Police Unionization and The Damage It’s Done


As we discussed in our introduction to American policing, the values of groups that early departments spawned from never truly left them; even after 150 years. The people that they were created to oppress still suffer under the brutalization of law enforcement, and the police have made sure to get their hands on all of the latest weapons and technology to maximize their efficiency at this. Departments have become exponentially more militarized since their inception with the help of unionization and acts like the Pentagon’s 1033 program that stemmed from it, which has moved over five billion dollars worth of military grade equipment into the hands of local police. My resident and adopted home city of Portland unfortunately set the precedent for police union organization in the late 1930’s and 40’s, which only accelerated militarization through their increased bargaining power. 

Previous attempts at unionization by police departments had failed miserably. The closest that a force had come was Boston PD in the early 20th century, going on a strike that resulted in the city being completely ransacked. After the dust had settled on hundreds of thousands of dollars in theft and property damage, federal officials condemned the move saying that no law enforcement or first responder should be able to unionize because the lives and well being of society depended on them showing up everyday. However the Portland Police Association was able to claw its way to legitimacy by gaining the support of local politicians, who argued that the PPB (Portland Police Bureau) needed better funding in order to show up and safely do their duties. Not surprisingly, most of that support came through mutual ties between high places in local government and the good old rebranded KKK, the mutual desire for wealthy white people to have a police force that protected their interests. At one point over half of the men in the PPB were registered klansmen. This wasn’t a trend exclusive to Portland either; the saying “cops and klan go hand in hand” is more factual than we realize, and to this day law enforcement has more members associated with hate and supremacy groups than any other federal institution. 

PPB became a model for departments nationwide and unionization quickly spread, further solidifying the perceived need for police due to propaganda put out by these same organizations. School programs designed to make cops appear like heroes to impressionable children, a heavy focus on law and order policies by politicians (which are thinly veiled justifications to keep poor and POC communities disenfranchised), and programs like the aforementioned 1033 have been the most effective tactics at entrenching law enforcement in our daily lives. Think of DARE, the agitprop videos put out by police unions, and even billboards being erected by the PPA right now that blare the question “DO YOU FEEL SAFE?”

Our society has such a false sense of reliance on policing that the average city allocates between 25 and 30 percent of its budget to law enforcement, with some designating upwards of 45 percent. Police are equipped with MRAPs, sent high caliber automatic rifles, thousands of bayonets, millions of dollars of ammunition, and more needless machines of destruction on the taxpayer’s dollar, creating a veritable occupying force on our streets. Paramilitary SWAT units are on hand and faceless police obscured by goggles and masks roam our streets, outfitted to the teeth in body armor and weapons. To visitors from other countries it looks like America is under authoritarian rule, stormtroopers looming in the background ready to crack some skulls. However most Americans are under the impression that police are good guys who act according to what we see on cop glorifying TV programs. Somehow we have normalized being under constant surveillance and threat; every American feels a ping of anxiety when passing cops because we know how dangerous they are, yet nothing has changed. 

We have stupidly allowed a mercenary force with qualified immunity to unionize like normal laborers, watching them fight (virtually always successfully) to reinstate literal murderers who proudly show off racist and prejudiced values. The “mistakes” police officers make often end up with a person dead, not an unhappy customer, and their actions consistently show that the only things they care about protecting are themselves and property. This is perhaps the most important point I can emphasize for anyone who may still think that the police care about them as a citizen; they don’t. Some officers may show empathy, but as an institution police forces consistently put the value of property over life while brutalizing any “others.” An individual that is complicit in upholding oppression is no better than the oppressor themselves. 

People have begun to realize this over the last couple of years, especially in cities like Portland where we saw mass brutality towards protesters last summer with no regard for their lives. Gallons of tear gas were released into crowds, lines of armored men charged protestors, and “non lethal” munitions were fired at a whim, leaving horrible injuries. A quick note about less lethal munitions such as bean bags, pepper balls, rubber bullets, tasers, etc; No weapon is truly non lethal, by simple virtue of it being a fucking weapon. There is always the possibility that a bean bag (really just a sack filled with lead shot) flying at over 135 mph could cause critical brain damage if impacting in the right place, or that tear gas could induce respiratory shock, and there are many cases of this happening. 

Just within the last year dozens of protestors have been sent to the hospital from less lethal munitions with numerous people losing eyes, broken jaws and fractured skulls, and enduring horribly damaging brain trauma. Since the George Floyd protests kicked off last year a support group was formed for the many people that had lost eyes or endured other serious trauma inflicted by police using less lethal weapons. During one such protest in Austin a 16 year old named Brad Ayala was peacefully standing on a hill overlooking the main crowd, watching as a police line confronted protestors with violent dispersal tactics. Despite his visible distance from protest activity, this didn’t stop officers from targeting Ayala and the teenager was shot directly in the head with a bean bag round from dozens of yards away, collapsing instantly. Ayala has severe brain damage as a result of several ounces of solid lead impacting and shattering his forehead bone plate. His emotions will never be regulated normatively again, and the teenager who had been peacefully showing his support for innocent lives being taken will live with a permanent disability. On the same day of protests in Austin that Ayala was injured, another 20 year old man was rushed to the same hospital in critical condition after he too was shot in the head with a bean bag round. Both incidents were described as within reasonable use of force by the Austin police chief.

