On May 31, as another night of disruptive protest overtook New York City streets, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, one of the unions representing NYPD officers, posted a photo of an arrest record on Twitter. Derived from an internal police database, the image revealed the protester’s height, weight, address, date of birth, and driver’s license information. It also revealed her name: Chiara de Blasio, the 25-year-old daughter of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “How can the NYPD protect the city of NY from rioting anarchist when the Mayors object throwing daughter is one of them,” the typo-laden caption read. “Now we know why he is forbidding Mounted Units to be mobilized and keeping the NYPD from doing their jobs.” By morning, Twitter had removed the post, which violated its privacy rules, and temporarily suspended the union’s account. But the message to the mayor had been delivered.
De Blasio called the move “unconscionable” and defended his daughter. “I admire that she was out there trying to change something she thought was unjust,” he said. But as protests continued, de Blasio often sided with the NYPD against the movement in the streets, insisting—despite plentiful video evidence to the contrary—that the NYPD was showing “a lot of restraint.” Meanwhile, the SBA president, Edward Mullins, stuck to his guns. “Our police department is being held back,” Mullins told The New York Times. His intended audience was clear: “Is that why you’re tying our hands, because your daughter is out there?” Almost immediately, the city granted Mullins’s wish for a mounted unit, and on June 3, the NYPD deployed officers on horseback to protect “high-risk areas” from looters.
Mullins told me that he hadn’t realized the tweeted image revealed Chiara’s personal data. “In hindsight, I wish I looked at it closer,” he said. “I certainly didn’t mean to cause her any harm.” But he stood by his argument. The mayor had said he didn’t know she was there—“but what’s the real truth?” Mullins asked. “I can tell you where my kids are every day of the week.”
The conflict between de Blasio and the city’s police unions is storied. During two funerals for officers slain in 2014 in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, members of the NYPD dramatically turned away from the mayor while he addressed them. The relationship has been strained ever since. Mullins, who has presided over the SBA for the past 18 years, is known for his bombast; he delights in provoking New York’s liberal political elite. This February, after another pair of officers were shot, he announced on Twitter that the NYPD was “declaring war” on the mayor. In May, he called the city’s health commissioner at the time a “bitch.” He calls himself a “crazy Irish guy.” These antics, he told me, get results. “If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be talking about it, right?”
It may be a new extreme to dox a mayor’s daughter for exercising her First Amendment rights, but the act is consistent with an increasingly aggressive strategy undertaken by police associations across the country to secure their political aims. Police unions deploy ominous social media campaigns to vilify and intimidate reform-minded legislators. They exploit racialized law-and-order rhetoric to polarize the public. And they threaten liberal mayors with widespread civic chaos and destruction if their demands aren’t met. The goal is to preserve the privileges—chiefly, job security and scarce oversight—they have won during decades of agitating and political accommodation. The question is whether, amid widespread popular demonstrations against racist policing, the strategy will continue to work.
In the past few years, activists and scholars have identified police union contracts, which often shield misbehaving cops from accountability, as a key obstacle to reforming police departments. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between the existence of collective bargaining rights and the incidence of violent police misconduct. Disillusioned by the failure of Obama-era reforms to rein in abuse, many leaders of the new push for racial justice are calling to defund the police and abolish their unions altogether. In response, the unions have entered a defense crouch. The present era of protests, Mullins said, has left him feeling besieged from all sides, while politicians allow the fires to burn. “I’ve never felt that way in the time that I’ve been president,” he said. Another police union boss told me the atmosphere feels like “us against them.”
As their public image declines, police unions rely more heavily on fear tactics, singling out their political enemies for ridicule and worse. The SBA’s “abusive behavior” toward politicians such as de Blasio is being replicated all over the country, said Stuart Schrader, a lecturer in sociology at Johns Hopkins University who is writing a book about police as political actors. I’ve spoken with half a dozen pro-reform politicians who have been targeted by police unions in localities across America. Their stories are remarkably similar. All expressed fear for their own safety and the safety of their families. They feel scrutinized by beat cops when they walk the streets and worry their movements are being surveilled. Many said they refrain from calling the police in moments of need, assuming they will not be well served. Greg Casar, an Austin city councilman who recently convinced all nine of his colleagues and the mayor to refuse campaign contributions from the Austin Police Association, said that the implication is clear: “The police department shouldn’t be someone I should rely on to take care of me.”
