A Major Obstacle to Police Reform: The Whiteness of Their Union Bosses

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This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter

The president of Minneapolis’s police union called George Floyd a “violent criminal” and those protesting his killing by a police officer a “terrorist movement.” A union chief in Baltimore once said Black Lives Matter activists were a “lynch mob”; one in Philadelphia referred to them as “a pack of rabid animals.” Another has labeled St. Louis’s democratically elected prosecutor, who is Black and supports police reform, a “menace to society” who must be removed “by force” if necessary. 

All of these union leaders also have this in common: They are white.

In many cities, police officers are more likely to be white than the people they are sworn to protect and serve. But this is especially true of the presidents of their unions, The Marshall Project found in an analysis of demographic data from major U.S. police departments. Of the 15 largest departments in which a majority of officers are people of color, only one, Memphis, has a union leader who is Black. Another, in Honolulu, is led by an Asian-Pacific Islander, and the union president of the Miami Police Department is white Hispanic.

The Marshall Project confirmed the race of 12 union leaders by asking them or their staff directly, using voter registration records and asking local reporters who cover the police; three leaders who appear to be white in photos on their unions’ websites did not respond to repeated calls. 

About four-fifths of the Miami-Dade Police Department’s officers, who patrol the county surrounding Miami, are people of color, but the head of their union is white. In Atlanta, about two-thirds of officers are people of color, but the union chief is white. It’s a similar story in many other major cities such as Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles: Most police are not white, but the person who represents their interests—who publicly speaks for them—is.

The same is true of the entire leadership structure of many police unions and associations. The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police has no Black officers among its top brass, the union confirmed. California’s statewide FOP appears to have an executive board consisting of nine white men—and one Black man serving as the chaplain. (The board did not respond to multiple calls.)

“It is to the detriment of policing, period, that our community is not represented at police union tables,” said Sonia Pruitt, chairwoman of the National Black Police Association, an advocacy group, not a union, for Black cops. Police unions are so powerful that “if they had leaders who said, ‘Listen, what happened to George Floyd was absolutely terrible,’ officers around the country would follow.”

According to a Pew survey in 2017 of nearly 8,000 police officers nationally, 92 percent of white officers believe the United States has already achieved equal rights for Black people, while only 29 percent of Black officers do. And while only 27 percent of white officers believe that protests against police violence are motivated at least in part by a genuine desire for accountability, roughly 70 percent of Black officers do.

Police unions are so powerful that “if they had leaders who said, ‘Listen, what happened to George Floyd was absolutely terrible,’ officers around the country would follow.”

Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, says he’s “one of the lone Black guys doing this.” 

“I’ve been discriminated against. I wasn’t socioeconomically privileged growing up,” he said. “I understand what these young people in the streets are going through more than some of my white contemporaries.”

Williams also noted that unlike many white union leaders, he personally knows Black pastors, activists and even gang members, which he says helps him defuse community tension in the aftermath of police violence. “We don’t always agree,” he said, “but we have a mutual respect.”

Like other labor organizations, many police unions negotiate salaries and benefits for officers as well as fight for job protections. The role of all union chiefs is to go to battle for workers, so they are often pugnacious and defend members even if charged with wrongdoing, whether representing cops, teachers, truckers, or others.

But this is particularly true of police union leaders, who have long protected members accused of brutality and racism by winning employment contracts that make it difficult or impossible to fire or discipline them. They have also neutered internal-affairs units and civilian review boards, both of which also try to hold bad cops accountable.

Meanwhile, some police unions have paid for warrior training, instead of de-escalation training, for the officers they represent. And they have helped scrub racist cops’ social media pages as a further way of protecting them.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the national association of unions that represents roughly 330,000 officers, or nearly half of all police nationwide, “seems committed to putting white men in charge,” wrote Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor who is a law professor at Georgetown University and the author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” in a 2017 essay for The Marshall Project. “The organization serves as a union cum fraternity for white cops and has a retrograde effect on policing, especially as it relates to civil rights.” 

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, responded to a question about why there is so little minority representation in police union leadership with an email saying, “I don’t respond to questions which telegraph a negative story.”

Vince Champion, the Southeast Regional Director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said he has never heard Black officers complain that they don’t trust him to represent their interests because he is a white man.

“We don’t see color, and we don’t see race,” said Champion, who represents members in the Atlanta Police Department, where 63 percent of sworn officers were people of color, according to the latest available federal data in 2013. “We see blue. As long as you are a fellow officer, your lifestyle doesn’t matter.”

According to a Pew survey in 2017 of nearly 8,000 police officers nationally, 92 percent of white officers believe the United States has already achieved equal rights for Black people, while only 29 percent of Black officers do.

Black officers often have no choice but to join these unions, either because it is mandatory or because they need the collective bargaining power to negotiate their wages and promotions, experts said.

But then the union defends white officers who have committed violent acts against Black people—“and you realize that your values, your community values, as a person who probably has experienced that same kind of treatment when your uniform is off, are not being represented at the top,” said Chris Burbank, a white former police chief in Salt Lake City and now vice president of law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity, an organization that works with local police departments on race issues. 

This is in part why, in dozens of cities, a separate Black police officers’ association also exists. But these are often smaller groups with less influence over how the department operates and less visibility when a major incident occurs.

There are several reasons for the disparities at the head of police unions, law enforcement experts and former police chiefs said. It starts with who gets recruited and encouraged to take leadership positions, they said. And when Black candidates emerge for these top roles, some white officers are suspicious that they won’t be sufficiently pro-law enforcement. 

In recent decades, there has been an increase in the number of Black and Latinx police officers nationally, but that demographic change has yet to be reflected in the higher ranks, experts and former chiefs said. The older guard is still more likely to be white, and to know enough of the union’s insiders to have a chance to lead it.

“Do I ever remember a person of color on my executive board? I don’t,” said Brendan Cox, former police chief in Albany, New York, and also a former union leader there. “I’m white male Irish Catholic, which is not exactly the hardest thing to be in a police department,” he said. “Officers of color who want a leadership position have to prove themselves in a completely different way.”

To be sure, white police can be open to reform. And if elected to union leadership, Black officers may not necessarily take reform-minded stances. Some research has suggested that Black cops are nearly as likely to kill Black people as white ones are, suggesting that racial bias is systemic and that representation alone won’t solve the deep-seated problems in policing.

“Black officers are not a monolith—I think most of us like to talk things out more with the community, and aren’t as angry with the community all the time. But others buy into that ‘us vs. them’ policing mentality,” said Pruitt of the National Black Police Association.

Williams, the president of the Memphis Police Association, has at times defended police officers ferociously (he once put up billboards saying “DANGER: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK” along local highways to protest inadequate pay and benefits for his cops).

But he also says he is aware of the contradictions of his own position. “Sometimes I ask myself, why do I put myself in this situation? My community has problems even seeing that I’m Black; they just say ‘F the police,’” he said.

Williams says he wants to leave his post, but is struggling to find a Black officer to replace him. “It’s hard enough for them these days just to be the police. They just want to stay out of the public eye, and go home to their families,” he said. “It’s easy to find white people, though, to run a union.”

Emilie Eaton from the San Antonio Express-News and The Marshall Project’s Keri Blakinger contributed reporting.

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