist history of modern police unions

Protest by the New York police union
Protest by the New York police union

Against the background of the black lives matter movement, Flint Taylor takes a look at the racist history of American police "unions".

Submitted by Steven. on July 10, 2017

Outraged by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statements concerning the killing of Eric Garner, Patrick Lynch, the longtime leader of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD’s officers union, recently made the outrageous assertion that the Mayor had “blood on his hands” for the murder of the two NYPD officers.

In Milwaukee this past fall, the Police Association called for, and obtained, a vote of no confidence in MPD Chief Ed Flynn after he fired the officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed African American; subsequently, the union’s leader, Mike Crivello, praised the District Attorney when he announced that he would not bring charges against the officer.

In Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a longtime supporter of racist police torturer Jon Burge, is now seeking to circumvent court orders that preserve and make public the police misconduct files of repeater cops such as Burge, by seeking to enforce a police contract provision that calls for the destruction of the files after seven years.  And in a show of solidarity with the killer of Michael Brown, Chicago’s FOP is soliciting contributions to the Darren Wilson defense fund on its website.

Such reactionary actions by police unions are not new, but are a fundamental component of their history, particularly since they came to prominence in the wake of the civil rights movement. These organizations have played a powerful role in defending the police, no matter how outrageous and racist their actions, and in resisting all manner of police reforms.

New York

In June 1966, New York City Mayor John Lindsay, responding to widespread complaints of police brutality, called for a civilian review board. Five thousand off duty NYPD cops rallied at City Hall in opposition, and the head of the PBA, leading the campaign against civilian review, intoned that “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting. Any review board with civilians on it is detrimental to the operations of the police department.” Invoking the specter of increased crime, the PBA mounted a massive public relations campaign against the measure, and it was defeated in a referendum that year.

In 1975, in response to proposed budget cuts that included police layoffs, the PBA ordered a rampage through the city’s black and Puerto Rican communities, with thousands of off duty cops waving their guns, banging on trash cans, and blowing whistles for several nights until Mayor Abe Beame obtained a restraining order.

Ten years later, after Mayor Ed Koch revived the issue of civilian review in the wake of a white cop killing Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly and mentally ill black woman, the PBA again condemned the idea, staged a work slowdown in response to the attempted prosecution of the officer, Stephen Sullivan, and pressured Koch into reinstating Sullivan even though he had been criminally charged with the killing.

In 1992, when David Dinkins, the first (and only) African-American Mayor of New York City sought to implement a civilian review agency to investigate allegations of police misconduct, the PBA organized another City Hall rally in protest. This time, the crowd of officers numbered 10,000, with PBA members hurtling barricades, jumping on cars, blocking the Brooklyn Bridge and kicking a reporter. Some of the rally’s participants carried signs showing Dinkins with a bushy Afro haircut and swollen lips, with racist slogans, including ones that ridiculed him as a “washroom attendant.”

In the mid-1990s, the independent Mollen Commission, appointed by Mayor Dinkins to investigate police corruption, documented widespread police perjury, brutality, drug dealing and theft in the NYPD, and found that “by advising its members against cooperating with law-enforcement authorities, the P.B.A. often acts as a shelter for and protector of the corrupt cop." These findings were seconded by senior NYPD officials and prosecutors who were quoted by the New York Times as saying that they would continue to “have trouble rooting out substantial numbers of corrupt officers as long as the P.B.A. resists them."

The Times further quoted these officials as complaining that the PBA, “fortified with millions of dollars in annual dues collections . . . is one of the most powerful unions in the city. As an active lobbyist in Albany and as a contributor to political campaigns, the P.B.A. has enormous influence over the department and is typically brought in for consultations before important management decisions are made."

In the Abner Louima case, the PBA’s role extended beyond reactionary advocacy and agitation to active participation in a conspiracy to cover-up the brutal crimes of its members. In 1997, an NYPD officer sexually assaulted Louima in a Precinct Station bathroom by violently shoving a broken broomstick into his rectum. His attacker and three of his police accomplices were charged with criminal civil rights offenses.