Union tactics also contribute to an atmosphere of racial menace. Though police departments in many cities have diversified, the ranks of union leaders remain almost uniformly white and male. Police union bosses have variously called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement,” a “lynch mob,” and a “pack of rabid animals.” Last year, Mullins circulated a video to thousands of sergeants that referred to Black people as “monsters” and public housing as a “war zone.” (Mullins later apologized.) Police unions exhibit informal ties to right-wing hate groups whose members often direct more explicit threats of violence to politicians singled out by union leaders. The alt-right Proud Boys, for example, recently attended a “Back the Blue” party at the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge. Right-wing extremist groups actively recruit from the ranks of law enforcement and, as one expert told The Daily Beast, assume an “unofficial brotherhood” with rank-and-file cops.
Though police unions continue to exert influence by traditional means—endorsing candidates, contributing to campaigns, and threatening work stoppages—a sinister edge necessarily attaches itself to their political activities. Even mundane lobbying efforts are inflected by the police’s ever-present authority to use force or refrain from doing so. Aaron Bekemeyer, a graduate student at Harvard who is writing his dissertation on the history of police unions, said that while it’s hard to demonstrate empirically, “people know that police officers have guns, will use guns, do use guns.” The threat is “baked in” to the interaction.
It’s about fear, concurred Megan Green, a St. Louis alderwoman who has been a frequent target of attacks from the local police union. “They try to make an example out of us .... ‘You better not get out of line or we’re going to do to you what we’re doing to them.’” The approach is deliberate, Green believes, and sometimes effective. “These are bully tactics designed to stop us from fighting for change.”
Sabrina Javellana is the vice mayor of Hallandale Beach, Florida, a small city 20 minutes south of Fort Lauderdale. Twenty-two years old, she was elected to the city’s five-person commission in 2018, during her junior year of college. In the past few months, she has become the local police union’s foremost enemy. “They don’t like me, and I fundamentally disagree with their agenda,” she told me. The roots of their conflict stretch back six years, to a SWAT raid on the home of 34-year-old Howard Bowe, who was gunned down within seconds of police knocking down his door. Officers found just 16 grams of cocaine in Bowe’s house and no weapons; Bowe died several days later.
He was the third person shot to death by police in Hallandale Beach—a city of just under 40,000 residents—in five years. An investigation by New Times Broward-Palm Beach found the city’s SWAT team had conducted 33 similar raids in the neighborhood around Bowe’s house, a predominantly Black enclave in a majority white city, none of which resulted in a substantial drug bust. Javellana, who was 16 at the time and watched coverage of the raid on local news, was outraged. But she was not shocked. Javellana had already grown to mistrust the criminal justice system in south Florida. She’d seen police profile friends and throw them “face down on the pavement,” she told me. Her father spent two and half years in jail for a felony conviction that was overturned on appeal. And twice her brother was hauled away in handcuffs for involuntary psychiatric examination—under a controversial Florida law allowing minors to be involuntarily committed for up to 72 hours if a teacher, friend, or police officer suspects they’re mentally unwell. (Javellana says her brother has had depressive episodes, but none as traumatic as the days he spent in a psych ward because of the Baker Act.)
In 2016, a grand jury declined to charge Bowe’s killer, and an internal affairs review cleared him and the other officer under investigation for the raid. “The community never healed from it,” Javellana said. She started attending protests organized by Broward County’s Black Lives Matter Alliance, and in 2018 the city agreed to pay Bowe’s family $425,000 to settle a wrongful death suit. A few months later, with the support of the activist community, Javellana ran for a seat on the city commission. The police union backed her opponent, but Javellana won. Twenty-one years old, she became the only woman of color on the five-person board. At their first meeting, Javellana’s new colleagues elected her vice mayor, a largely symbolic position.
