National Police Union Mum on Brutality Concerns

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is applauded by FOP National President Chuck Canterbury, center, at the group's convention on August 28, 2017.

In 1968, Chicago police officers beat demonstrators, journalists, and even some campaign workers at the Democratic National Convention—an episode that has become emblematic of the police violence that has longed plagued the United States. Later that year, the Fraternal Order of Police, the influential police union, endorsed the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace in his third-party presidential run. In a campaign speech at the FOP national convention, Wallace drew a standing ovation when he told the audience that if “the police of this country could run it for about two years, then it would be safe to walk in the parks.”

The union’s views on one of the most tumultuous years in American history have not evolved much. In 2009, the Chicago chapter of the FOP held a reunion of the officers who were on the scene in 1968. They even offered a new defense for their decades-old actions. “The only thing that stood between Marxist street thugs and public order was a thin blue line of dedicated, tough Chicago police officers,” the group said in a statement to mark the occasion.

This kind of bombastic rhetoric has helped the country’s largest and most powerful police union burnish its appeal to law enforcement in the decades since the Chicago 1968 beatings. Founded in 1915, the FOP today has 330,000 members in 2,200 local and state chapters, and represents police forces in major American cities including New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. So it is disturbing but perhaps not surprising that the FOP continues to have little to say about police brutality against African Americans or the recent outbreaks of white supremacist violence in places like Charlottesville.

“The FOP has been content to migrate further and further right with the center of the Republican Party,” explains Simon Balto, a Ball State University history professor and author of a forthcoming book on the history of policing and race in Chicago. “It bears noting that despite the FOP’s extreme social conservatism, it nevertheless has subsumed most other police unions in terms of numerical prominence.” Balto adds that “conservative politicians, despite their extreme anti-unionism, don’t go after the FOP.”

The FOP’s failure to condemn the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in August and its vocal support for the Trump administration confirm its dangerous views on race. The union endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, with FOP National President Chuck Canterbury proclaiming that “nobody appreciates [Trump] more than the 332,000 members of the Fraternal Order of Police!”

Meanwhile, white supremacists, emboldened by a president who repeatedly refuses to strongly condemn their actions, are not going anywhere. On Thursday, the white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, who organized the Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, plans to speak at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The Charlottesville Police Department’s failure to prevent deadly violence in the college town has been widely criticized, and news reports indicated that the Charlottesville police, who are represented by the FOP, stood by as neo-Nazis attacked counter-protesters. “I watched as white supremacists aligned themselves with police and the police protected the white supremacists,” says Heather Cronk, co-director of Showing up for Racial Justice, a national group that organizes white people to advocate for racial justice. “Police refused the same protection to anti-racist protesters, and instead drew their guns on us and refused medical treatment to those hurt.”

Asked if the union addressed the white supremacist violence at its annual convention in Nashville this past summer, Canterbury told The American Prospect, “We did not have any resolutions on this topic.” He added, “We support the right of all Americans to voice their issues in a peaceful and legal manner [and] we support the Constitution of the United States, but violence is never permissible when exercising your right to free speech.”

Yet the FOP’s unwillingness to condemn white supremacists does not extend to anti-racism groups. In early September, Philadelphia FOP President John McNesby described Black Lives Matter activists as a “pack of rabid animals” after they held a march in the city to demand more police accountability.  

“The Fraternal Order of Police, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, has a long and bloodied history of violence and racism. They maneuver under the pretext of ‘protect and serve,’ and people believe them despite evidence that policing in America is violent and deadly,” says Shanelle Matthews, the director of communications for the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Black Lives Matter organizers do not believe anything productive can come out of setting up lines of communication with the FOP. “If police officers are puppets, then the FOP is the puppet-master, controlling, protecting and encouraging the use of violence to deal with mental-health crises, poverty, and other social disparities government agencies ignore,” says Matthews. “Black Lives Matter will not compromise or engage with the FOP.”

Given President Trump’s extreme rhetoric in support of police brutality and racist policing, the FOP continues to be enthusiastic about his moves. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the decision to reverse the Obama administration’s restrictions on furnishing local police forces with military equipment like armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets at the FOP’s national convention.

The FOP has also released statements that endorsed building a border wall and ramping up immigration enforcement; supported Sessions’s closed-door law enforcement task force on national drug-sentencing policies; and backed the attorney general’s push for civil asset forfeiture, the policy that allows law enforcement officers to seize cash and property from individuals regardless of whether they are charged with any crime.

The organization’s commitment to such policies sometimes runs counter to the interests of the officers that it represents, according to Tracey Meares, a Yale Law School professor and a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“It certainly makes sense in terms of a certain kind of political agenda, but if you actually map it onto the role of the people whose interests that they’re serving, a lot of the things [the FOP] support[s] don’t make sense,” says Meares. She notes that although the Obama task force offered a number of police officer safety and wellness recommendations in its final report, the FOP urged Trump to “de-prioritize implementation of some or all of the Obama action items.

Balto argues that the FOP has not adjusted to the realities of America today and, indeed, remains trapped in the past. “We can call it more than a coincidence that the FOP [became] a potent, socially conservative force in American life and politics at the same moment [the 1960s] that the civil rights insurgencies, particularly Black Power, were coming to the forefront of American cultural life,” says Balto. “That grim image that we see the FOP advancing as early as the Sixties, of a nation on the brink of collapse, continues to animate their worldview.”

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