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Police Unions' Defense of 'Bad Cops' Draws Criticism in Brutality Debate

Police reform advocates wish police unions would stop rushing to defend officers in trouble, but union reps say it's their job.
Photo by David Goldman/AP

The Baltimore police union representing the six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death drew criticism this week when it began collecting donations for the officers' living and legal expenses and tweeting the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, a play on the phrase Black Lives Matter used by protesters to condemn police brutality against African Americans.

The Fraternal Order of Police in Baltimore had their GoFundMe page shut down over the weekend for violating the company's ban on collecting money for those charged with serious crimes, but tweeted out other ways that supporters could donate to the cops.


@FOP3 where can I donate to the family of Freddie Gray?

— Tom Payne (@areasonablefee) May 4, 2015

@etm11715 @FOP3 more than civilian lives apparently

— Tina (@TinaBaarspul) May 4, 2015

It's not the first time a police union has faced criticism for coming swiftly to the defense of officers accused of wrongdoing. Police were criticized in South Carolina and Missouri for raising money for officers implicated in shootings in those states; officers in Ferguson, Missouri, distributed bracelets with the words "I am Darren Wilson," printed on them to show support for the officer who shot Michael Brown.

Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association police union in New York, was criticized for his divisive rhetoric after he encouraged police officers to turn their backs to Mayor Bill DeBlasio and ban him from their funerals as an act of protest over DeBlasio's criticism of police after the death of Eric Garner. Lynch then said there was "blood on the hands…on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor," after two NYPD officers were shot and killed. After the remarks, a Quinnipiac University poll showed 43 percent of New Yorkers disapproved of Lynch's heated words.

So why do police unions employ strong rhetoric and messaging to defend officers accused of wrongdoing? Union representatives and reform advocates told VICE News that the unions had a legal responsibility to defend officers, but also a culture of wanting to protect their own members.


"Police unions are much like police chiefs. When an an officer is caught doing a very bad thing, they start to circle the wagons," Cheryl Dorsey, a retired Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant and member of the group National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability, told VICE News. "That's their job, that's their story. They stick to it no matter how nonsensical it is and how much it insults our sensibilities, no matter how unreasonable it is to a reasonable person."

"They're going to back the officers no matter what, that's their position, just like any other defense attorney. If I'm paying you money, you're going to say whatever I need you to say to get me off the hook," Dorsey said.

When Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police criticized State Attorney Marilyn Mosbey's decision to indict the officers involved in Gray's death, its president said the union was "appalled…frustrated…disappointed in the apparent rush to judgment," of the officers by Mosbey. Moments later, FOP attorney Michael Davey said that, "No officer injured Mr. Gray, caused harm to Mr. Gray, and they are truly saddened by his death."

Aside from the contradiction between criticizing those who rush to judgment then immediately concluding that the officers did not cause harm, the assertion police did not hurt Gray offers a clear example of unions denying any wrongdoing before an investigation is complete. Rashad Robinson, leader of the black advocacy organization ColorOfChange, said the police unions are doing themselves a disservice by constantly defending officers in trouble.


"They're not showing up as honest brokers and honest stakeholders in conversations about how we make our communities safer," Robinson said. "It's incredibly counterproductive when you see situations that are so blatant and so clear and lives and families have been destroyed and you have this institution that has no interest in honest pursuit of the truth."

@FOP3 Does this unite or divide? Hurt or help? Think before you tweet.

— Peter McClellan (@petermcclellan) May 5, 2015

@FOP3 Certainly, now pin up all the murders of unarmed citizens by police, if you feel so strongly about the issue.

— Down Under (@PopUtsey) May 5, 2015

"Given everything we've been seeing in this country, given the heightened awareness of these issues, the police unions would do themselves a real service to put real reforms on table, but to pretend that we don't actually have a problem makes it very hard to trust them in the conversation. There can be no trust if there isn't accountability. Police don't police themselves," he said.

The Baltimore FOP would not comment to VICE News. Chuck Canterbury, the national FOP President, released a statement last week saying that police unions are opposed to racial profiling, police brutality, and bad policing tactics, saying "nobody hates bad cops more than other cops," but emphasizing that everyone has a right to the presumption of innocence.

James Pasco, executive director of the FOP's Steve Young Law Enforcement Legislative Advocacy Center, said unions had to remind the public that officers are innocent until proven guilty, because public judgment of an officer involved in a fatal incident could be swift and damaging. He pointed to the case of officer Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson.


"His life was ruined," he said. "He's not a police officer anymore. He was demonized by the media and police executives, by the Justice Department and the minority community."

As for divisive rhetoric, Pasco said that unions didn't "start these dialogues, we respond to them."

"Who starts saying hateful things? Why don't you say that the minority community started with the divisive dialogue? We didn't get out there and start a smear campaign against any segment of the community. One was started against us," he said.

@FOP3 did it take 3 weeks to arrest his killer? No. It took 90 minutes. Tone deaf idiots. No wonder people see you as a gang.

— Forbes (@jlforbes) May 5, 2015

Pasco, like Canterbury, condemned bad cops, saying that their supervisors were responsible for ensuring they followed rules and behaved appropriately. But when they didn't, he said, the union had a legal responsibility to defend them.

"We do not have any use for bad police officers, but remember, here's what to remember, here's what's infuriating, you're saying what people are thinking: why do unions do this? But who hired these guys? It was the chief who hired them. Where was he when he was doing his vetting, recruiting, training, promoting, and supervising? Where was he?" Pasco said. "Just as a prosecutor has a responsibility to prosecute, we have a responsibility to defend. It's not an option."

Jeff Fagan, a policing expert at Columbia Law School, told VICE News that many police unions functioned differently from other unions because they had a particular composition: white officers with law enforcement backgrounds who see things a particular way. Those beliefs, he said, influenced their policy and practices.

"You're not dealing with people who are on balance very highly educated. They are politically drawn from a very particular world: the white cops who tend to ascend to union leadership very fast. Unlike minority cops, who are likely first generation cops, the white guys come from multigenerational cop families," Fagan said. "So it's a combination of things: the composition effect, the nature of the task -- they believe their job is more dangerous than any other, though it's not, construction is — and they want to maximize their benefits."

Robinson, of the group ColorOfChange, said that the inclination of unions to portray themselves as victims didn't help their cause. Acknowledging problems and then solving them would do more to improve their image and relationship with community members, he said.

"No one is saying police officers don't have a challenging job," Robinson said. "But there's not a problem in this country that when law enforcement officers are hurt there's no accountability. We don't have a problem where police are getting hurt and no one being held accountable…So to the extent police unions and police should be thinking about how they build greater support and trust within their communities, they could start by rooting out bad police officers and holding bad police officers accountable."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen