Police Unions Want You to Think Derek Chauvin Is the Only Bad Cop

Many of the police unions calling Chauvin’s conviction justice represent police departments that regularly kill civilians and aggressively block even minimal reforms.
April 23, 2021, 1:00pm
Police Unions Want You to Think Derek Chauvin Is the Only Bad Cop
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Despite regularly providing cover for police officers who commit murders, police unions appeared eager to condemn former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after his conviction for George Floyd’s murder.

"As we have said from the beginning, what Derek Chauvin did that day was not policing. It was murder," the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD’s rank-and-file police union, said on Wednesday. "The jury has spoken and he will face consequences for his actions. Now it's time for an honest discussion of policing and public safety that begins with the real challenges we face on our streets."

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That comment stands in stark contrast to the union’s previous comments. During the summer of 2020, the PBA's president Patrick Lynch called Floyd’s killing the "murder of an innocent person." However, as the union’s head, he has continued its long history of aggressively and enthusiastically blocking anything resembling police reform. In 2019, Lynch claimed that a non-binding recommendation that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo be fired for killing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold would "paralyze the NYPD for years to come.” After Pantaelo was officially fired, Lynch insisted "the job is dead" and that police officers should "realize they're abandoned." 

In the moment, it may appear as if police unions and the departments they represent are vocally condemning Chauvin because they find the murder he committed particularly appalling, and it is indeed a deviation from the norm. Typically, police unions support police officers in similar situations and often do so enthusiastically. In contrast, police officers lined up to testify against Chauvin, one of their own. 

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This is clearly being interpreted by many as reaching a finish line of sorts; Nancy Pelosi even thanked Floyd for “sacrificing your life for justice,” as if he was not a person who wanted to live and whose life was cruelly stolen in an act of racist violence. He was not the last, either. On the same day that Chauvin’s verdict was handed down, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. Barely one day later, police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr, a 40 year old Black man.

The racist killings have not yet ended. What has changed, however, is an understanding that police unions must paint Chauvin as an exception, or else risk galvanizing activists seeking to defund police departments and impose some minimal standard of accountability. 

"Every police union is going to provide its members with basic due process protections. They're always going to provide due process protection to their members, even if they think their member was in the wrong," Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, told Motherboard. "What's interesting in this case is that there was clearly a decision by the police institution not to defend Chauvin, but to go after him. From the top to bottom, they trotted out police officials who testified against him. This is very unusual and I think that the police leadership and police unions more broadly saw this in this particular case it was essential to get a conviction to ward off a level of outrage that could have been much more threatening to the wellbeing of the institution. And so they basically threw Chauvin under the bus."

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At this point, we don’t need data to know that police killing Black people is disturbingly common, but the facts are there: between January 2013 to December 2020, the Mapping Police Violence (MPV) project’s data shows the NYPD killed 83 people, with Black people being killed at a rate 7.9 times the rate of white people. But while killings are common, convictions are rare. In 2014, a Daily News investigation found NYPD officers killed at least 179 people from 1999 to 2014. Three killings resulted in an indictment, another was thrown out, and only one officer, Bryan Conroy, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and given five years probation plus 500 hours of community service. 

It’s no surprise, then, that because officers so rarely face any sort of consequence for murdering civilians, imposing even a minimal one (such as being fired) would incite hysteria. This resistance to accountability reforms even as murders mount is endemic to police departments and unions across the country, making their rosy statements about Floyd’s murder ring hollow.

Take the Portland's Police Association (PPA), which issued a statement on the day of Chauvin's conviction calling the verdict "the first step in our Nation's healing as we continue to rebuild trust with the communities we serve." Last year, while the union did not call it murder, the PPA said Floyd’s death was "revolting, incomprehensible, and unacceptable." It was "inconsistent" with their oath, job, and training, the union’s statement argued, and only convinced them of the need to "connect and build trust" with communities they policed.