The comity didn’t last. Elevated by the movement, Javellana set about asking questions on police policy: Why had the department stopped issuing citations and resumed making arrests for low quantities of marijuana? What could be done about use-of-force rules? She met fierce opposition. “Our commission meetings are like WWE matches,” she told me. “Personal attacks and shouting and insanity.” Meanwhile, the city was negotiating a new contract with its police department. By May 2020, negotiations had stalled. The police union wanted larger cost-of-living adjustments than the other public-sector unions had assented to. The commissioners, even those who were pro-police, agreed that the city couldn’t afford it. When the nation convulsed in protest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Hallandale’s own demons resurfaced. In early June, Javellana joined a march demanding the city reopen the investigation into Howard Bowe’s death. “We have our own George Floyds and Breonna Taylors in our own city,” Javellana told the local paper. During the march, Javellana kneeled with other marchers. Police Chief Sonia Quiñones took a knee as well.
The image enraged the police union. A day later, the city’s entire SWAT team resigned en masse. Among them were the union president, Sgt. Pietro Roccisano, and five other officers who took part in the raid on Howard Bowe’s house. (The 10 officers kept their jobs on the force; they only resigned their special detail to the tactical team.) The former SWAT team members blamed the 22-year-old vice mayor for stoking a “political climate” that was making them unsafe. “Sabrina Javellana has openly made ignorant and inaccurate statements attacking the lawful actions of the city’s officers,” they wrote in their resignation letter. The maneuver—which came days after 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department riot response team stepped down in solidarity with two officers who were suspended for shoving an elderly protester to the ground and seriously injuring him—made national news. Javellana went on CNN. The SWAT resignation, she explained, was a stunt, orchestrated by the union to generate sympathy from the city commission. And the stunt seemed to work. “You have received a lack of empathy from one of my colleagues,” Mayor Joy Cooper said to the SWAT team. “I want to apologize to you.”
For Javellana, the ordeal was just beginning. “I’m not thin-skinned,” she told me. “I get hate mail all the time and I’m just, like, ‘whatever.’” But after she was singled out by the union president in the SWAT team’s letter, the barrage of hostile comments, emails, and social media messages became more extreme, and she began to worry about the safety of her mother and brother. In June, Javellana learned of a public forum, LEO Affairs, where members of the city police department post anonymous messages. After the SWAT incident, she became a frequent topic of conversation on the platform. The posts, on threads about the Hallandale Beach Police Department, refer to Javellana as a “P.O.S.,” a “juice box,” and a “righteous slut.” Another stated that “if anybody deserves police brutality” it was her father. “No wonder you defend the NW drug dealers,” the poster wrote, referring to the part of town where Howard Bowe was killed. “You were raised by a criminal.” (As mentioned, Javellana’s father’s conviction was overturned.) “Don’t worry about her,” read another post. “Maybe at the next protest she attends, Ft Lauderdale [PD] will hit her with a rubber bullet, and she gets amnesia.” The commenter appended the post with a peace-sign emoji.
For Javellana, this last missive was particularly disturbing. It appeared a week after the protester LaToya Ratlieff was shot in the face by a rubber bullet, and nearly blinded, while marching in Fort Lauderdale. In body cam footage of the incident, officers can be seen laughing and celebrating after firing the barrage of bullets that hit Ratlieff and other marchers. Javellana had attended the same protest. (Ratlieff, who is the great-niece of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, testified before Congress in June about her experience.)
Another officer wrote, addressing Javellana, “Don’t call us when your s*** gets broken into.” “I don’t know if I’ve ever really felt safe calling the cops,” Javellana told me. But she said she certainly wouldn’t now. Javellana believes the police union has been monitoring her social media posts, investigating her, and looking for dirt. “I know I’m definitely a target of theirs, and I’m up for election in 2022.” (The police union did not respond to any of my requests for comment.) “I’ve started being more conscious about locking the doors to my house and being aware of my surroundings,” she said. “I don’t feel very trusting.”
