Why Do Police Unions Talk and Act Like the Mafia? How Can We Stop Them?

Police officers in Buffalo, New York shove an elderly man to the ground during a protest on June 5, 2020. (Photo: Screengrab/WBFO)

Why Do Police Unions Talk and Act Like the Mafia? How Can We Stop Them?

It's been difficult, if not impossible, to end the career of the worst cops who commit many of the abuses.

Finally! After an unforgettable week in which America -- already reeling from the brutal caught-on-video Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, on top of a pandemic, a recession, and ... everything -- watched with dropped jaw literally dozens of videos of police clubbing, shoving, or driving into peaceful protesters, or tear-gassing them, and even maiming some for life with rubber bullets, some officers are finally standing up and declaring: "I quit."

The problem is, the 57 members of the police riot response unit in Buffalo, N.Y., who "resigned" -- to be clear, these cops aren't giving up their jobs, pay or benefits, but rather shirking their assignment to a special unit -- on Saturday weren't opposing the shocking brutality in their ranks but tacitly supporting it. They are instead protesting the local prosecutor who viewed a viral video of two Buffalo cops in full Robocop attire violently shoving a 75-year-old peace activist to the pavement and cracking his skull, and reached the same conclusion as the rest of America. He charged them with a criminal assault.

OK, not all of America. After a hearing for the two officers Saturday morning, more than 100 people, many from the Buffalo law enforcement community, formed a phalanx outside the courthouse to cheer and applaud for Officers Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski, the "hero cops" who sent activist Martin Gugino to the pavement, as blood poured from his ear. That crowd numbered more than 100 larger than the number of front-line cops -- zero, to be exact -- who aided the motionless senior citizen.

The shover-cop cheering society convened after the union president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, John Evans, said in a statement that the officers had been "merely following orders" to clear the square where a protest had occurred, adding bizarrely that Gugino "did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards." It's not often that you hear the defense from the Nuremberg trials and the standard line of your garden-variety wife beater invoked in the same statement.

What's truly galling, though, is that these bullying tactics from so many American police unions, acting like a protection racket and sounding more like the Mafia than anything remotely "benevolent," have been brutally effective -- until now. Could this week's incredible scenes of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets protesting state-sanctioned violence and white supremacy, coupled with polls showing a massive drop in support for the police, really be a turning point? Will bullied, cowed, and sometimes bought-off politicians finally listen to the voice of the people?

The almost unshakable influence of police unions in American civic life, and especially in big cities, has been building at least a half century -- mainly since the aftermath of urban unrest in the 1960s and '70s -- but the six years since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged from the ashes of Ferguson have finally brought the issue into sharper focus.

Not only is the public now seeing cellphone videos of police brutality, but it's learning that many of these cops have been the subject of multiple complaints -- yet protected by union rules or arbitration from any meaningful discipline. What's more, the mild reforms from America's first black president, Barack Obama, the election of progressive mayors and prosecutors like Philadelphia's Larry Krasner, and the rise of Donald Trump -- endorsed in 2016 by many of these unions -- has heightened a paranoid style and an embrace of authoritarianism by cop-union leaders.

A quick flyover of America reveals the problem:

In Minneapolis, amid the birth of Black Lives Matter and their city's appointment of a reform-minded chief, the local police union in 2015 elected a new president, Lt. Bob Kroll, even though he's the subject of 29 complaints, was accused in a lawsuit by black officers -- including the current top cop -- of promoting a hostile work environment (wearing a biker patch linked to white supremacy), and once boasted, "I was involved in three shootings myself, and not one of them has bothered me." Kroll was a featured speaker at an October 2019 Trump rally in which he blamed Obama for "oppression" of police and praised the current president who "put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of [on] us." Eight months later, after the handcuffed Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis cop, Kroll doubled down, writing in a letter to members that the citizens protesting his death are "a terrorist organization."

In New York City, where online watchers have been shocked this week by the images of a police riot, with officers shoving, striking and abusing citizens, and using the excuse of an ill-advised curfew to arrest thousands of peaceful demonstrators, maybe viewers would be less surprised if they knew the head of NYC's Sergeants Benevolent Association had not so benevolently tweeted in February at Mayor Bill de Blasio that "the members of the NYPD are declaring war on you!" When de Blasio's adult daughter was arrested at a protest this week -- a curious enough event -- that same union event tweeted out her address, or "doxxing," as kids today like to call it.

