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How Police Unions Protect Racist Cops

From making it harder to investigate cops who kill to ensuring their legal fees and salaries are covered, police unions are powerful advocates for the status quo.
July 23, 2020, 4:43pm
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Image via pexels. 

When Bill Closs was the chief of police for Kingston, Ontario, he introduced a pilot project requiring all officers to write down the race of everyone they stopped on the street (a practice known as carding or stop and frisk) and the rationale behind each stop. 

Published in 2005, the study—the first of its kind in Canada—revealed that Black people in Kingston were nearly four times more likely to be carded than white people. 

Closs, 74, who spent 30 years with Ontario Provincial Police and another 13 in Kingston before retiring in 2008, said no other police departments wanted to act on the results, nor did the Liberal government of the day. But there was one group Closs said fought very hard against the study: Kingston Police Association, the union that represents officers. 

“The union fought tooth and nail against us. It was a bitter fight,” he said. 

“They were using the press… They went very, very, very public in things they didn’t like. They were putting out misinformation.” 

VICE News has reached out to Kingston Police Association for comment but has not received a response. 

Closs said the union’s position was that it wasn’t necessary to track race-based data. In fact, when discussing the project, Closs avoided using the term “racism,” choosing “bias” instead, because he believed it would go over better. 

“The job of the union isn’t to go out there and be nice to the citizens, it’s to look after their police officers. So of course they’re going to fight any time they’re called racist,” Closs said. 

Despite the union’s gripes, Closs pushed through with his carding experiment. The problem, he said, is many police boards and politicians don’t have the determination. 

“Police unions, they have become too powerful. I believe the politicians fear them,” he said. 

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin has sparked a reckoning about police brutality towards Black and Indigenous peoples and people of colour. 

It has also pushed discussions about defunding the police and the lack of police accountability into the mainstream. Many of the protections police officers in both the U.S. and Canada enjoy come from unions, including clauses that make it more challenging to investigate officers who beat or kill someone, or fire them if they’re found guilty of wrongdoing. And union heads are often the loudest defenders of police, and deniers of systemic racism. 

Bargaining for the ability to discriminate 

When University of Victoria economics professor Rob Gillezeau began studying the impact of unions on police behaviour in the U.S, he expected to see an increase in civilian deaths coincide with the signing of collective agreements. His rationale was that the risk of being prosecuted for killing someone in the line of duty would be lower with collective bargaining rights. 

“It looks like officers are actually bargaining in the United States for the ability to discriminate in their use of force.”

But he soon discovered that the number of white civilians being killed didn’t go up after police forces started unionizing. 

“Once you see access to collective bargaining rights, you see a substantial uptick in non-white Americans being killed by officers in the range of about 50 to 70 a year. That’s a really substantial increase,” Gillezeau said, noting that the numbers are likely an undercount. 

“Our takeaway is that it looks like officers are actually bargaining in the United States for the ability to discriminate in their use of force,” he said. 

Gillezeau said the unionization movement in policing coincided with the civil rights movement in the U.S., taking place state-by-state from the 1950s to the 1980s. 

Parallel justice system

There are a number of clauses he’s seen in collective agreements that protect officers who commit violent acts. Some examples he listed include: an officer choosing the time and location of their questioning; delaying questioning for days; being entitled to breaks every 20 minutes; having a union representative present during questioning; being allowed to huddle with other officer witnesses before questioning; being given access to information about people who will be providing evidence before court; 

“I kind of think about it as creating a parallel justice system for officers,” Gillezeau said. 

Some collective agreements also have provisions saying an officer who commits a violent act would need to give consent before photos or footage from the incident are released, he added. 

That’s why the media often ends up with photos of a Black victim of a police shooting “looking like they were up to no good and no pictures of the incident or the officers,” he said. 

Legal fees and salary for officers charged with crimes

When it comes to Canadian police unions, it’s not so clear-cut. 

In terms of collective agreements, Canadian police officers are entitled to indemnification, meaning the police department has to cover their legal fees if they must participate in an investigation or are charged with a crime, unless they are convicted. 

Even for cops who are found guilty of some crimes but have other charges dropped, the police department has to pay for at least some of the fees, said Steven Tufts, an associate professor at York University who co-authored a recent paper “Blue Solidarity: Police Unions, Race and Authoritarian Populism in North America” published in the journal Work, Employment and Society. Plus the union itself can step in to cover legal fees. 

“You can actually be collecting pay if you kill somebody in bad faith wrongly for years.”

While the legal proceedings are taking place, officers are suspended with pay. They can’t be disciplined or fired until after legal proceedings are completed. In one infamous case, a Toronto cop was paid over a million dollars while serving a 13-year suspension.  

“You can actually be collecting pay if you kill somebody in bad faith wrongly for years,” Tufts said. 

Lobbying politicians

But Tufts said a more insidious way police unions in Canada operate is by lobbying to change laws around how police are investigated. 

Under Ontario’s Police Services Act, officers who kill or seriously injure someone are not required to submit to an interview with the Special Investigations Unit, a watchdog agency that investigates such incidents, nor are they required to turn in their notes from the incident. 

