Black Lives Matter Turns Spotlight On How Police Unions Shield Bad Cops

WASHINGTON ― Two activist groups, Black Lives Matter and the Black Youth Project 100, launched #FreedomNow, a two-day long campaign of nationwide actions designed to highlight the role of police unions in shielding officers who engage in misconduct. The protests, which began Wednesday, took place in Chicago, New York, Washington, Detroit, Durham, North Carolina, and Oakland, California.

Organizers in Chicago led protests at Homan Square, a secretive facility where for at least 11 years, the Chicago Police Department illegally detained and physically abused black and Latino residents.

In Washington, protesters occupied the grounds of the national legislative office of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the country’s most powerful law enforcement union, for 13 hours. Demonstrators blocked street traffic and chained themselves to ladders placed in the building’s front yard. They also flew the red, black and green flag of Pan-Africanism, an ideology that encourages the unity of all people within the African diaspora.

“In the confrontation between Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter, we put our stake in the ground and won’t retreat, but confront the state with our bodies directly. That’s what this moment is about for us,” said Jonathan Lykes, co-chair of the Black Youth Project 100’s D.C. chapter.

The activist groups argue that police unions are impeding efforts to reform law enforcement both nationally and locally. There’s some truth to this. 

When their members are accused of violence, police unions stoutly defend them, sometimes long after the evidence shows they did wrong.

“Police unions are much like police chiefs. When an officer is caught doing a very bad thing, they start to circle the wagons,” Cheryl Dorsey, a retired Los Angeles police sergeant, told VICE News last year.

The police union in Oakland has successfully appealed and reduced punishments in 12 out of 15 recent cases in which officers were investigated for excessive force, while the union in Chicago sued the city to prevent the release of scores of complaints against officers. After 10 D.C. Council members signed a resolution calling for policing reform in the nation’s capital, the local police union pledged to unseat all of them when they face re-election.

On the national level, the Fraternal Order of Police has lobbied against bills that would end the transfer of military equipment, including tanks, to police departments across the country, as well as sought to impede efforts to gather data on deaths in police custody.

“When it comes to the FOP, it is the one entity that we really haven’t made visible within the last three years of the Movement for Black Lives,” Lykes said, using another name for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This is about making visible an institution that often works in the shadows and is often allowed to cover up the accountability process when it comes to police killing black bodies and black lives,” Lykes said. “We’re just trying to shine a light on that picture. We’re trying to do it in a coordinated way.”

Devin Barrington Ward, another member of the Black Youth Project 100 and a former D.C. Council staffer, suggested that even those within the leadership of law enforcement are becoming frustrated with the way union involvement can obstruct officer discipline. He pointed to D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier as an example.

“She has made efforts to get rid of cops that have had very egregious complaints in terms of use of force and misconduct. But their union deals, which are oftentimes brokered by the Fraternal Order of Police, make it so difficult for them to be removed from their post,” Ward said.

Ward claims that Lanier met with local activists to discuss her department’s efforts, although a representative for the chief denied that any such conversation took place.

Not surprisingly, some unions contend the attention from activists is unwarranted.

“Today’s protest was a display of misdirected and misinformed anger that should have been pointed at City Hall ― not the police officers who were on hand to protect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights,” the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of New York City said in a statement released Wednesday.

Ward pushed back, saying that police unions are “not used to having this type of limelight shined on them, so that’s why they’re responding like that.”

While Black Lives Matter activists have mainly focused their attention on protesting elected officials, Ward said the shift to police unions is crucial.

“When we really want to get to the root of the issue, it’s finding out who are the special interest groups and where is the money coming from to push these bad policies,” he said.

Protests continued Thursday, with at least 10 demonstrators arrested nationwide over the two days.

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