On December 20, 2014, a twenty-eight-year-old man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley walked up to a parked patrol car in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, pulled out a semiautomatic handgun, and fired several shots at the officers sitting inside, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, killing them both before either could draw his own gun. Brinsley then ran down into a subway station and killed himself. He had written on social media that he wanted revenge for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed African-American men who had been killed by the police that summer. Brinsley was a troubled individual who earlier that day had expressed a desire to commit suicide, and had shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend before publishing an Instagram post expressing his plans to put “wings on pigs” and hopping on a bus from Baltimore to New York. Baltimore County authorities had tried to warn the NYPD, but word got through only as Brinsley was approaching the officers’ car.
The killings were a tragedy. But for Patrick Lynch, the longtime head of New York’s Police Benevolent Association (PBA), they were also a political opportunity. Like many in the NYPD, Lynch had been infuriated by marches protesting the killings of Brown, who was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and Garner, whom NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put in a fatal choke hold for the grave crime of selling “loosies”—individual cigarettes—on Staten Island. A grand jury’s decision to let Pantaleo walk had prompted a fresh wave of protests, with the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio. For the PBA, it scarcely mattered that the protests in New York had been peaceful, or that there were serious questions about the Brooklyn shooter’s motivations. “There’s blood on many hands tonight,” Lynch announced from the scene of the crime on the evening of the officers’ killing. “Those that incited violence on this street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did everyday. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.”
A plainly shaken de Blasio tried to defuse the situation, calling for the protests to be suspended until the officers’ funerals, and asking all New Yorkers “to think about families that just lost their father, their husband, their son.” Even so, many cops sought to humiliate the new mayor, turning their backs to him when he attended the officers’ funerals. The PBA went on to encourage a de facto work stoppage throughout the city, making no arrests “unless absolutely necessary.” crime wave, read a gleeful anticipatory headline in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.
The cops carried out their threat. Over a seven-week period, arrests for non-major crimes fell by 18 percent from the same period the previous year; the use of stop-and-frisk fell by 45 percent; and criminal summonses fell by 53 percent. But much to the chagrin of the police, chaos did not engulf the city they had sworn to protect. Instead, crime continued to drop, just as it would through the curtailment of stop-and-frisk and the decriminalization of marijuana—both of which were vehemently opposed by the police and their unions—and just as it had for decades, in New York City and around the country, despite all the changes that the police warned would bring on the apocalypse. “If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds,” asked Matt Ford in The Atlantic, “why haven’t they done it before?”
There is no worse move in power politics than to bluff and get caught out. Yet the cops kept up the heat, relentlessly excoriating the mayor and his police commissioner at every opportunity. When a man shot and wounded two police officers in the Bronx this February, the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA), the other large police union in New York, tweeted, “Mayor DeBlasio, the members of the NYPD are declaring war on you!” Apparently, this tactic worked. When the demonstrations over George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis began in late May, de Blasio stood by the cops even as they were caught on video beating and pepper-spraying protesters, shoving them into the gutter, and ramming into them with patrol cars and bicycles.
“I’m not going to blame officers who were trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation,” the mayor insisted, until his advisers publicly criticized him and city hall staff held their own demonstration. The police, for their part, responded to the mayor’s support by demanding permission to be even more violent, and rushing to inform the media that the mayor’s daughter, Chiara, had been arrested at a protest and charged with “failure to disperse.” “Is that why you’re tying our hands, because your daughter is out there?” taunted Ed Mullins, the head of the SBA.
How did we get here? How has the power of the police in the country’s biggest city eclipsed that of its mayor? It’s been widely noted as of late that police forces in the South began as slave patrols. But in Northern cities, the evolution of the police was a more complicated story, in which the force became a social wedge for Irish-Catholic immigrants. As they began to build America’s first great political machines in the 1840s, Irish Catholics took over city departments, including the police. But within the machine, cops didn’t become cops without kicking back a large portion of their meager salaries to the bosses or their precinct captains. The only way they could recoup that money was by shaking down brothels, gambling rooms, illegal prizefights, counterfeiters, and drug dens.
In other words, cops in many American cities were made into criminals the moment they put on the uniform. They served as the vital link between politics, commerce, and crime, and were expected, as Luc Sante put it, to be “stern with the poor and benevolent to what was held as the respectable part of society.” Police extorted legitimate businesses as well as rackets, and clubbed honest citizens as well as criminals. They brutally quashed strikes. And when black people began to arrive in Northern cities in large numbers, the police upheld the color line, openly aiding and even instigating attacks by white mobs in black communities.
With the advent of the New Deal and the social-welfare state, the machines began to die off, and the police were on their own. They began selling themselves to white America as the “thin blue line” between order and chaos in the nation’s cities. There was a measure of truth to this: by the 1960s, cities shed industrial jobs and were transformed into underfunded dumping grounds for the mentally ill, homeless, and addicted, leaving cops, firefighters, and hospital and social workers to pick up the pieces. But as people of color saw it, the police were a force that hypocritically accepted bribes from organized crime to bring drugs into the city and allowed their squads to rampage through poor black and brown neighborhoods, arresting low-level dealers and users who would then serve major prison time under the infamous Rockefeller drug laws.