Evidence in the criminal proceedings revealed that a PBA official had chaired an early meeting with the implicated officers, one of whom was a PBA delegate, at which they fabricated a false story designed to exonerate one of the conspirators. Even after the officers were convicted, the PBA continued to defend the officers, both publicly and with financial support, and to advocate for them with their fabricated version of events—with none other than Patrick Lynch claiming that “people with a political agenda have fanned the flames of this incident,” leading to an “innocent man  . . . being punished beyond belief.”

More recently, Lynch and the PBA, together with the NYPD sergeants and captains associations, after condemning Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin’s order that sharply limited the NYPD’s discriminatory stop and frisk policies, unsuccessfully sought to appeal her order after Mayor de Blasio made good on his campaign promise not to appeal.

And this past year, confronted with another indefensible case of NYPD violence, PBA President Lynch again went on the offensive. In August, after the medical examiner determined that Eric Garner’s death at the hands of officer Daniel Pantaleo was a homicide by means of a chokehold, Lynch declared that the examiner was “mistaken” in finding that the death was a homicide, and that he had “never seen a document that was more political than that press release by the [medical examiner].”

In a classic case of doubletalk, he further asserted that it was “not a chokehold. It was bringing a person to the ground the way we're trained to do to place him under arrest." He chastised Mayor de Blasio for not “support[ing] New York City police officers unequivocally.”

In December, Lynch praised the Staten Island Grand Jury’s decision not to charge Panteleo, while accusing Garner of resisting arrest, brushing off two police misconduct lawsuits—one for sexual assault during a search— brought against Panteleo and idolizing him as “literally an Eagle Scout,” a “model” cop, and “mature, mature” officer.

And once again, the PBA unleashed a work slowdown in further protest of Mayor de Blasio that lasted several weeks.


In Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents CPD patrol officers, has a similarly notorious history.

Handmaiden to the rioting cops who indiscriminately and brutally beat demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the FOP held a reunion of their 1968 troops in 2009 at the FOP Lodge. They proudly displayed pictures of some of the wanton police brutality on their website and, in an attempt to rewrite history (and the Walker Report's findings of a “police riot”), trumpeted that “the time has come that the Chicago Police be honored and recognized for their contributions to maintaining law and order—and for taking a stand against Anarchy.  … The Democratic National Convention was about to start and the only thing that stood between Marxist street thugs and public order was a thin blue line of dedicated, tough Chicago police officers.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, the FOP, demonstrating its reactionary and racist essence within its own ranks, aligned itself against the forces that were fighting to bring affirmative action to the CPD. The Afro American Patrolman’s League led the battle and was confronted in their legal struggle at every turn by disgruntled white officers and the FOP.

In 1990, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution that declared December 4 “Fred Hampton Day.” On December 4, 1969, Hampton, a dynamic young Black Panther Party leader, was slain in his bed by Chicago police in what, by 1990, had been documented and widely accepted in the African-American community as a politically motivated murder. Surprisingly, Mayor Richard M. Daley did not oppose the resolution. But the FOP most certainly did.

FOP President John Dineen launched a lobbying campaign to repeal the resolution, publicly belittled the BPP’s service programs and slandered Hampton, who was considered to be a martyr by many African Americans and activists, as a person who "dedicated his life to killing the pigs." History repeated itself in 2006 when, after the City Council unanimously voted to rename the block where Hampton was murdered “Chairman Fred Hampton Way,” FOP President Mark Donahue organized the families of slain CPD officers to lobby for its rescission, while publicly voicing his cop membership’s “outrage” and “disbelief” at the decision.

In the early 1990s, the FOP began its campaign— which it continues to pursue to this day—of defending Jon Burge and his fellow police torturers. In November 1991, the emerging evidence of a pattern of police torture by Burge and his cadre of all-too-willing enforcers compelled the City of Chicago to initiate administrative proceedings before the Chicago Police Board in order to fire Burge and two of his co-conspirators for the brutal electric shock torture of Andrew Wilson. Since the city was no longer financing the torturers’ defense, as it had in the civil rights damages case brought by Wilson, the FOP stepped up and gladly assumed responsibility.

The FOP and its spin-off organization, the Burge-O’Hara-Yucaitis Family Fund Committee (BOY), then set out on a campaign that sought not only to raise money for the defense, but also to viciously attack Burge’s victims and the lawyers from the People’s Law Office, (including myself) who had brought much of the damning evidence to light. They falsely accused us of fabricating the evidence of systemic torture and of making millions from exposing the scandal. They also organized a raucous fundraiser at a local union hall where Burge was lionized by thousands of cops and prosecutors.