The park in front of the Federal Courthouse in Portland has been quarantined off for months since due to the sheer volume of tear gas (CS 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) dumped into it, scorching the grass and leaching into the ground. Much of this violence was done in the name of protecting that building, other businesses or statues around town, and countrywide metric tons of the toxic chemical were released into our cities’ ecosystems to disperse crowds. Studies that created a basis for CS gas to be used on civilians were conducted by the military and hurriedly approved for use as a lethal agent in military operations and a crowd control device for support missions. The only reason that CS gas was even classified as a “safe” riot control agent was to legitimize its use in Vietnam and against protestors while ducking controversy. 

We simply don’t know the long term health effects of tear gas on anyone outside of men in their 20’s and 30’s with good health, and there is no ethical way to do a lab study on it. Therefore we are left with the police using a nerve agent on children, asthmatics, people with COPD, and pregnant women with absolutely no regard for or knowledge of the detrimental impact high volumes of a toxic chemical have on their bodies. CS gas has been shown to do long term damage to people’s respiratory systems, specifically those with asthma, and is heavily suspected to be a cause of miscarriage from prolonged exposure. People have been noted to die from gas released in confined spaces, and in many instances law enforcement deliberately targets protesters’ heads when launching it. Despite the known and unknown consequences of using less than lethal force, police gleefully take aim at protestors’ faces and obscure the streets with gallons of toxic gas that kills all plant and animal life around it. Again I emphasize; police value property more than life, especially black lives. 

Organizations of professional Opthemologists, medical examiners (Including the UN), and psychologists (The APA wrote a formal complaint last year) have come forward recently noting that law enforcement has been causing huge incidents of serious injury and death. I urge the reader to look into the Fed war in Portland where special operatives that train foreign security forces were called in to provide police support, sniping protestors from “murder holes” in the wall surrounding the justice department and leaving many seriously injured and bloody. 

A prominent study in the British Medical Journal was published a couple years ago looking at the aggregate injuries related to less lethal rounds from 1990 – 2017. Their results have been championed by the group Physicians for Human Rights, with doctors stating that less lethal weapons have no place in “no place” in crowd control due to their “dangerous and indiscriminate” nature. Researchers have concluded that the use of weapons such as bean bag rounds, tear gas, tasers, and rubber bullets is problematic and should not be deployed against ordinary citizens, protesting or not, since police have significant potential to misuse these weapons leading to severe injury, disability, and death.

I want to note that if you are of the disabled community or have a mental illness in any form, the police are more likely to target you. Of the 1100 or so people police will kill this year between ⅓ and ½ of them will be individuals with a disability or who are experiencing mental health crises. As to be expected, a disproportionate number of these victims will be African American. Due to mass disenfranchisement, the lower class and POC have far fewer resources available to them that would help curb mental health incidents or offer opportunities for the disabled. When individuals in these communities have mental health episodes or some other incident like a drug overdose, it is more likely to be in a situation where the police are called. This is from either a public who sees these incidents and reacts based on bias, or the necessity to call law enforcement because a family or guardian has no other options to subdue an individual engaging in dangerous behavior. When police show up they approach people in an aggressive and forceful manner, and when there is any sort of communication barrier things get ugly really quick. 

Take the murder of Marcus-David Peters as an example. Peters was a high school biology teacher who also worked as a security guard at night. He had a psychiatric episode that led him to strip naked and jump into his car, driving erratically and veering off of the highway, climbing out just as cops were streaming towards him. Multiple commands were screamed in Peters’ direction as he stepped out of the car, and an officer shot him with a taser. This was understandably a chaotic and confusing environment to stumble out of a car into, and Peters took another step further towards the officers as the initial shock didn’t register. 2 bullets were then fired into his stomach, and Marcus died on the scene. 

Another recent example of quick trigger fingers and a refusal to de-escalate on the part of police came in Portland this year. A homeless man was seen waving his arms around, standing in the middle of the road, and acting generally erratic. He seemed to be in crisis, and a bystander called the police. When they showed up several officers ran at him, shouting their standard commands, and the man continued waving his arms. Within seconds multiple shots had been fired by officers, leaving a corpse in their wake, recovering what was described as an orange tipped plastic gun. PPB then put out a tweet that said in essence, protestors shouldn’t be mad because it was a white man they killed. As the icing on the cake, the officers on scene ordered pizza to be delivered, taking their lunch and happily munching away as a man they murdered lay lifeless in the grass less than a football field away. 

