A spokesperson for Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young said the mayor was “disappointed” in the comment and planned to discuss it with Sgt. Mike Mancuso, the union president. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland responded by calling Mancuso’s statement “unacceptable.” The organization wrote: “We know that trust between community members and the police has been broken for a long time. Comments like this do nothing to repair that trust. Instead it encourages racial profiling tactics, excessive force, and excuses officers in advance for disregarding the rights of Black children.”
Josie Duffy Rice, president of The Appeal, wrote, “This is not normal human behavior.” She is right, of course, but the tweet has garnered tremendous attention precisely because it is normal in the context of police unions. Attorney Flint Taylor has documented some of the reactionary and discriminatory stances taken by police unions, including in Milwaukee in 2014, when the Police Association called for, and obtained, a vote of no confidence in the police chief after he fired the officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black man. “In a show of solidarity with the killer of Michael Brown, Chicago’s FOP [solicited] contributions to the Darren Wilson defense fund on its website,” Taylor wrote. These actions, he argues, “are a fundamental component” of police unions’ history, as these “organizations have played a powerful role in defending the police, no matter how outrageous and racist their actions, and in resisting all manner of police reforms.”
In June 1966, for example, Taylor writes, New York City Mayor John Lindsay responded to widespread complaints of police brutality by calling for a civilian review board. In response, 5,000 off-duty NYPD officers rallied at City Hall in opposition. Pat Lynch, the head of the Police Benevolent Association said, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting. Any review board with civilians on it is detrimental to the operations of the police department.” By using the specter of increased crime to scare the public, the union succeeded in defeating the measure.
One particularly troubling, yet typical, aspect of Mancuso’s tweet is his exhortation to police to “protect each other.” For many, this message is consistent with much of contemporary police leadership, especially among unions, which prioritize, above all else, officer safety. As the ACLU points out in its response, Mancuso’s message validates those community members who distrust police, believing them to protect their own safety even if it means hurting children. And as it turns out, the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that police don’t actually have a duty to protect the public.
Union leaders might sincerely believe they are under attack. A 2017 video released by a New York City police union, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, claims that “blue racism”––racism against police officers––is even more racist than racism against racial minorities. “The video essentially treats ‘blue’ as a race, arguing that a police badge and uniform colors how typical Americans see a person—with negative results,” writes German Lopez for Vox. “In doing this, the video tries to turn around criticisms of racism against the police by claiming that it’s actually the police who are victims of racism.” The video attempts to support its argument by misquoting the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr., claiming he said “their color” when he actually said “the color of their skin.”
Vilifying and dehumanizing children was another salient part of Mancuso’s message, telling officers not to “fall into the trap that they are only kids. Some are criminals!” America has moved on from the days when politicians could scare the public about “superpredators”––such language has become a liability––but when it comes to police unions, it might as well be 1993.
And although race was not mentioned specifically, the implication was clear. Earlier this year, New York City’s Sergeants Benevolent Association said on Twitter that Trevor Bates, a linebacker for the Detroit Lions accused of punching an officer, “acted beyond that of a wild animal,” adding, “he’s dog crap.” As reported in the New York Times, “Joo-Hyun Kang, the director of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of grass-root and civil liberties groups, called the union’s characterization of Mr. Bates ‘racist’ and said it fit a pattern of union officials using racist language to target black people.”
Lynch, the NYPD’s officer union leader, “has never seen an act of force by a police officer that he deemed excessive or unjustified,” writes Judith Levine. “Lynch comes off looking like the Last White Man, the latest in a long line of white men holding the barbarians from the gate: the Viscount de Rochambeau in Haiti, William Travis at the Alamo, Bull Connor defending Birmingham from integration, if necessary, to his grave.” Levine adds that “the ‘man’ part of white man is as important as the ‘white’ part. White American manhood has always been entwined with fantasies of black male predation and the defense of pure white womanhood from defilement. That’s why castration was the punishment of choice for black men or boys suspected of crossing the color line.” She believes that Lynch embodies “injured hypermasculinity.”
Often, though, police unions oppose reforms that do not threaten their safety or jobs, standing in the way of prisoner enfranchisement and phone calls to family members. For Natasha Lennard, police union campaigns that fight justice reforms indiscriminately “go far beyond advocacy for union members’ well-being, wages, and job security. They seek to reinscribe the myth of the criminal “other”—people deserving only of punishment and exclusion. It is the carceral logic through which law enforcement continues to find justification for its authority.” Lennard concludes that law enforcement unions are not simply barriers to criminal justice reform and decarceration because of economic concerns for their members. “As their campaigns and rhetoric make clear, their commitment is not only to mass incarceration as a job provider, but to the system of racist oppression and unjust societal organization that these jobs uphold.”
All of this became only more urgent and relevant last week, when the White House announced that President Trump plans to nominate Chuck Canterbury, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.