In recent years, the image of police as impartial defenders of public safety has begun to unravel. But the idea of their neutrality is fairly new. American policing began as an explicitly partisan enterprise, openly aimed at protecting the interests of some and punishing others. For the first century of their history, police in Northern cities operated as appendages of competing political machines; graft and corruption were the norm. Often, companies enlisted them to violently break labor strikes. When an association of police officers petitioned to join the American Federation of Labor in 1897, they were rejected on the basis that police were “controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.” In the South, policing originated as a method of enforcing white tyranny. The first policemen were the slave patrol, charged with ruthlessly controlling the movements of Black people.
These distinct Northern and Southern genealogies met in the years during and after the Great Migration (itself inspired by white racial terror and lynching, either inflicted or tolerated by Southern police), when African Americans settled in Northern and Midwestern cities. In New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, cops earned their status in the white imagination as disinterested peacekeepers—and not merely the quasi-legal muscle of ethnic organized crime—by policing Black neighborhoods. The largely Irish, Italian, and Polish ranks of policemen earned their “whiteness,” in other words, by inflicting violence on Black bodies.
Meanwhile, administrative reforms barred hiring through patronage channels, and, by the early 1960s, police had become disentangled from the partisan, ethnic alliances of machine politics. At the zenith of this process of “professionalization,” as Schrader terms it, police associations achieved the right to collectively bargain. For the next 10 years, the unions built up their political muscle by resisting civil rights–era reform efforts, while depicting themselves—to the white majority—as the singular bulwark against racial disorder. During the 1966 fight over New York City’s civilian review board, Police Benevolent Association president John Cassese said, “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” Bekemeyer describes their organizing efforts as a reactionary form of “social movement unionism”; the unions expanded the privileges of police officers by igniting and allying with a societywide politics of white backlash.
By the 1970s, police unions had become the pivotal force in American politics that they would remain for four decades. Despite pockets of animosity from those who encountered them most, police enjoyed an exalted moral and political status: as disinterested experts on crime, as neutral enforcers of state legitimacy, and as heroic “first responders” who put their lives on the line. Their budgets were largely insulated during eras of austerity and anti-labor backlash. In times of acute fiscal crisis, like the 1980s, they abjured salary increases in exchange for greater job security and freedom from public oversight, moves that contributed to the impunity they enjoy today.
Until recently, most politicians competed for police union endorsements, which functioned as an easy signifier of their commitments to public safety and blue-collar workers. Police organizations can direct significant resources to campaigns for mayor, city council, and district attorney. In 2019, police unions from all over the country together spent $700,000 in an effort to stop Chesa Boudin from becoming San Francisco’s district attorney. (Boudin, a former public defender and the son of Weather Underground activists involved in the deaths of two cops in 1981, nevertheless won.) And although police strikes are illegal, unions threaten informal slowdowns and sick-outs (known as “the blue flu”) to influence city leaders. Schrader notes that mayors listen when unions tell city hall, “‘If you don’t give us what we want, crime’s going to go up, and your mayoralty is going to go down the tubes.’”
But as the bipartisan law-and-order consensus crumbles, police increasingly betray the degree to which their interests—as self-conscious political and economic actors—are not coterminous with the public’s. And as the mask of neutrality slips, a siege mentality is taking hold, signaling a return to the early days of explicitly partisan and ideological policing. Perhaps in reaction to the mounting public pressure, police unions have gravitated toward Donald Trump and other right-wing politicians, who share their worldview and embrace ever darker and more conspiratorial premonitions of social breakdown. In August, on the final night of the Republican National Convention, Pat Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, praised Trump for “standing up for law and order” and accused Democrats of surrendering “our streets and our institutions” to “the mob.” In their rhetoric, union leaders often describe cops themselves as a targeted class in need of special protection. “Police officers are being discriminated against around the country simply because of their job,” a former president of the Broward County PBA said in 2015. “African Americans fought against discrimination using boycotts. We’re exercising our First Amendment right to do the same.”