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Just three days prior to the PPA’s statement on Chauvin’s conviction, a Portland police officer shot and killed a man who appeared in a mental health crisis and drew a replica firearm when cornered by police. This was the first police killing since 2019, when Portland police shot and killed another man who appeared to be having a mental health crisis. This is part of a long-term problem in Portland: In 2011, a DOJ investigation concluded Portland cops were using excessive use of force against the mentally ill, largely due to a lack of training and a fundamentally broken mental health system that made the police into first responders. 

In 2014, the department was put under a federal settlement agreement to significantly change and reform how it operated. In February of this year, the DOJ issued a formal notice of non-compliance, writing it "reasonably believes the City has failed to implement the terms of the Agreement." MPV data seems to support that, showing that from 2013 to 2020, the PBB killed 18 people. 

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Much like the New York City police union’s statement about Chauvin’s conviction, the PPA's words don't match the reality where they are distrusted by the large majority of the community and consistently use excessive force against people with mental illness despite promising to comply with a federal agreement that laid out a clear path to doing so. 

The Minneapolis police union―of which Chauvin was a member―issued a statement that thanked the jury for its service in delivering the guilty verdict, and then turned around and began to chastise politicians for “race-baiting.” 

“We need the political pandering to stop and the race-baiting of elected officials to stop,” the union said in a statement. “In addition, we need to stop the divisive comments and we all need to do better to create a Minneapolis we love.”

Days before the union issued that statement, and 10 miles away from where Chauvin’s trial was being held, Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright. Potter, who worked at the Brooklyn Center Police Department, wasn't a member of the Minneapolis Police union but instead the Law Enforcement Labor Services and once served as the local union president for the department. 

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In a colorful June 2020 letter to union members, former Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll called Floyd a "violent criminal” and dismissed protests as the work of a "terrorist movement.” When Keith Ellison―Minnesota's attorney general and a Black Muslim―called for police reforms in 2007 as a congressman, Kroll called him a terrorist (Kroll at the time was the member of a motorcycle club for off-duty cops that displayed white supremacist symbols).

Unions and departments are vocally condemning Chauvin murdering Floyd despite protecting police officers who do the same because they understand this is the moment to regain legitimacy and undermine calls for police reforms that they have always opposed. The day after Chauvin's conviction, and Ma’Khia Bryant’s killing, Axios reported that senior Democratic and Republican aides believed "the convictions have lessened pressure for change." Democratic operatives are insisting that Democrats abandon talk of defunding the police, the outlet reported, and reviving the claim that it hurts politicians electorally.

This continues even as a recent Data for Progress survey found wide support for "reallocating portions of police budgets to create a new agency of first-responders" among every group save Republicans, 43 percent of whom supported this. 

Police forces have always been well-versed in finding ways to legitimize themselves in the face of scrutiny and political pressure. They need to be, given how violent they are. To take just one statistic: from 2012 to 2018, police were responsible for 8 percent of all homicides with adult male victims in the United States. Violence is endemic to the institution, manifesting not only in how it deals with the public but how it reacts to criticism like this summer when police departments nationwide began to riot in response to an uprising across the country sparked by Floyd’s murder.

"What you usually see in these cases is prosecutors either refusing to bring charges at all, or bringing charges and undermining the prosecution by muddying the waters with conflicting evidence like what happened in St. Louis with the Michael Brown case," Vitale told Motherboard. "This was what an actual vigorous prosecution might look like. The decision to engage in such a rigorous process of prosecution was the desire to help restore legitimacy to the criminal legal system."

Historically, the police have gone to great lengths to insist they are neutral and objective agents despite the institution's intimately political origins in "slavery, colonialism, and the control of a new industrial working class," as Vitale writes in his book The End of Policing. And at the turn of the 21st century, police departments consciously courted universities and academics to recast policing as a science the public could trust. What this ended up doing, however, was simply putting lipstick on the pig: a new shiny gloss insisting policing was now "predictive" and "evidence-based,” even as it simply reinforced old tactics and practices.

"Look, the police cannot fix this problem. The police are the problem, right? People can fix this problem," Vitale added. "These are political problems. The police did not invent the war on drugs. The police did not defund mental health services. The police didn't create these problems, the police inherited them through political decision making. Calls to defund the police are not directed at the police, they're directed at the city council or mayor."