As the backlash continues against police violence in the aftermath of multiple African-Americans being killed by officers, one wrinkle in the ongoing debate has been the aggressive reaction of law enforcement itself to the public criticism and protest.
Among the recent examples, a New York City police union has urged members to ban Mayor Bill de Blasio from their funerals if they die in the line of duty, saying it would be “an insult to that officer’s memory and sacrifice” after the mayor’s handling of Eric Garner’s death at the hand of an NYPD officer. A St. Louis police association demanded that the NFL and St. Louis Rams discipline players who walked onto the field before a game making the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture associated with the Michael Brown shooting. A police union in Cleveland called a Browns player’s T-shirt protesting the Tamir Rice and John Crawford shootings there “pretty pathetic.”
It isn’t unusual for police unions to urge public calm and defend their members’ constitutional rights to due process in the event of an officer-involved shooting. What is different in these cases, experts say, is the kind of rhetoric that unions are deploying to counter critics of the police.
“It strikes me as being very strident, more strident than usual,” William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, told TPM in a phone interview of the Cleveland police union’s statement specifically.
“Normally, it’s a very procedural justice message: ‘Just wait and see what the investigation finds,'” he continued. “These messages are different. They seem almost, perhaps, maybe, just a little bit antagonistic.”
Charles Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, told TPM that he thought both sides had the right to express their opinions. But he has sensed a change among his peers.
“What you’ve got to understand is that cops don’t like to be criticized. We have a hard job to do. … Cops are just like everybody else, especially when they think they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “But I would have to tell you, yes, they have become quite a bit more defensive.”
That reflects an unmistakable sentiment among police officers that they have been unfairly targeted after these high-profile officer-involved shootings, which helps explain their forceful reactions to criticism. “Police officers feel like they are being thrown under the bus,” Patrick Lynch, president of the NYC police union that criticized de Blasio, said at a recent press conference.
Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County police association, which opposed the Rams players’ public displays, outlined the group’s position in a Tuesday phone interview with TPM. While noting that local law enforcement is attempting to bridge the divides exacerbated by the Brown shooting, he said that the Rams’ protest was “offensive” to members of the police community.
As for the call for discipline of the players, Crocker defended the decision.
“What’s interesting is that it’s the same kind rhetoric that’s used against us,” he said. “Why can’t a police union demand that, after what it deems as misconduct, why can’t it demand discipline?”
He also acknowledged that the emotional rawness of the current moment contributed to the union’s strong reaction to the players’ actions. Throughout the interview, he referred frequently to the “misunderstandings, misrepresentations and mischaracterizations” being perpetuated about the shooting, pointing to the media and other interested parties.
The Rams’ protest was another very public manifestation of that, and Crocker called the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture part of the “false narrative” that had been “debunked.”
“We’re still bloodletting here. We haven’t even made it to the emergency room as a community,” he said. “Why rip the bandages off?”
Officials from the Cleveland and New York City police unions did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.
Another academic who studies police unions, Ed Maguire, a criminal justice professor at American University in Washington, D.C., told TPM that he has been speaking recently with members of law enforcement and seemed to find an outlook similar to Crocker’s.
“Down to a person, what they’re saying is ‘It’s such a horrible time right now, such a difficult time to be a police officer. We’re under attack from every angle,” Maguire said. “So it does seem like some of the more vocal police unions are ramping up in a way that we haven’t seen in the past.”
Everybody has their theory for why these specific shootings have become such a national flashpoint, though it is undoubtedly founded in the deep racial inequalities that have stained the American judicial system since slavery. King said that nobody can be sure what will set off such a firestorm. Crocker said he believed that the police were in some ways bearing the brunt for a broader dissatisfaction with U.S. institutions and socioeconomic injustices. “Certainly in some cases, I think that’s a part of it,” he said.
Confidence in police remains relatively high (53 percent in June, according to Gallup), but it is down from the early 2000s in the wake of 9/11 when it reached as high as 64 percent. Those overarching numbers, however, don’t fully reflect the stark differences along racial lines.
A confluence of factors could be contributing to a fraying between law enforcement and their communities — and, in turn, an increased defensiveness. Crime rates have been sinking for years, while Maguire observed that some police had become more preoccupied with anti-terrorism after 9/11, drifting in some places from traditional community policing.
“My general impression is that following 9/11, American police departments in some instances have jumped in with both feet to deal with counterterrorism, anti-terrorism issues,” he said. “Community policing, which is the principle reform in American policing designed to improve community relations, has in some cases received quite a bit less attention.”
“I do think that one of the things these recent incidents are doing in the policing industry,” he continued, “is reminding police executives how important it is not to forget about community policing.”
Wilson, with the black police group, said that the task for law enforcement now is returning to its community policing role.
“People just don’t think the system is working fairly for them. In some respects, I have to tell them, ‘No, it’s not,'” he said. “The basics of community policing are still the same. You have to understand the people in the community. You have to be able to gain their trust and respect.”
Lead photo: In this Dec. 5, 2014, AP file photo, a police officer pushes protesters away from an arrest during a march in New York to protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner.