How Police Unions Are Using Protests, Boycotts, and Shady Tactics to Fight Reform

As the national debate over law enforcement tactics heats up, cops aren't hesitating to decry what they see as an assault on their rights.

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Nov 5 2015, 5:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Roland Tanglao

At 6 AM on May 8, 2014, a SWAT team in Halladnale Beach, Florida, snuck through the backyard of Howard Bowe, a 34-year-old landscaper who was suspected of selling small amounts of cocaine. The officers shot his dog, then busted through the back door, which led to the kitchen. Officer Michael McKenzie, who is white, came face to face with Bowe, who was black, unarmed, and in his underwear, and shot him several times with an automatic weapon. Bowe died in the hospital 11 days later, leaving behind four children.

This was the third shooting of an unarmed man in less than three years in Hallandale Beach, a veritable epidemic for a sleepy suburban town of fewer than 40,000. In January 2012, Officer Edward McGovern shot Gregory Ehlers, a 32-year-old white man who fled police after shoplifting an iPad from a Best Buy. (Last month, after a nearly four-year-long investigation, prosecutors took one day to present evidence to a grand jury. McGovern said he saw Ehlers reach toward an object—which turned out to be the iPad. The grand jury ruled the shooting to be justified.)

Then there's Eduardo Prieto, a 32-year-old who was shot in September 2012 after he was caught shoplifting at Walmart. Prieto gave back the merchandise and was detained by employees, but fled after brandishing a small pocketknife. According to a civil lawsuit filed by Prieto's family, a 9-1-1 dispatcher misinformed police that Prieto had a gun; when officers caught up to him, they shot him. His ex-wife is currently suing the police department and Walmart for wrongful death.

These controversial shootings led to a modest proposal from city leaders to put body cameras on its officers. The plan gained support after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, leading to national focus on police brutality and cries for more police accountability. To Hallandale Beach politicians, body cams seemed like a sensible way forward.

"With all the incidents going on around the country, I think we need [body cams]," Commissioner Bill Julian told the Sun Sentinel in April. "The nation wants the cameras. So bring it on."

Hallandale Beach Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy endorsed the plan, but his officers opposed it—so much so that they hired an outside consultant to conduct a survey of cops' opinions of body cams to let people know how they felt. Eighty-seven percent were worried that the cameras would lead to their bosses punishing them for minor infractions, while 44 percent said that they would be less willing to respond to calls if they were wearing cameras.

Despite this, Chief Flournoy wouldn't change his mind. And that's when things got ugly.

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In the past year, as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other activist groups have drawn increasing attention to law enforcement misconduct, police officer unions around the country have garnered more and more headlines for supporting cops and opposing reforms. The unions naturally stick up for officers whose jobs are threatened thanks to their own errors, but they've also been known to oppose body cameras, and boycott businesses associated with anti-cop or pro-BLM sentiments. Unions have even called for a boycott on Quentin Tarantino movies after the filmmaker attended an anti-police brutality rally in Manhattan last month. The rhetoric used by these unions is heated and often over the top: Last year, after two NYPD cops were shot execution-style in Brooklyn, Pat Lynch, the head of New York's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said there was " blood on the hands" of Mayor Bill de Blasio's office because he didn't voice sufficient support for his police department.

It was in this climate that the Hallandale Beach police union went after the chief, dredging up the dirtiest allegations against Flournoy they could find and using them in a naked attempt at bullying. It offered a preview, perhaps, of what cop unions will be driven to do as body cams and other anti-brutality measures are proposed and adopted throughout the US.

In May, Tony Alfero, a police union attorney hired by HBPD officers, told local media that his clients believed their chief was unfit for duty because of several transgressions, the most serious of which went back to 2010. Flournoy, Alfero alleged, had been involved in two drunk driving incidents, including one in which he assaulted the cop who pulled him over. He had also allegedly gotten into a drunken brawl at a club, brought a gun to the airport, and even stalked his ex-girlfriend.

The allegations forced the city to spend taxpayer money on an investigation. If Flournoy hit a cop after getting pulled over for drunk driving, there was no record of it. But the airport mishap really had happened, as it turned out (Flournoy forgot he had a gun in his bag) and he did, indeed, stalk his girlfriend five years ago, joining her gym after they broke up and going to her child's school when she went to pick the kid up. The woman had to call the police on him to stop the harassment. No charges were filed, he was given a verbal warning from his superiors, and two years later, he was promoted to chief of police.

In the end, Flournoy didn't lose his job; body cameras are scheduled to arrive later this year and be assigned to fewer than a third of HBPD officers as a sort of pilot program. Neither Flournoy nor Alfero would comment for this story. Flournoy has a pending defamation lawsuit against Alfero.

Other incidents of police unions getting aggressive on public officials abound. In Costa Mesa, California, a police union didn't think three city councilman, including now-mayor Steve Mensinger, were doing enough for cops' retirement benefits. So the union hired two private investigators to keep an eye on them during a city-sponsored trip to Las Vegas.

