When Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) wanted to rebuke accusations of racism against Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Session (R-AL), he cited a bizarre source: a litany of police organizations that have their own unsavory histories when it comes to civil rights.
Hatch rattled off a list of law enforcement officer associations that have publicly praised Sessions’ nomination, including Trump endorsers such as the Fraternal Order of Police. He then said that attacks on Sessions’ record as an Alabama prosecutor and federal lawmaker “are also smears against organizations like these, which have similarly examined the record and found Sen. Sessions worthy of support.”
Moments after Hatch’s comments on Tuesday afternoon, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) similarly quoted praise of Sessions from the NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association. The junior senator went on to offer a strange analogy about how Americans ought to respond to evidence of police misconduct and abuse.
“You know, when a radical Islamic terrorist drives a truck into a group of people and kills them, we’re told that we should not judge all Muslims by the act of a few,” Kennedy said. “Don’t you think the same rule ought to apply when one or two law enforcement officers make a mistake? Don’t you think that the same rule ought to apply to all the other 99.9% law enforcement officials out there who just get up every day and go to work and try to protect us?”
“I really do,” Sessions said, underscoring his earlier suggestion that scrutinizing department-wide patterns of discrimination or abuse is unfair and dangerous. “Because within most any department you can find in America, surely most of the people are just wonderful servants, public servants, trying to do the right thing. So when we say these things we can increase risk for them.”
Law enforcement officers and their unions are not somehow immune from racial bias. Indeed, their reaction to the Movement for Black Lives’ simple declarative slogan — that Black Lives Matter — has often been churlish at best and outright hateful at worst.
The Fraternal Order of Police has asked Amazon and Walmart to stop selling shirts with #BlackLivesMatter printed on them. A local FOP lodge leader in Virginia sought to boycott a pumpkin patch last fall because its office displayed a BLM sign. After New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio criticized the police killing of Eric Garner, the unions there organized officers to physically turn their backs to him at public events. The leader of the city’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association said de Blasio had “blood on his hands” after two officers were murdered in 2014.
Officers have threatened to back out of providing security at sporting events over players’ engagement with the movement. Individual officers around the country have smeared protesters as terrorists, reverse-racists, and crime-abettors for their work to track police killings and hold officers accountable for unjust and illegal conduct in the line of duty.
There are exceptions, of course. The Dallas PD, for example, was attacked by a murderer who actively declaimed any association with peaceful black protest movements while its officers were escorting marchers sporting Black Lives Matter signs through the city’s downtown. The relationship between police and civilians in that city has been strained for decades but had been mending slowly for years when the ambusher killed five officers at the protest’s end.
But police labor organizations are staunchly conservative political actors by nature — they naturally serve to resist reforms that would change their workers’ compensation or place greater responsibility on their members — and they have aligned behind Donald Trump throughout the past year.
Trump himself has pandered to the anti-BLM sentiments espoused by many officers and their unions by suggesting he might push for federal investigations of the movement, and even saying that the next president needs to give police officers the freedom “to go and counterattack.”
Push beyond the layer of rhetoric and public statements, and the arguments Sessions’ supporters are making about police labor groups at his confirmation hearing make even less sense.
It’s in the nature of a labor union to stand up for its members’ due process rights, but in law enforcement that instinct to protect often carries unions into outright obstructionism.
In departments across the country, there’s a “blue wall of silence” that officers are expected to honor, even when they have direct knowledge of misconduct in the department. Whistleblowers often get actively shut out and harassed by their brothers and sisters.
The intersection of labor advocacy and American law enforcement’s tendency to serve white property owners at the expense of other race and class groups has made the unions themselves a target of criticism from the Movement for Black Lives. Union contracts ensure paid leave for officers investigated for misconduct or abuse of power. They pursue rules that make it harder to hold officers accountable. They are not, as Hatch implied, inherently above reproach.