After Doug Ford became Ontario’s premier, he scrapped the previous Liberal government’s plan for police oversight reform, replacing it with the Comprehensive Ontario Police Services (COPS) Act. The act reduced the scope of the Special Investigations Unit and lowered fines for officers who refuse to comply with SIU investigations. 

“Conservative politicians require endorsements by police unions and firefighters. It’s a ritual,” Tufts said. 

“How do they lobby and what’s the relationship with Conservative politicians to get legislative change? How do they pressure local politicians… who consistently pass increases in budgets?” 

Unions push narrative that cops are victims

Another function of police unions is to perpetuate the idea that police are victims, Tufts said. 

“They say ‘we need to stick together and form this blue solidarity’ because we are constantly under attack,’” he said. 

The idea is to instill a sense of identity that “transcends other parts of their identity” including gender, background, and race. 

For racialized cops, that means being caught between lived experiences of systemic racism and solidarity with the police. 

At the end of June, a group of Black Montreal police officers wrote an open letter asking its union president to stop denying the existence of systemic racism within the department. 

The officers were responding to comments from Montreal Police Brotherhood President Yves Francoeur, who told media outlets he doesn’t believe Montreal police racially profile. 

"We cannot blame you for not knowing our reality, if the culture of silence is for us the most common of the options in several situations," the letter said, according to CBC Montreal. 

Black cops excluded 

Calvin Lawrence, 71, retired from the RCMP in 2006, before members unionized in 2019. Instead of a union, he said there were representatives elected to represent members in different divisions. 

He recalled receiving a newsletter from his division representatives in Calgary; it included a newspaper op-ed about how the RCMP hire non-white officers to fill a quota. 

Calvin Lawrence

Former mountie Calvin Lawrence said he experienced racism from his colleagues and police institutions. Photo submitted

“It was a very damning article about non-white police officers as if they were getting them and they were not qualified,” said Lawrence, who wrote the book Black Cop: My 36 Years in Police Work, and My Career Ending Experiences with Official Racism. The implication, he said, was that the division representatives supported that point of view. 

Afterwards, he wondered how comfortable a Black RCMP member would feel going to those same representatives to discuss issues they were facing. When he raised it with a representative in Ottawa, he said he was told “if i make it a racial issue, it won't go anywhere.” 

Mike McCormack, outgoing president of Toronto Police Association, the union that represents Toronto cops, said in his 11 years on the job he’s never had a Black officer complain to him about racism. 

“Have I had Black officers come up and say, ‘Hey Mike, we’re being picked on,’ or ‘I’m working with a bunch of racists’? I’ve never had an incident where they’ve approached me and said there’s an issue,” McCormack said. 

He said the problem with describing policing as a systemically racist institution is that it’s interpreted in an “unfair” way. 

“It doesn’t mean that our officers are out there and they are racist and they are applying racist practices,” he said. “What’s troubling is we seem to be the ones that are always scapegoated.” 

In April 2016, Black Lives Matter staged a demonstration outside Toronto police headquarters and several other protests after the police officer who shot and killed Andrew Loku was cleared of wrongdoing. Loku, a father of five who moved to Canada from South Sudan as a refugee, had a history of mental illness. 

Then-premier Kathleen Wynne finally addressed protesters and acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in the province. 

McCormack responded defensively, telling the Toronto Sun, “what I want to ask the premier is for her to show us the data that she is referring to when she says we still have systemic racism in our society."

VICE News asked McCormack about the Ontario Human Rights Commission finding that a Black person was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be shot dead by a Toronto cop between 2013-2017. He said it doesn’t provide the “total context.” 

“How many interactions did we have with people in those exact same circumstances who were white and Black?” he asked. 

McCormack said he would support the release of race-based data released on “everything.” However, when asked if he would support a project like Closs’ carding study in Kingston, or a federal inquiry into police brutality, he said he would not.

Should cops be part of the labour movement?

Within the labour movement, there is conflict over whether or not police should be allowed to unionize. 

In June, Minnesota AFL-CIO, the state federation of labour representing more than 1,000 unions, wrote an open letter demanding the resignation of Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. 

The letter slammed Kroll’s “history of bigoted remarks and complaints of violence.”

“Bob Kroll must resign, and the Minneapolis Police Union must be overhauled. Unions must never be a tool to shield perpetrators from justice,” the letter said. 

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Gillezeau, who believes the solution isn’t to strip officers of bargaining rights, but to reform police unions. 

“There’s nothing inherent in police bargaining rights that says the end goal here needs to be discriminatory. That’s just been the outcome that we’ve landed with.” 

Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, feels differently. 

The goal of a union is to protect the working class from the capitalist class, she said. 

“That’s not the operation of a police union, it’s not what the police are. Police are an increasingly militarized wing of state power, not the working class.” 

Hudson said police unions function as public relations for a “really terrible institution.” 

“What we need to do is take as much money as we need from the police to properly fund housing, transit, a mental health emergency service, a gender-based violence emergency service that will actually keep us safe.” 

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