Leftists often speak of the police in mechanical terms, as fabricators of the capitalist social order: Police protect the propertied classes at the expense of workers, incarcerate lumpen surplus labor, and enforce a racialized spatial hierarchy, by treating certain areas as criminogenic and others as uncontaminated zones that must be quarantined from infection by crime. Yet police union activity in the current era represents not merely the reassertion of a ruling class or white hegemony, but police acting as a “dominating class for itself,” as Schrader puts it. Unable to recover their authority through ideological means—or restore the public’s faith in their impartial enforcement of the social contract—they instead assert it by cracking skulls. The police response to this latest round of protests, Schrader insists, “has been fully political.” Through their actions and words, police departments are not restoring order, as they would like people to believe; they are “responding to the content of the critique being voiced in the streets.” As activists call for the reduction of police budgets and the redistribution of those resources to other public services, the police aim to “refuse, reject, and crush a demand that they see as impinging on their livelihoods.”
Like Sabrina Javellana, Megan Green, who sits on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, has become accustomed to death threats. In 2019, she ran to unseat the board president in a Democratic primary. A democratic socialist elected in 2014, Green has criticized St. Louis police for their behavior toward protesters, opposed a police salary increase, and sued the department for tear-gassing her at a march. A few days before the 2019 contest, a series of incendiary posts appeared on the Facebook page of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. The POA called Green a “Communist Cop-Hater” and an “anti-police radical,” and crudely photoshopped her head on a picture of Mao Zedong. The next day, the account posted a hammer and sickle crossed out by a bloody red circle. BETTER DEAD THAN RED! the caption read.
“That wasn’t terribly subtle,” Green remarked to me. The meme was shared widely, then deleted. Soon after, flyers appeared throughout Green’s district printed with the same slogan and a website for the white nationalist group Patriot Front. Threats of violence poured in over social media. “Kike aldermen should be raped to death by niggers,” read an email from a dummy account. Green forwarded it to the city’s director of public safety; nothing came of her report. For three days following the POA posts, she didn’t stay in her home. “I didn’t feel safe,” she explained. Green narrowly lost the election. Sometimes, depending on the rhetoric of the police union, the fear she felt then still flares up.
The person responsible for the Facebook posts was Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis POA. “Megan Green deserves every word of criticism we’ve ever heaped on her and more,” Roorda told me. He said he had no regrets about the controversial posts. “She’s an unapologetic Marxist. I mean, why would I regret outing her political position?” He insisted the deleted post was not intended as a threat. “I didn’t develop the expression,” he explained. “It’s been spoken by American patriots for a hundred years.” In his view, it’s “me saying it, not me saying that she’s better dead than red.” Roorda accepts no responsibility for the impressions of those who may be unattuned to that fine grammatical distinction. “I get more death threats than any elected official in St. Louis,” he said. “If they want me to feel sorry ... they’ve come to the wrong place.”
Roorda, himself a cop in the city of Arnold, Missouri, until he was fired for filing false reports in 2001, acknowledged that he sometimes deploys strong rhetoric. He wouldn’t have to, he claimed, if other tools were available. “If you want us to be the same as other unions, then give us the right to strike,” Roorda said. “We resort to public criticism of our adversaries because we have no other recourse.”
This past January, Kim Gardner, the first Black circuit attorney in St. Louis, who was elected on a mandate to reform a notoriously violent police force, sued the POA, alleging a coordinated, racist conspiracy to keep her from doing her job. The union, Gardner said, had “gone out of its way to support white officers accused of perpetrating acts of violence and excessive force against African American citizens.” She singled out Roorda. A few months earlier, Roorda had told a radio interviewer that Gardner was a “menace to society” who should be removed from office “by force or by choice.” Roorda told me that he made the comment, which was interpreted as a threat by Gardner and the St. Louis NAACP, in the context of a “wide-ranging” discussion of various legal and political options for “getting Kim Gardner, who is a complete failure, out of office.” In August, Gardner fought off a primary challenge from a pro-police prosecutor.
