Police Unions are the key obstacle to real reform

A growing chorus of voices has been identifying police unions as the key obstacle in the way of meaningful police reform. During a few days in June, the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and even the New York Daily News all ran pieces decrying the role of these unions in defending brutal cops.

Police unions often defend brutal and murderous cops and resist reforms. For instance, Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara threatened to bring charges within the union against any police officers who kneel with protesters. In Minneapolis, police union President Lt. Bob Kroll has called protesters terrorists, becoming a lightning rod for criticism of unions around the country.

But focusing on police unions provides political cover for the very people who run these brutalizing police department.

But focusing on police unions provides political cover for the very people who run these brutalizing police departments and raises the real question: Why are so many police so brutal to begin with? And why does so much of their brutality fall on the Black population?

From its beginnings, the U.S. developed as a capitalist country, organized to produce profit for those who already have wealth, by exploiting the labor of others. Where there has been a wage labor system rather than slavery, those with wealth have always needed a surplus force of laborers. When there is a high demand for work, members of this reserve army of labor may be hired, but when that demand dries up, they are usually let go.

The existence of this reserve labor force, while necessary for capitalism, creates all kinds of social problems. It directly led, in the 19th century, to the development of an armed police force, charged to protect the property and interests of the wealthy and to deal with all the other social problems created by this system, from homelessness to addiction to murder.

As the country developed, one group after another arrived in cities and competed against the rest for scarce jobs. Slavery and its aftermath ensured that the Black population was always at a disadvantage in this competition, bearing a disproportionate brunt of this society’s social problems: unemployment, low wages, decrepit housing, underfunded schools and police violence.

This police violence is much bigger than the actions of killer cops like Derek Chauvin or his accomplices. It is central to the daily activities of the police who are “just doing their jobs.”

This police violence is much bigger than the actions of killer cops like Derek Chauvin or his accomplices. It is central to the daily activities of the police who are “just doing their jobs.”

When police arrest someone, it means forcing that person to submit to a dehumanizing search, often on the street. Then, putting on handcuffs, forcing someone into a police car and into a cage. What is all that, if not violence? Some of the police who carry out this activity, day after day, inevitably start to see the people they target as less than human.

This police violence is justified by labeling its victims “criminals.” After growing up in this racist society and being set against the Black population, it is no wonder that for some cops, being Black becomes associated with being a criminal.

For more than 150 years, starting well before there were police unions, politicians have played a game of promising to reform the police in the face of movements, hoping to demobilize people by seeming to stand on their side. Yet despite dozens of reforms — such as the promise of body cameras a few years ago — the police continue to kill and brutalize. Despite the “serve and protect” rhetoric, their role in this society drives them to act brutally.

Some of these movements have produced meaningful efforts, and this current movement might as well. That depends on how much it keeps going, despite the growing attempts to demobilize it. Many of the politicians — including those who run the police departments people are protesting against — are already trying to position themselves on the side of this movement, in order to convince people to calm down. And police unions are already being set up to be one of the excuses for why these politicians will not be able to carry out all of the reforms they might promise. But however reactionary people like Kroll, the Minneapolis police union president, or Catanzara, the Chicago FOP president, might be, they are not the ones running this system that produces so much police violence.

Despite whatever changes this movement might win, reforms cannot solve the basic problem underlying racist police violence. Police brutality is a consequence of a society organized to funnel massive amounts of wealth to a tiny class, while keeping millions in poverty. It is a consequence of a society organized to provide jobs only if those jobs can benefit capital, and that as a result throws out a huge layer of its people, disproportionately Black people. In the end, that is why this system produces so much police violence, especially against the Black population.

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