After a six-week evidentiary hearing, the Police Board fired Burge and suspended one of the other charged officers. Dineen called the decision a “travesty of justice,” and only weeks later the FOP announced that it intended to enter a float honoring Burge and his compatriots in the annual South Side Irish Parade—a parade in which Chicago Mayors and numerous other politicians regularly marched.  The public outrage and cries of racism that followed the FOP’s announcement were swift and strong, and the FOP was forced to withdraw the float.

A few years later a federal judge, quoting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” ordered that a number of police files that documented the systemic nature of the torture “with all its pus flowing ugliness” be released “to the natural medicines of air and light.” The FOP intervened in the suit, seeking to overturn the order, and continued to pursue its battle to suppress the files with an unsuccessful appeal.

In 2008, the FOP again became actively involved in defending Burge after he was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying under oath about whether he tortured African-American suspects. The FOP Board, without putting it to a vote of its membership, pushed through a resolution to pay for Burge’s lawyers in the criminal case.

Defending its decision, FOP President Mark Donahue asserted that Burge, despite the more than 100 documented cases of torture that had been amassed against him over the years, had been unfairly tarnished by allegations from criminals, and that politicians and lawyers for Burge’s victims had fueled a media hysteria which "caused Jon Burge to be the 'poster child' of alleged police torture in this city for an entire generation." Invoking what can be described as the FOP’s unrepentant motto, Donahue vowed that it "will stand with the police officer every time." A group of African-American officers unsuccessfully challenged the decision in Court, stating, “We do not support torture. We do not condone torture. We do not embrace torture. We will never support that type of behavior on the department.”

In 2011, Burge, despite his high-priced FOP-financed defense, was convicted of three felonies and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in federal prison. Nonetheless, the Police Pension Board, which was comprised of four former or present CPD officers and four civilians, voted 4-4 on the question of whether Burge should be stripped of his pension, which he had been receiving since 1997. By law, the tie was resolved in pensioner Burge’s favor.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit, seeking to reverse the decision, and the FOP defended the ruling, with an FOP-financed private lawyer arguing on behalf of Burge. The case was appealed all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which, in a 4-3 decision this past summer, ruled in favor of Burge and the Pension Board.

This appalling history is not limited to New York, Chicago or Milwaukee by any means. Other notable examples include Detroit in the mid-1970s, where the Detroit Police Officers Association challenged police reforms and affirmative action initiatives which sought to stem rampant police brutality against African Americans with a lawsuit; after it lost its case, it orchestrated a police riot.

In Los Angeles in the early 1990s, African-American Mayor Tom Bradley condemned the state court jury verdict which absolved LAPD officers of criminal charges for brutally beating Rodney King, by stating that the verdict “will never blind us to what we saw on that videotape,” and further stated that “the men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.” In response, the L.A. Police Protective League reacted with a vengeance that, according to Police Chief Richard Riordan, lasted for years.

And more recently, in Seattle, the Police Officers’ Guild mounted a verbal attack on then-Mayor Michael McGinn after he stated, in response to the shooting of a Native American word-carver, that the Seattle police force had no place for officers who did not share his commitment to racial justice.   

Whether unions which represent police officers, correctional guards and other law enforcement officers are the same kind of workers’ organizations as other unions, which can potentially be used to further the interests of the working class as a whole, has been vigorously contested by many progressives and leftists over the years. But the disturbing history of these powerful organizations makes it very clear that they mirror and reinforce the most racist, brutal and reactionary elements within the departments they claim to represent and actively encourage the code of silence within those departments. They are far from democratic, with officers of color and women having little or no influence.

In truth, police unions further the-all-too-accurate conception that the police are an occupying force in poor communities of color, and are antithetical in principle and action to the progressive principles of the labor movement.

Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago. He is one of the lawyers for the families of slain Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and together with his law partner Jeffrey Haas was trial counsel in the marathon 1976 civil trial. He has also represented many survivors of Chicago police torture, was involved in the struggle for reparations, and has done battle with the Chicago Police Department—and the Fraternal Order of Police—on numerous occasions over his 45 year career as a people’s lawyer

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