Like Edward Mullins, Roorda believes police unions are unfairly maligned for doing what every union does: sticking up for their members. Heather Taylor, the president of the Ethical Society of Police (ESOP), a unionlike organization started in the 1970s to represent Black officers in St. Louis, disagrees. “They shouldn’t be in the business of protecting people’s jobs who shouldn’t keep their jobs,” she said. “We can’t have unions like the FOP and POA who say, ‘No matter what you do, you’re right.’” Taylor, a former St. Louis homicide detective, quit the POA in 2016, when the union paid a $100,000 bond to free Jason Stockley, a white officer who shot and killed a Black motorist in 2011. (Before the deadly encounter, Stockley was recorded saying, “Going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it.”) “Here’s my paperwork,” Taylor told the union. “I don’t want to be a part of your association, because I believe Jason Stockley committed murder.”
The ESOP is necessary, Taylor insists, because when it comes to the needs of Black officers, the POA goes quiet. During demonstrations following Jason Stockley’s acquittal in 2017, a Black undercover SLPD officer was thrown to the ground, beaten, and bloodied by three white SLPD officers who mistook him for a protester. The Black cop, Luther Hall, said his fellow officers beat him “like Rodney King.” Hall’s assailants, members of the “Civil Disobedience Team,” had exchanged gleeful text messages before the protests, looking forward to “beating the hell out of these shitheads once the sun goes down.” The POA provided legal representation to the white officers, who were ultimately charged with federal civil rights violations (one pleaded guilty; the other two await trial). The same year, an off-duty Black SLPD officer, Milton Green, was shot by a white colleague. Green survived. The POA raised $2,000 for the officer who shot him.
Roorda, for his part, maintained that his union fights for its African American members “as hard as anybody does.” Though their organizations share many members—most Black officers join both groups—Roorda and Taylor are no longer on speaking terms. Meanwhile, St. Louis remains one of the deadliest police departments in America. A project mapping police violence over the past six years found that the city had the highest number of police killings per capita of any major metropolitan area in the country—14 times more than New York City. Black people in St. Louis were killed by police at 12 times the rate of white people. “It is not a happy outcome when an officer has to take a life,” Roorda told me. “The only worse outcome is when the officer himself loses their life.”
“The police association has gotten more and more extreme,” said Casar, the Austin city councilman. The Austin Police Association president, Ken Casaday, is a union boss in Roorda’s mold. In July, Casaday made national news after an armed BLM protester was shot and killed by a driver who plowed into a crowd of demonstrators in Austin. The victim, Casaday tweeted, was “looking for confrontation and he found it.”
Casaday has been targeting Casar since 2017, when the city council voted unanimously to reject a police contract that stymied effective public transparency and limited community oversight. When Casar accused the department of racial disparities in arrests, Casaday described the councilman’s criticisms as “race-baiting” and denounced him for stirring up “hatred towards police officers.” In Casar’s observation, Casaday’s rants often get picked up on right-wing radio and then recycled by InfoWars and similar outlets. InfoWars host Alex Jones lives in Austin and has a strong following in the city. From the number of insults and threats Casar receives from troll accounts online, he can tell when Jones or co-host Owen Shroyer has been talking about him on the show.
But Casar finds perverse reason for hope in the manically pugilistic tone adopted by police unions nationwide. They’re revealing their “true character,” he said. And their public image is declining. Just five or six years ago, it would have been impossible, he told me, to persuade his colleagues to refuse donations from the POA. Javellana has observed the same dynamic among police unions in south Florida. “They’re very flamboyant, very cartoonish,” she said. And the public has stopped responding to their shtick. When the Hallandale SWAT team retired, the union expected the community to respond with sympathy. In Javellana’s view, they had tried to incite fear in residents, to make them worry for their safety without a SWAT team to protect them, but the tactic backfired. “It started this whole debate in my city: Do you need a SWAT team?”