Closer to home in Delaware County, a police sergeant in the county seat of Media -- and vice president of the county police union -- is reportedly on administrative leave after a bizarre episode with a local shopkeeper who voiced support on Facebook for Black Lives Matter, only to see Sgt. Robert "Skippy" Carroll reply from the official FOP account: "If you choose to speak out against the police or our members, we will do everything in our power to not support your business," later adding on his own personal Facebook page, "Try us. We'll destroy you."

OK, Skippy. The sergeant deleted the post and then there was a follow-up where Carroll and Delco's new Democratic DA, Jack Stollsteimer, showed up at this guy's sandwich shop and hugged it out, leading the shop owner to tell the Delaware County Daily Times that it was all a big misunderstanding. I guess you could say the shopkeeper slipped and fell backward, metaphorically speaking. Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia is still doing everything in its power to destroy the iconic South Philly food purveyor Di Bruno Bros. after its employees voiced objection to an offer of free cop lunches and the store said it would donate to Black Lives Matter.

Maybe it's time to file a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization, or RICO, lawsuit aimed at breaking up this protection racket? The problem is that the bullying tactics work, with major policy consequences. It was so disheartening to watch Buffalo's Democratic mayor, Byron Brown, defend some of the police actions, including the failure to attend to the injured Gugino (although he did criticize the union) on national TV Friday, in what looked like a hostage video.

In New York, de Blasio had been first elected in 2013 as a progressive reformer ending police stop-and-frisk tactics, but he clearly became cowed over the years by the massive resistance he encountered from police unions who famously turned their back on the mayor at a funeral for a slain officer. You can draw a straight line from de Blasio's abandonment of police reform in his second term to his seeming tolerance for police brutality this week and his support of a disastrous curfew policy leading to pointless arrests of peaceful protesters and even essential workers. (Two officers accused of brutality toward protesters were suspended -- not fired -- on Saturday.)

Another serious consequence of police union influence and obstruction is that it's been difficult, if not impossible, to end the career of the worst cops who commit many of the abuses. I watched this first-hand in Philadelphia over the 2010s as my Daily News friends and colleagues Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing shocking abuses in a police narcotics unit, only to see prosecutors clear the cops -- after vicious assaults by FOP leaders on the pair's journalism -- while a cop who was fired won his job back in union arbitration.

One officer identified in the Pulitzer series was Joseph Bologna, who oversaw an elite narcotics unit and was captured on video ordering officers to disable security cameras in a raid on a bodega. He received only a brief suspension for "failure to supervise" and got another plum assignment to run a West Philadelphia precinct where there were scores of new complaints. Promoted nonetheless to staff inspector, Bologna was caught on tape last week viciously beating a Temple University student, leading to felony assault charges -- and serious questions about why he hadn't been stopped sooner.

The biggest reason that police and their unions have been able to abuse their authority is because, generally speaking, voters -- especially white voters -- overwhelmingly trusted them. That has collapsed since the killing of George Floyd. One survey found that overall support for police in America has plunged by double digits, and a whopping 78% told pollsters from Monmouth University that the anger of these protests is justified or somewhat justified.

That's important, because the issue with reining in police unions has never been lack of good ideas, merely a lack of will. Michael Chitwood, a 55-year police veteran who recently retired as chief in Upper Darby, told the Inquirer his No. 1 solution would be to fix the arbitration system to stop the recycling of bad cops -- "that's a bad omen that sends a horrible message."

The way to fix it is through the collective bargaining process, and here in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney -- who's been historically backed by the FOP -- will get another bite at the apple next year. The time for action is long past, but some of the burden falls on us as voters. If you want to curb police abuses, you can't elect politicians begging for their union donations or endorsements.

I strongly believe in the ideal of unions, and I support the ability of police -- like all workers -- to fight for a decent wage and working conditions. But the difference between the FOP and, say, the UAW is that an auto worker can't commit state-sanctioned violence. The need to protect everyday citizens from the too-often violent abuse of authority is paramount. When police union leaders start sounding like Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront, it's time for the people to fight back for our rights.

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