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How White Police Union Leadership Impacts Officers Of Color And Their Communities

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, as demands for change have grown over the years, both activists and city leaders have cited police unions as a roadblock. Like all unions, police unions negotiate salaries and benefits for their officers, fight for job protections and often defend officers who have been accused of wrongdoing. But a new report questions whether the leadership of these unions truly represent the values and perspectives of their members. As departments have become more diverse, the same has not been true of union leadership.

Reporting by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice, found that of the 15 largest departments in which a majority of officers are people of color, only one has a union leader who is black. That's in Memphis.

Joining us now to tell us more about why this could matter is Eli Hager. He is a staff writer for The Marshall Project and co-author with Weihua Li of a recent article entitled "A Major Obstacle To Police Reform: The Whiteness Of Their Union Bosses." And he's with us now from his home office in New York City. Eli Hager, thanks so much for joining us.

ELI HAGER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you looked at cities where the majority of officers on the force are people of color but their union leaders are white - cities like Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans or here in Washington, D.C. What do you think that means for the officers that those unions represent?

HAGER: Well, it means a couple of things. There was a survey done by Pew Research a couple of years ago that found that more than 92% of white officers - white police officers - believe the United States has already achieved equal rights for black people while only 29% of black officers do. And similarly, while only 27% of white officers believe that these protests going on are motivated by a genuine desire for justice, 70% of black officers do. So I cite those statistics just to say that black and white police officers have very different views of policing and the problems in policing. And when you only have white officers at the top of unions speaking for police officers, you don't get that range of views represented.

MARTIN: Give me some examples from your reporting of some of the reforms that people have pushed for, including, sometimes, police chiefs have pushed for that these union leaders have resisted - that many people are now pointing to as things that would be important in addressing the kind of fraught relationships that we are now seeing again, you know, come to the fore.

HAGER: Right. So some of the reforms have been to make disciplinary records public. And unions have fought vigorously against that because they don't want the disciplinary records of their officers to be public information. Also, people have said that cops accused of wrongdoing should have to say what they did and what happened immediately. But unions have pushed to give them 10 or 12 days to come up with their statements and to kind of get their stories straight. And that's been an impediment to accountability.

Another thing that unions have fought for is to reduce the power of civilian review boards. And in some instances we found, they even helped police officers who had posted racist messages on social media - they helped those officers get rid of those so they couldn't be used against them.

MARTIN: Given that, you know, having more diverse police departments that are more reflective of the communities they serve has been a key kind of push, you know, for decades now - but why do you think it is that people of color aren't attaining these roles inside unions when as the number of black and Latino officers have been increasing for the last decade?

HAGER: Well, I think it's for two reasons. One has to do with the systemic racism within the unions. And the other has to do with the way that black officers absorb that systemic racism. So on the one hand, you have white leaders already who are only recruiting people like themselves for leadership roles. And you have white officers who say that if there's a black candidate for union leadership, they're less likely to vote for that person because they think that a black union leader won't be as vocal, won't be as energetic and robust in their defense of law enforcement. That's their prejudiced assumption about what a black union leader would be like.

So you have kind of the systemic racism coming from that direction. But then you also have black officers who look at the police union and look at the chance to run the police union and just really aren't interested. I had several black police leaders and officers tell me that they don't like the old boys club culture of police unions. They don't like how police unions so often use racist language when they describe these kinds of protests. They relate to people in the black community who are upset with policing, and they don't want to be part of this whole us-versus-them mentality that unions so often embody.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that you point out in your piece is that sometimes the way these union leaders describe people protesting police violence - it can be very harsh. You said, for example, the president of Minneapolis' police union called George Floyd a violent criminal. He called those protesting his killing by a police officer a terrorist movement. A union chief in Baltimore once said that Black Lives Matter activists were a lynch mob. One in Philadelphia referred to them as a pack of rabid animals. And so you - you know, you sort of point out that there's a real - if you want sort of a perfect illustration of kind of the difference between how many sort of activists see police violence and how some of these union leaders see it, that's as stark as you can get. What do you think it means that they express themselves that way?

HAGER: Well, I mean, I would go beyond calling it harsh. I think that that language is racist. I mean, calling Black Lives Matter activists a pack of rabid animals or calling the democratically elected prosecutor in St. Louis, who is black and progressive, calling her a menace to society who must be removed by force, which a union leader in St. Louis did - it's racist language. And I mean, obviously, racism is systemic. And there are black officers who have done racist things. In fact, there's some research suggesting that black officers are just as likely as white officers to use deadly force.

But that being said, you would imagine that if there was more representation of black police officers at the tops of police unions, you wouldn't hear that same rhetoric, which is inflammatory and which increases the divide between police and the people that they're supposed to represent.

MARTIN: That was Eli Hager. He's a staff writer at The Marshall Project, which covers criminal justice. His latest piece, co-authored with Weihua Li, is called "A Major Obstacle To Police Reform: The Whiteness Of Their Union Bosses." Eli Hager, thanks so much for talking to us.

HAGER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "ALBERTO BALSALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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