Javellana and the other activists hadn’t been calling to dismantle the SWAT team; they were merely asking for the city to reopen the Howard Bowe case. But when the team quit, Javellana urged the city manager not to refill the expensive positions. A majority of her colleagues agreed. Now, when there’s a SWAT call in Hallandale, neighboring cities will field it. Javellana has largely avoided calls to defund or abolish the police, preferring to use language about “reallocating resources” to other social needs. But in the case of the Hallandale Beach SWAT team, she said, “they self-defunded.”
During the first wave of Black Lives Matter protest, activists pushed the Obama administration to embrace a reform agenda. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing called for body cameras; anti-bias and de-escalation trainings; community engagement; officer wellness programs to prevent burnout, stress, and overwork; and limitations on the legitimate use of force. These reforms, which did not answer the movement’s more radical or transformational demands, aimed to re-professionalize police departments, to re-embed them in the communities they nominally serve, and to restore the public’s confidence in their neutrality and good faith. Police had lost legitimacy; reform meant to restore it.
But the measures tended to be costly, and required increases in police budgets across America. The Obama administration allocated $263 million for new police training and body cameras in 2014. (Meanwhile, the companies that manufacture body cameras and “less than lethal” weapons, like Tasers, have seen billions in profit.) Thus, the reformist program not only shored up the legitimacy of the police; it also poured more resources into their coffers. More moderate proponents of reform today point to evidence that hiring more rather than fewer cops, and providing those cops with more education, protective equipment, and financial rewards, would both reduce crime and lead to fewer incidents of violent misconduct. If elected president, Joe Biden plans to give police departments an additional $300 million.
By this reasoning, we don’t need to defund the police but reinvest in good policing. Jeff Roorda largely agrees with the logic. “Michael Brown would probably still be alive if Darren Wilson had a second officer in the car with him,” he insisted. “It’s self-defeating when what you’re asking us to do is have fewer lethal encounters with the public, but you give us fewer officers to do it and less training and less equipment and less political support.” Just as unions bargained for increased impunity when cash-strapped cities wouldn’t raise their wages, today they refuse increased oversight without increased funding.
The present era of protest rejects this approach. Activists do not aim to restore the public’s confidence in the legitimacy of the police. “There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against Black people,” wrote abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba in The New York Times. “When a police officer brutalizes a Black person, he is doing what he sees as his job.” Calls to “defund” or “abolish” police move the conversation away from the idea of police departments as dysfunctional—badly performing their role as neutral peacekeepers—and toward the question of their true social function. What, in other words, are police for?
Abolitionists believe police exist to manage the contradictions of a profoundly unequal society through the application of repressive violence. They may be “peacekeepers,” but the peace they keep is one that serves a white capitalist status quo. As workers, police have a perverse self-interest; their social necessity is premised on the maintenance of profoundly unequal property and race relations. As a result, according to this critique, police unions are bad labor allies, because a truly egalitarian society is one in which police are far less socially useful. In short, calls to “defund” the police encourage us to imagine, and build, a society in which police aren’t necessary.
Police unions appear to recognize the deeper challenge posed by this new demand—and its potency. Their response has been to abandon any pretense of neutrality. They appeal, more explicitly than ever, to the social factions they intend to protect, while adopting a posture of unconstrained menace toward their critics and enemies. They act and speak as a class for themselves. In this way, police unions are contributing to the dissolution of the myths that might otherwise preserve their political power. “My sense is that they’re in a process of overplaying their hand,” Schrader said.
Their only hope is that the crisis of legitimacy will pass, that politicians and the public will come crawling back when society—inevitably, in their view—comes undone at the seams. “The mayor is going to be gone in 18 months,” Edward Mullins told me. “City council is going to be gone.... Maybe we have a president that’s going to be gone. But at the end of the day, law enforcement is still going to be here.... And when things get really out of control, and they seem to be heading in that direction, people are going to want police…. We’re always going to have firemen because things are always going to burn. And there’s always going to be people who commit evil acts, and there’s always going to have to be people who deal with those evil acts. And they call those people police.”