"I'm sure they will be dealing with other 'developer' friends, maybe a Brown Act [violation] or two, and I think [Mensinger is] a doper and has moral issues," Mitch Johnson, the union's treasurer at the time, wrote in an email to one of the PIs, according to the LA Times. "I could totally see him sniffing coke [off] a prostitute. Just a thought."

The hired dicks—former cops Christopher Lanzillo and Scott Impola—didn't catch Mensinger doing blow or paying for hookers, but they did allegedly illegally track him with a GPS device. And when Councilman Jim Righeimer, another city official the union didn't like, left a friend's bar one night in July, 2012, they called police to report a DUI. Unfortunately, the cop who pulled over Righeimer must not have been in on the plan because he quickly ascertained that the politico hadn't been drinking. And the incident led to the allegations that the Costa Mesa police union conspired to frame city officials.

The two PIs now each face multiple felony charges, including conspiracy to commit a crime of unlawful use of an electronic tracking device, false imprisonment by deceit, and conspiracy to commit a crime of falsely reporting crime.

Author Ron DeLord, a former police officer and union representative who, in 1992, led the boycott against Time Warner for releasing the Ice-T album including the track "Cop Killer," had no comment about the potentially illegal practices of some police unions to get their way, but did say that the influence of unions seems to be waning.

"Police unions had been getting what they wanted—good pay, benefits, policies they were in favor of—for a long time," DeLord, who lives in Texas, said. "Both parties wanted their endorsement, even if it went against their ideology because they didn't want to appear soft on crime. But what that means is changing."

DeLord cited both body cam legislation enacted around the country and a new Texas open-carry gun law as examples of political battles lost by police unions. If he's right and police union power is in decline, that could explain the clashes between unions and the public that have flared up in recent months.

One of these flare-ups happened a few miles west of Hallandale Beach in Pembroke Pines. It started in September, when Kenneth Davenport, a 19-year-old Arby's employee, was accused by Sergeant Jennifer Martin of denying her service. Martin claimed that when she tried to pay for her food, Davenport wouldn't run her credit card. Davenport's 21-year-old assistant manager, Angel Mirabel, then stepped in to process the payment and told Martin, "He doesn't want to serve you because you are a police officer."

After Martin filled out a report detailing the incident, it became a national news story. Davenport was lambasted on Facebook as a cop-hater, the Broward County Police Benevolent Association called for a national boycott of the restaurant chain, and the CEO of Arby's came down to Florida to personally apologize. But after Arby's conducted an investigation, they found Davenport wasn't to blame—he didn't process Martin's card because he was doing another task in the restaurant and asked Mirabal to help. And Mirabal's remark to the cop was apparently an awkward joke. He was fired, and Davenport was suspended but kept his job.

"African Americans fought against discrimination using boycotts. We're exercising out First Amendment right to do the same." –Jeff Merano

When asked if the Broward PBA maybe went a bit too far in going after Arby's and the two employees, Jeff Marano, president of the Broward Police Benevolent Association, was sarcastic: "So Arby's conducted their own internal investigation and what they came up with should be accepted, right? They investigated themselves and nobody should question them?"

He continued: "Look, police officers are being discriminated against around the country simply because of their job. African Americans fought against discrimination using boycotts. We're exercising out First Amendment right to do the same."

Drawing an analogy to the plight black Americans have faced in this country seems to be a talking point for many police union leaders.

In October, a cop went into a Providence, Rhode Island Dunkin' Donuts and ordered a cup of coffee. The cop, whose name was never released, was given back a cup with "#BlackLivesMatter" written on it. During the ensuing media hubbub, Fox News' Greta Sustern invited Lieutenant Roger Aspinall of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police on her show. During that interview, Aspinall said writing #BlackLivesMatter on a cop's coffee is akin to "an act of war."

Aspinall elaborated on those thoughts in a recent phone call.

"Our guys and gals are being attacked out there, put under a miscroscope. They're just trying to do their job and go home at the end of the day," he said. "But they're being treated like this and discriminated against simply because of the uniform they wear. If somebody doesn't get served because of their race, that's a big deal and it should be. We are getting discriminated against because of our uniform, but somehow that's OK."

When asked if some of the boycotts and protests are petty, Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which has more than 300,000 members, also drew the racial discrimination analogy.

"It's like when civil rights leaders used their First Amendment rights to fight against discrimination," Pasco said.

Pasco went on to say that despite public and political opinion leaning towards lesser sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, he believes that the FOP, which doesn't support strong sentencing reform for drug offenses, will convince politicians to stick to their old voting habits.

"A person who gets caught with a pound of cocaine, even if it's his first arrest, is not a nonviolent criminal," he said. "The drug business is inherently violent. Do you really think a person with that kind of amount didn't do anything to be able to get it?"

There are certainly individual cops in favor of reforms supported by BLM activists and others. When Denver's police union sued the city on Wednesday over its new body cam policy, the group made clear that they generally support body cams, they just object to their being implemented without sufficient input from officers. But more and more, the role of police unions is to push back against increased scrutiny—and as the Hallandale Beach union demonstrated, they won't hesitate to go after fellow cops who stand in their way.

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