All the while, laws permitting collective bargaining among public employees were leading to the formation of police unions across the country. From the first, they staged massive, fearmongering media campaigns to derail attempts to create civilian review boards that might monitor their actions. “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting,” shouted John Cassese, head of the PBA, in 1966. While most of New York’s municipal workers were and are required to live within city limits, the same is not true of the police, having won an exemption in 1962 largely because they kept flouting the residency rules with false addresses. White Americans had not only fled the cities, but had taken their cops with them.
During New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1975, police who were understandably upset about job and wage cuts complained and protested but also joined firefighters in an attempt to distribute pamphlets reading welcome to fear city at New York’s airports. Complete with a cowled skull on the cover, the brochure warned visitors that, thanks to budget cuts, there was little that police could do to save people from robbery, rape, fire, or murder. Two years later, when widespread riots broke out during the 1977 blackout, some 40 percent of the police force, still upset about the budget cuts, did not report for duty. When they received praise for not killing a single rioter, the NYPD went a step further, claiming that only two cops had so much as fired their guns during the riots. This was a lie—and one that Ed Koch, taking the right-hand lane in the city’s mayoral election, used to suggest that the National Guard should have been called in to prevent looting.
The NYPD’s reaction to the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s soon became standard among police everywhere: professional victimhood, laced with a threat. If we do not let police do as they want, they will stand back and let our cities—not their cities, all too often—burn to the ground. This was the reality in places like Detroit, where a great American metropolis was all but destroyed by police whose crackdown on a black-owned, unlicensed bar set off the 1967 riots that made the city’s very name shorthand for urban collapse. Meanwhile, any and all civilian supervision is cast as an existential threat, one that would leave officers too demoralized to do their jobs. When Pantaleo, who has still managed to dodge criminal charges, was finally fired from the NYPD in 2019 after a five-year disciplinary process, Lynch lamented like an opera diva: “The job is dead. Our police officers are in distress. Not because they have a difficult job, not because they put themselves in danger, but because they realize they’re abandoned.”
Inevitably, perhaps, police will feel the need to have one another’s backs and develop a certain esprit de corps. But their unions have taken this to dangerous extremes. In 1992, for example, New York cops held a drunken rally around city hall, stopping traffic, vandalizing cars, and spewing racial epithets at people of color. More recently, they have insisted on their members’ First Amendment right to attend classes such as Dave Grossman’s “The Bulletproof Mind” and “The Bulletproof Warrior,” which offer training in what he calls “killology.” Grossman, who insists that “we are at war,” preaches in these sessions that cops should fear imminent death at all times, but that, for the properly prepared “warrior,” killing another human being is “just not that big a deal,” and can lead to “some very intense sex.” According to a police watchdog group, Grossman’s course also teaches police to “question any previous training they’ve undergone.”
At the same time, police unions seek to carve big salary and benefit packages out of city budgets and influence policy decisions by campaigning for political allies—since 2015, New York’s PBA alone has spent $1.4 million on lobbying and campaign contributions. They have also continued to oppose efforts to legalize marijuana, end random stops and searches, and eliminate bail for petty, nonviolent offenses.
Pushing agendas on behalf of themselves at the expense of those they ostensibly work for, the police have become so politicized that a movement has begun pushing for the abolition of their unions. “Ultimately, police unions protect their own, and the contracts they bargain keep killers, domestic abusers, and white supremacists in positions of deadly power—or provide them with generous pensions should they leave,” wrote Kim Kelly in the New Republic. Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, told The Intercept that the police “aren’t workers even in the way that firemen are workers. Police defend property. They have historically defended white property. We’re not in a place where that is going to change.”
But no American worker should be denied the right to organize, and getting rid of police unions would likely simply push their activities underground, even further from public scrutiny. Abolishing police unions would also contribute to the nose-under-the-tent, long-term right-wing project to eliminate all public-employee unions. How long after abolishing police unions do we hear the Murdoch media asking, If the police can’t have a union, why should teachers have one? Or hospital workers?
Perhaps the better course of action is to disassociate police unions from larger union organizations, such as the AFL-CIO, which may or may not convince police unions to reconsider what they are doing, but which would at least have the liberating effect of allowing labor to say, without equivocation, which side it is on. Just this June, the Writers Guild of America, East (to which I belong) called on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations: “As long as police unions continue to wield their collective bargaining power as a cudgel, preventing reforms and accountability, no one is safe.”
Many municipal unions vociferously defend their members’ rights. But the head of the teachers’ union does not go around insulting the mayor and his children. Nor does the head of the nurses’ union declare that workers are at war when members of the union die on the job, and the head of the transit workers’ union doesn’t insist that subway operators have the right to ignore their official training and take external courses that instruct them to drive their trains any damned way they please. If the police deserve the right to a union, and to have their say in public debate, then they must exhibit the same levels of respect, goodwill, and decency toward the people they serve as other unions do.
The fight to reform police departments and their unions will not be easy. For decades now, these unions have balked not just at ending stop-and-frisk or legalizing marijuana but at nearly every progressive societal change. In 1973, New York’s PBA tried to stop female officers from joining street patrols. In 1978, the cops warned us that letting gay and lesbian officers serve openly would be “catastrophic.” Now they cannot operate without choke holds, with body-camera surveillance, or with effective civilian review boards. The sky is still up there, but they keep telling us it is falling.