Unions and Criminal Justice Reform

Frank RizzoThe problems confronting American policing and interactions with citizens, particularly African-American citizens, are multifaceted. Briefly, they can be described in no particular order as a consequence of:


  1. The proliferation of crimes

  2. The broken windows theory
  3. Institutional racism
  4. Social and economic distress
  5. Militarization of the police

Into that mix, throw police labor relations: a major proponent of increasingly harsh police (and correctional tactics) have been police and correctional unions who, on behalf of their members, have lobbied government in favor of broad authority to deploy whatever tactics they see fit in the performance of their duties, and have opposed efforts at reforming police abuses.

This is nothing new. I grew up in Philadelphia where Frank Rizzo, a Philly beat cop turned police commissioner, was beloved by his (mostly) male police force for pushing a brutal approach to policing. Rizzo reportedly remarked about one group of anti-police demonstrators: “When I’m finished with them, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.”

Whether he said it or not, Rizzo’s lawlessness – in contrast to Robert Peele’s principles of policing – is something that police unions have sought for their members in different forms, whether in Philaelphia or elsewhere.

Police unions rarely speak as frankly as Frank Rizzo, but the basic point remains the same: they want their members to have virtually limitless authority to use force, with virtually no accountability.

Exhibit One: Norm Stamper retired as Seattle’s police chief shortly after presiding over his police department’s response to the WTO demonstrations in 1999. Horrified by the militarization of Seattle’s police that increased the violence in 1999, Stamper proposed an approach for future protests in which police would dress in normal uniforms, in lieu of the military-style helmets and body armor they had worn during the 1999 protests.

Stamper’s attempts were opposed by the Seattle police union, viewing the matter as a “a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood.” In other words, any risk to police officers was viewed as unacceptable even though there was good reason to believe handling the demonstration as a normal event would’ve de-escalated the situation.

Exhibit Two: With brutality of the guards at Rikers Island – the pre-trial detention facility for New York City – on the rise, efforts to reform the way correctional officers are disciplined have been stymied by Norman Seabrook, the powerful president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.

But current and former city officials repeatedly described Mr. Seabrook as the biggest obstacle to efforts to curb brutality and malfeasance at Rikers. He has vigorously resisted stiffer penalties for the use of excessive force by guards and has fought stronger screening measures designed to stop correction officers from smuggling weapons and drugs into the jails. Time and again, Mr. Seabrook has shielded his members from serious punishment when investigators like Ms. Finkle have tried to go after them.

Perhaps the most naked display of Mr. Seabrook’s power came on Nov. 18, 2013, when a Rikers inmate, Dapree Peterson, was scheduled to testify against two correction officers in a brutality case. Mr. Seabrook essentially shut down the city’s courts by sidelining the buses that ferry inmates to and from court, interviews and documents show. As a result, hundreds of inmates missed court dates, including Mr. Peterson, whose beating had been investigated and referred for prosecution by Ms. Finkle.

Exhibit Three: The response by some police union officials even to the mildest of criticisms been infantile. Tamir Rice is the 12-year-old shot dead by a Cleveland Police Officer who lept from his vehicle and within seconds of arriving on scene shot the boy. Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Rice, had previously been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty by the Independence, Ohio police department. Loehmann’s partner, Frank Garmback, was involved in an excessive force lawsuit that Cleveland settled in 2014 for $100,000.

But what riled police union officials? Cleveland Browns player Andrew Hawkins’ decision this weekend to wear a t-shirt calling for justice for Tamir Rice. If even the mildest of criticism – a t-shirt worn during in a football game warm-up – results in such a backlash from union official, imagine the pushback that unions exert when real reform is imposed.

Exhibit Four: Certain kinds of unions – most notoriously, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has backed substanative criminal law reforms that have been designed to increase the number of incarcerated human beings, thereby increasing the work load and the benefits to the union.

The union has been one of the leading backers of tougher sentencing laws. It spent over $100,000 to pass the original Three Strikes law. It dropped another $1 million to defeat Prop 5, which would have reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes and allocated more resources to treating drug addiction. It spent over $1 million to beat Prop 66, which would have reduced the number of crimes that carry mandatory life sentences. Politicians are also on the menu. CCPOA spent nearly $2 million supporting Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign.

Reform of the criminal justice system across the board is needed to alleviate the pressure on policing. Certainly many police officers are good, hardworking people. But the institutional incentives against reform are strong. And among those institutional incentives is the role of police unions and correctional officer unions in blocking attempts to reign in police violence and bring common sense to our criminal justice system.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.