If 2020 has constantly delivered anything, it has been situations that have forced us all to face issues that we have put off for far too long. This year and the events that we have seen so far have stripped bare some of those issues, forcing us to confront them. COVID-19 has laid bare the rampant problems in our long-term care facilities, something that governments have been avoiding to tackle for decades. COVID-19 has also exposed some of the biggest inequities in our system, as the people at the bottom of the economic ladder have been hit the hardest by both the disease and the economic fallout from it.

The same can be said about the protests that have spread across the United States and beyond in the past week triggered by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In this moment we have been forced to face the systematic racism that is inherent in our systems, something that we should have faced up to long ago.

A specific thing in this moment has started to come up in this tense moment, something that progressive politicians and citizens have tip-toed around for ages and not dealt with. That issue is the role of Police Unions and Associations in our system. Naturally progressive-minded politicians and voters support unions and unionization. We support workers being able to collectively bargain and ensure expected protections for their workers. That naturally extends to police as well, given that many of them work in dangerous situations and deserve to have the protections that all other workers do.

But over the decades we have seen some police unions be as much of the problem when it comes to tackling systematic problems in policing and society, something that this moment has further exposed. Just to give you an idea of what I’m getting at, here is a selection of good responses from police associations and unions to issues over the past little while:

That is just three good examples of many out there, from closer to home in Kingston and the United States in Arlington, Virginia and Abilene, Texas. The messages they put out there are unifying, calming and accept that there is a problem that needs to be faced. They don’t duck their responsibilities, nor point fingers of blame or cast aspersions upon others. They basically admit there is a problem that needs to be addressed and make it clear they want to be a part of the solution. That is a constructive approach, which not only responds to the needs of their members but also of society as a whole. In stark contrast to those comments, here is the other side of the coin:

Those three statements highlight the problem that we face with police unions writ large. The comments from Bob Kroll, the Minneapolis police union president, are as incendiary as they are unhelpful. He referred to the protestors as “terrorists”, he attacked George Floyd trying to disparage his name and memory, and lashes out in all directions at the media and politicians. In a moment where the Police Chief of the Minneapolis Police service has been understanding & open to admitting the work that they need to do, you have Kroll doing the polar opposite trying to incite others with language that shows he’s a part of the problem, not the solution. It should not surprise anyone that Kroll spoke at a Trump rally a while back, but again isn’t that part of the issue here? Just as Kroll called the protestors “terrorists”, Trump did the same and worse just this morning, trying to dehumanize those people who were peacefully protesting.

Kroll is not alone in this moment, as that second tweet shares part of a message from New York City and the President of their Sergeants Benevolent Association shows. That message is an incendiary as it is unhelpful, as they say they are “losing the city” and referring to this moment as a “war on New York City” that they will win. And if you think that mindset has not flowed down to the streets, see this moment from last night:

That folks was New York City in 2020, in Donald Trump’s America, with police trying to stop journalists from doing their job. That officer kept questioning what makes journalists essential, saying that he “don’t give a sh*t” that they had the right to be out there documenting that. The officer then finished that off by telling those journalists to “get the f*ck out of here you piece of sh*t”, again sounding eerily like something the current American President has said many times before. Given the message we saw from the President of that police association, it feels safe that they will go to the wall to protect that officer if and when he is punished, which doesn’t feel right.

Finally the last example I put up there was a bit older but really speaks to the realities that we face here in Canada. The issues around racism and policing in Thunder Bay are very well documented. It’s generally accepted there is a problem in the region that needs to be dealt with. But instead of doing that, Thunder Bay Police Association President Greg Stephenson has been known to make comments like those above that not only deny there is a problem, but also attacks those who are represented by the victims of said racism. That statement was made in the aftermath of a Thunder Bay Police Officer being caught on video appearing  to strike a First Nations teen who was on a gurney. Stephenson, in that moment, decided to attack Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler for daring to call for action on this, saying that police were offended by his word and accused him of trying to divide the community. Finally Stephenson tried to turn this around, expressing outrage at the incident not for the person who was hit, but for the officer who did the hitting.

And in those examples we see the dilemma as clear as day for progressive politicians and citizens, clear as can be. Part of the role of a union and their leadership is to defend their members, which we see all other unions do. But how you defend your members and to what extent is a big part of the problem here. While some police unions realize that they can’t defend the indefensible if their members do the indefensible, other unions like those in Minneapolis, New York and Thunder Bay have shown there is no limit to how far they will go to defend there, even if that defense become indefensible itself and does greater harm to the society their members serve.

After the video of George Floyd came out, it was clear that all four of the officers in that case should have been fired as they were. But in vowing to defend them and try to get their jobs back, isn’t that police union just making the situation worse? Yes police deserve the right to be represented & have safe working environments, but where is the line that must be drawn to ensure that right doesn’t trump the rights of the public?

At what point do certain police unions become enablers in this problem of systematic racism and not a part of the solution? Those are all uncomfortable questions that progressives need to answer and the labour movement itself does too. If unions and the labour movement won’t hold its own members accountable for their misdeeds, how can they expect the public at large to be trusting of them. It was with that in mind that I noted this message in the aftermath of this, something that I cannot say I’ve ever seen before:

That is the President of the Minnesota AFL-CIO calling for the president of a union to resign. In the message he makes it clear the separation between the rest of labour and that police union, which speaks to this problem that progressives need to face up to. Unions are important and more workers in our society should have the chance to be represented by one in their workplaces. But in certain professions, that representation comes with extra responsibilities in our society. Police hold an important role in our communities and the majority of police officers are dedicated professionals who love the communities they live and serve in. They are true servants of the people, there to help when help is needed and trying to make their communities a better place. But there are also police officers who have shown through their behaviours that they have no place in a proper police organization. They have shown themselves not to care about the betterment of their community and instead acted in ways that have created more mistrust and pain in those communities. And both groups are represented by their unions.

That is a problem that cannot stand as is, just as much for the betterment of their communities but to also hold up those officers who are true servants of our communities. Those officers get tarred and feathered with the same brush as the bad ones, thanks to their unions protecting the bad ones. That’s also not right and needs to change. I can’t say I have the answer to this problem, but I believe that admitting there is a problem is the place to start. I don’t think that police unions should be abolished all together, but something needs to change to help ensure that they are a part of the solution. We need to look at those that are positive influences in their communities for ideas on how to do this, whatever those might be. But in the end, the status quo isn’t good enough. It’s time to have this conversation about how we correct this problem because if we don’t the problem just won’t go away. If that wasn’t clear enough before, surely 2020 is reminding us again that is the case.