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  • The Narrative Project

It’s Time to Redirect Protest Efforts to Police Unions

By Mercy A. Quaye

June 22, 2020

A group of protesters camped out in front of police headquarters in Bridgeport last week.
Photo courtesy of CTInsider

Did you hear that statewide sigh of relief after police departments around the state adopted superficial reforms and fired problematic police officers? Yeah, me neither.

If this moment in time is teaching us anything, it’s that protests work. We know that because once they changed from reform to abolish, and thousands took to the streets, municipal and state leaders here in Connecticut and around the world scrambled to make incremental and insufficient reforms.

This isn’t the time for incremental change. This is the time to consider what the issues are and enact tangible policies that restore community faith in public safety systems. Right now, though, there’s an uphill battle in even identifying the issues.

So, let’s start here:

Police unions will forever thwart progress if they're allowed to operate in the ways they always have. And as effective as protests are, lately I’ve been reconsidering the efficacy of marches to the local police department as a lever for change.

In the next phase of civil dissent, those who seek systems reform should redirect their efforts towards the police unions around the state.

Now’s a good time to reaffirm that I’m a huge proponent of organized labor. Unions have been major leaders in change movements throughout the history of our country and even today remain on the front lines of innovation in most cases. The case of police unions is just not one of them.

As citizens, we should decide whether what we want in our systems of public safety is a back office that undercuts the initial purpose. Why should it ever be the case that publicly funded professionals are organized in a way that helps them avoid public accountability? Doesn't that make “profession of public safety” feel like an oxymoron?

In a conversation with Melvin Medina, the public policy and advocacy director with the ACLU of Connecticut, he describes these unions as “People who have made their business in protecting police and thwarting police accountability.”

“Police unions are organizing at the local and the state level,” he said. “They use that as a way to control what happens within their profession. They start PACs, apply pressure and control political outcomes.”

Contrary to other forms of organized labor - like the ones that ensure schools don’t exceed a set number of students per classroom or demand that factory workers get a certain number of breaks - police unions work strategically to ensure that officer-involved shootings don’t result in a loss of a job.

“Police union contracts as currently negotiated in Connecticut embolden officers to carry on in their duties with little thought to the consequences of their actions,” Medina said. “Under the guise of negotiating workplace conditions, police unions undermine the ability of the public to seek redress for the harm that officers and departments inflict.”

Through this, public servants can take or endanger your life and feel secure in the fact that the chances of charges are slim, and that they may not even lose their job. That should haunt you. Our systems of public safety should work to protect the people of the communities they serve, not the payroll or pensions of employees who threaten the safety they're sworn to protect.

Because of this failure in our system, most protests in front of police departments can only ever have incremental progress. Though Bridgeport might be the only exception to that.

As this is being written, protesters are occupying the grounds of the Bridgeport police department to demand the immediate removal of Officer James Boulay, who is credited for the shooting of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old high school student whose death was caught on camera on May 9, 2017. In that video, Negron was seen wounded and handcuffed on the ground where he received no medical attention.

According to a press release distributed by the Justice for Jayson coalition, Bridgeport’s police chief is among the few who have internal authority to immediately terminate an employee per the city's collective bargaining agreement. Once the chief fires that employee, it would trigger a grievance process that is arduous and complicated, but possible to navigate.

Police chiefs and mayors don’t always have that authority. Often demands that officers be removed fall on the ears of leaders whose hands are tied because actions of that kind are considered personnel matters governed by union contracts.

“Elected officials, specifically mayors and town councils, actively undermine police accountability when they approve these contracts,” Medina said. “Elected officials have abdicated their responsibility to hold police accountable by negotiating their power away in police union contracts. Police unions have effectively convinced elected officials that they need to negotiate whether and to what degree they can hold police accountable for misconduct or killing people.”

Because of these unions and because of these contracts, communities that don’t want violent officers on their streets have no authority to demand any change. Without the accountability measures that police associations have spent millions to lobby against in Connecticut, these unions are able to operate more like organized crime than organized labor.

The last few weeks have taught us that protests work. But it might be time to find a new protest target.

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