Police play the victim when voters choose reform
Last month, longtime public defender Chesa Boudin was elected San Francisco’s next district attorney. His victory was not merely an upset over an interim incumbent with establishment support and an unlikely win for a public defender whose parents served time for felonies; it also came despite the fact that the San Francisco Police Officers’ Association, the city’s police union, outspent Boudin in an effort to defeat him. The union pulled in cash from police unions in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and New York. The San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association aided the effort, too, sharing a John Birch Society video calling Boudin a “communist radical” and a son of “terrorists.”
In New York State, where landmark criminal justice reforms are set to go into effect on Jan. 1, “a familiar chorus of concern has piped up,” according to the New York Times editorial board. “Police Commissioner James O’Neill wrote in an op-ed in May that the law would have a ‘significant negative impact on public safety.’ His successor, incoming Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, expressed similar views” in November. Police unions and prosecutors across the state “have issued ominous warnings.” The Oneida City Police Benevolent Association wrote in a Facebook post, “Think this is wrong & insane? Then tell your politicians that this needs to be repealed ASAP!” Over the summer, the New York Prosecutors Training Institute released audio of a Nassau County assistant district attorney training prosecutors on various ways to work with the police to subvert the new law.
For decades, law enforcement could rely on fearmongering to swing elections, preventing progressives from becoming district attorneys, and keeping reform bills off the books. But now, across the country, “a movement away from incarceration has been a rare point of consensus among Americans who can agree on little else.”
These calls for criminal justice reform have led police to panic, making these sorts of campaigns against reforms more common. “Just as conservatives, going back to the Nixon era, have used debates over the lawfulness of abortion, homosexuality, and pornography to portray themselves as besieged by a liberal elite, police unions, too, now claim they are on the losing side in an ideological struggle,” writes Melissa Gira Grant for the New Republic. It represents a return to the culture war’s origins, she explains, which lie with policing. “Provoking anxiety over law and order helped usher Nixon into the White House in 1968. Where today police unions cast Black Lives Matter activists as their persecutors, conservatives under Nixon pointed to black power activists and the anti-war left.” James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book, “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” brought the term “culture war” into the broader lexicon. Hunter says he was inspired after reading a news story about the arrests of clergy at an abortion protest. He frames the struggle emerging from 1960s social change as a matter less of specific issues than of “progressivism” versus “orthodoxy” more broadly.
But “throughout the 1990s, many who were at odds with one another when it came to other issues, such as abortion or gay rights, were largely in agreement on defending the power of police—whether that meant uniting against Ice T’s ‘Cop Killer’ song… or more sweeping policy proposals,” writes Grant. But the Obama years saw the start of a profound shift. “In demanding accountability from police who kill, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the ways in which the system of policing makes such accountability nearly impossible.” Leaders of the movement argued that police unions shield police from discipline for brutality. And when the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not indicted, “activists pointed to the power held by district attorneys—who rely on police to help them win convictions—in convening and persuading grand juries.”
By the 2016 election, Democrats had backed off from the Clinton-era tough-on-crime consensus. “Contenders in 2016 made abolishing the death penalty part of their platforms,” Grant writes. “By then, it was more common to hear that criminal justice reform was a bipartisan issue—albeit in a limited sense, with centrist overlap on a few modest reforms like creating alternatives to pre-trial detention.” Many of the Democratic candidates of 2020 have pledged unprecedentedly progressive criminal justice plans. And stalwart defenders of harsh law enforcement tactics such as Michael Bloomberg have been forced to walk back those decisions in order to gain any traction with the Democratic base.
Some on the right seem dedicated to stoking the flames of the culture wars. U.S. Attorney General William Barr said last week that if some communities don’t begin showing more respect to law enforcement, they may lose police protection. While giving a speech at the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing, Barr said, “I think today, American people have to focus on … the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves―and if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
But even some purported leftists have played into police unions’ victimhood narrative in similar ways. Last week, a thin blue line flag was spotted on NYPD property. “The flags, featuring a horizontal blue line surrounded by black, are closely linked to Blue Lives Matter, countermovement formed in response to Black Lives Matter,” writes Jake Offenhartz for Gothamist. “Police reform groups claim that the flag denotes racism and a culture of misconduct. In recent years, the flag has appeared frequently at neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies, including the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.” During a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio brushed off questions about whether it is appropriate for the NYPD to fly the thin blue line flag on government property. Later in the day, during the swearing in of new NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, de Blasio left little room for police criticism. “To the doubting Thomases, to the naysayers, if you doubt, then you don’t truly respect the NYPD.” Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University who specializes in police accountability and criminal law, said he was not surprised by de Blasio’s remarks. “The mayor is still the lapdog of the police unions,” Fagan said.