Are the Police Unions Done For?

2020 may go down as the year the tide finally turned against the PBA

It is remarkable, in retrospect, 2014 wasn’t the year the police unions were defeated. In July, a Staten Island police officer placed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in a chokehold and killed him. A month later, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. Mass protests, like today, rocked the nation, and the Black Lives Matter movement was born to combat police brutality. It was going to be the year that changed everything.

Of course, it didn’t really. The reforms that came to police departments were ultimately superficial, like the retraining of certain police and the introduction of body cameras. In New York City, more police were actually hired to repeat an experiment in nebulous reform. From city to city, none of the small reforms changed the nature of men and women with high-grade military-style weapons surveilling overpoliced communities. Harassment of blacks and Latinos didn’t end. Police killings of unarmed Americans continued. For all the optimism of the mid-2010s, it could feel that the movement had not achieved the dramatic reform it set for in those initial days of revolt.

The police unions, particularly in New York, flexed their well-worn muscle and won.

This time is different. The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, so horrific and coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, has catalyzed a mass movement that appears set to deliver greater change. Police unions, which have been an obstacle to reform across America, are on the defensive for the first time since their genesis, failing to intimidate politicians into abandoning reform. Police departments, once spared from coronavirus-induced austerity, are now being targeted for funding cuts across America. Reducing the size and strength of police was once a fringe issue, limited to certain hard left activists. Now it is so commonplace that even Mayor Bill de Blasio, who just days ago was relentlessly defending the conduct of police who were beating protesters with batons and driving vehicles into crowds, can embrace the call to cut money from the NYPD and reallocate it elsewhere.

Most striking, perhaps, is that the State Legislature will vote today to repeal 50-a, the statute in New York State’s civil rights law that blocks the public from accessing the disciplinary records of police officers. On the books since 1976, 50-a is virtually singular as a roadblock to basic transparency—in almost every state in America, a member of the public can find out if a police officer has broken any kind of code of conduct. We know Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, had at least 17 complaints lodged against him. For almost a half century, we couldn’t learn the same about New York police. In 2014, the movement to repeal 50-a fizzled because Republicans, with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s help, controlled the State Senate and these Republicans were very close to law enforcement unions. The police unions fought aggressively to keep 50-a on the books because they understood that if disciplinary records became public, the standing of police would only decrease. New Yorkers could learn, for the first time, just how many dirty cops walked among them. The newspapers would have much more to write about.

Police unions have held remarkable power in New York for decades. The NYPD avoided accountability because rising crime gave police unions the political capital to beat back all but the mildest of reforms. In 1992, police rioted outside City Hall as an African-American mayor, David Dinkins, sought to create the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The Republican attorney who had run against Dinkins in 1989, Rudy Giuliani, attended the protests and egged on police as they blocked traffic and eventually kicked a journalist in the stomach. The next year, Giuliani was elected mayor.

New York City is no longer a city of law-and-order, of white outer borough ethnics with strong affinities for skull-crushing police. Crime is historically low. The five police unions representing members of the NYPD—the officers’ union, the PBA, is the traditional ringleader—and their counterparts in the suburbs are losing their constituencies. The 2020s will be the decade that breaks their hold on the political and popular imaginations. Most notable about the vote to repeal 50-a are the Democrats taking a stand against the retrograde law. James Gaughran and John Brooks, two state senators from swing districts on Long Island, both declared today they would vote for a repeal. The Nassau County and Suffolk County PBA’s have been particularly potent because so much of their membership lives in the suburbs and their campaign war chests are always well-funded. Taking on any legislation opposed by the PBA in either county was a political impossibility for Republicans and Democrats alike. In another year, both Brooks and Gaughran would have sided with the PBA. But the mass protests against police brutality have reached Long Island and the composition of the suburbs is changing. Affluent, highly-educated whites are repudiating Donald Trump. And black and Latino communities continue to grow in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. On Long Island, highly-paid police are on constant patrol for quality-of-life offenses, transforming otherwise bucolic towns into miniature police states. Even conservative residents, otherwise attuned to the demands for law-and-order, are tired of excess police surveillance. Each year, the PBA’s traditional voter base shrinks.

What happens when white moderates like Gaughran and Brooks—Brooks is a former Republican—gain the ability to buck the PBA? If they’re able to survive multiple re-election cycles, the police unions’ suburban might will diminish. Back in New York City, there is no reason for a future mayor to not challenge the police unions directly and call their various bluffs. Throughout history, the unions have won with the threat of disorder. We will stop doing our jobs and crime will skyrocket. We will stop arresting people. We will protest. We will riot. Bill de Blasio was cowed; operating from an outdated mindset, he believed that the police unions could destroy his mayoralty if they weren’t appeased. But the time has come to strike back. Police unions have never been less popular and the calls for far-reaching reform have never been so widespread. The turning point will likely come in 2021, when a new Democratic mayor is elected on the strength of a diverse coalition and this mayor recognizes that the revanchist wailing of police union leaders is no longer reflective of any mass constituency. People of all races are weary of overpolicing. They are tired of police exceptionalism—bloated pensions and laws that place them far beyond other civil service workers—and ready for law enforcement that is held accountable for their sins.

Expect police unions to go on the offense. They will spend aggressively on TV and radio campaigns warning of chaos in the streets if their demands aren’t met. They will mount media campaigns against Democratic lawmakers and seek to villainize as many as they can. It’s the old playbook and it’s always worked. But this isn’t 1992. The public has changed. The cries for law-and-order are now the cries for George Floyd.