The killing of George Floyd has set off demonstrations around the country. Police have been surprised by how poorly they are regarded in many communities. What they don’t consider is the impact the rhetoric of their union spokespeople has had on how they are viewed. Let me give you a recent example from Long Island.
In 2018, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran was negotiating the withdrawal of ICE from the county jail with a group of advocates including me. The sheriff and the police commissioner were both on board. Then the law enforcement unions got involved.
The unions were involved in contract talks with Curran. They decided to roast her for removing ICE. The Nassau PBA sent an electronic billboard truck out on the streets of the county displaying images of Latino men with MS-13 tattoos on their faces such as have not been seen on Long Island, and tying Curran to the gang. It then shifted to a slogan saying it supported ICE. The mix of racist images and the endorsement by the PBA of ICE at a time of family separation and illegal ICE raids shocked and frightened many Latinos. At a hearing at the Nassau legislature the spokeman for the correction’s officer union said, ominously, that if people wanted to know what the county would look like in ten years, just see who is in the jail today. Several months later the PBA president told reporters that if police officers went into mostly Black and Latino Hempstead, they should go there in a “tank.”
Police commissioners speak the language of accountability and reconciliation. PBA presidents speak the language of the officers who elected them to represent them. Who is closer to the real views of the cops people of color encounter on the streets?
Latinos were shocked by the endorsement of the police unions for ICE. The PBAs did not need to take this position against one-in-five Long Islanders. Now that so many people are expressing outrage at racism inside the police departments, will cops hold their own spokesmen accountable?