This is appallingly cold, and shows how little remorse they feel about taking an innocent life just minutes before. One that could have been saved and helped to recover if shown empathy, which is the most frustrating part about many of these murders. These are only two incidents out of thousands, and police kill anyone who is unable to comply, or doesn’t react fast enough to their jumbled voices. Even groups such as children are not safe, as we saw Adam Toledo murdered by police on camera this year while trying his best to comply. Police have killed more than 100 children since 2015, and over 60% of these fatalities have been young black or latiné lives. 

We will never understand what was happening for individuals like Marcus-David Peters or how we could help them live to see another day. If police approach someone who is in crisis, even if they are unarmed and pose no threat to a heavily armored officer, they are statistically likely to end up dead. Populations that can not easily self advocate such as children or disabled people are especially at risk, as up to half of police victims have a disability or mental health issue in some form. This is causing young generations to be terrified of law enforcement, and fear only leads to further barriers in compliance if they are confronted. The culture of American law enforcement is shoot first and ask questions later, no matter who is in your sights.

Analyzing the unionization of policing is crucial to understand how and why they protect their own so fiercely; if one goes down, there’s a chance the whole department could go down as everyone points blame and tries to escape accountability for the horrible activities police routinely get up to. Before we even get to analyzing the misleading statistics of incarcerated POC and the brutality they face from all facets of society, which inevitably leads to criminalization, I would ask the reader to pause for a moment and reflect upon what potential half truths and misnomers they’ve heard about policing; the “13/56” statistic (13% referencing the general population of African Americans vs. what defenders of the status quo love to claim is the 56% of violent crime their community commits) or the smear campaigns that have been attempted for George Floyd and other victims of brutality. In our next discussion I will disprove as many of these racist tendencies as I can.

Again, keep in mind that when I call someone or some institution out for ingrained racism it doesn’t mean I think they are irredeemable. The entire goal of what I am trying to accomplish with this writing is to make people recognize their own internal biases, because everyone has some, and work towards understanding how slight shifts in individual views are needed because there is so much information circulating, much of it following a misleading agenda. If we want to have any hope of breaking the oppressive status quo it will take people recognizing their flaws on a personal level and working as a collective to do better.

As a primer for later discussions of defending and entirely reforming American police; sometimes problems are too deeply rooted for us to rely on willpower alone as a solution. This is why humans go to therapy, seek second opinions from trusted sources, and sometimes need medication to assuage mental illness. Right now police in this country are like a person with untreated schizophrenia; the institution cannot recognize the harm it’s doing to others because it has been so thoroughly coopted as a means of enforcing white supremacy and savage capitalism. Maintaining a strict hierarchy with no questions from outside sources (due to corporate protection) has been the standard for a century and a half, and that veil of hating the “other” is so strong within law enforcement that no matter the quality of individuals in it they will do harm to the civilian population because the facade guiding their actions demands it. It would be like that individual with schizophrenia being given entirely free reign, having no one to check their reality so all they know is hallucinations that appear real, then when they shot and killed a thousand people in one year because their brain viewed them as “bad guys,” they were let off scot free because everyone else believed the delusions were reality.

The institution of law enforcement has been in a bubble of delusion for its entire existence, doing inconceivable damage to our people, but viewing it as justified because that damage satisfies the status quo, holding people of color and the working class to their positions in American hierarchy. Just as we wouldn’t let a mentally ill person run rampant with deadly weapons because they believed they were killing the right people, we need to understand that the people police murder don’t deserve death either. Besides, isn’t the point of justice in this country to be innocent until proven guilty? Police deny thousands of Americans due process each year by murdering them. If any other country did that we would call it tyranny and most likely impose heavy sanctions. Our police can do it because brutality is at the behest of the ruling class to protect their property, ensure no labor organization can demand better conditions, and maintain a strict hierarchy of white supremacism by disproportionally harassing, murdering, and arresting POC citizens. Until we the people unrelentingly demand that the enablers of mentally ill murderers have that power taken away, the status quo is only going to continue.

Sources:

  • Miller, Brian “The Militarization of America’s Police; a Brief History,” 2019. Foundation for Economic Education.
  • “The Worst Police Union in History,” Behind the Bastards. Robert Evans, 2020. – Evans does a really good job organizing information from several different first and secondhand sources and presenting it in an entertaining way. His episodes about the police were very informative in this writing.
  • “Behind the Police” Robert Evans, 2020.
  • “What ‘Less Lethal’ Weapons Actually Do,” Atherton, Kelsey. 2020. Scientific American.
  • “Everything we know about the teen shot in the head with less lethal round at Austin protest,” Wilson, Wes & Clark, Kevin, 2020. KXAN.
  • “Black, Disabled People at higher risk of police encounters,” Abrams, Abigail. 2020.
  • “Portland police fatally shoot man in Lents Park,” Bernstein, Maxine. 2021.
  •  “Police have killed more than 100 children since 2015 in US, data shows,” ABC News, Alfonseca, Kiera.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s