Protests have broken out across the country after the decisions of two grand juries not to indict police officers in separate incidents that resulted in the deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Demonstrators are asking whether police too often escape accountability for the excessive use of force — and whether police unions, in defending their members, are part of the problem. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and economist Adam Ozimek went so far as to argue that police shouldn’t have collective bargaining rights at all, since trust in the police is so damaged when officers who use excessive force walk free. “Being a police officer should be the kind of job where if you mess up a little bit, you get fired,” Ozimek writes.
For a response, we checked in with Fraternal Order of Police National President Chuck Canterbury, who laid out the union’s perspective on police prosecutions and whether the force has a race problem. Here are some of his responses, lightly edited for clarity and length.
The national FOP has our own legal defense plan, but that’s predominantly used by smaller lodges, because they can’t afford a program. But most of our bigger police department unions have either funded through their dues plan, or they have a separate plan, for legal defense. For instance in my state, a member has to elect a legal plan and pay for it himself or herself. It’s in excess of their dues, and it’s a formal insurance policy. It covers administrative issues, disciplinary issues, as well as civil cases — where they’re sued and their employer is not required to represent them, then our plan kicks in. We haven’t seen a sharp increase in need. It’s been pretty steady for years and years and years. Our legal plan is not designed to get people off; it’s designed to allow them to have due process. A union’s job is to provide them an attorney for due process purposes. Every citizen we arrest has the right to have an attorney, so it gives our guys the right to have an attorney in the event that they’re accused of something.
I don’t think complaints have increased in law enforcement. I think over the last 20 years complaints against police officers have gone down substantially [Editor’s note: The latest federal data on complaints comes from 2002, and hasn’t been updated since]. You have two high-profile cases right now in the media, but police in this country make millions of contacts a year in this country. Obviously there are going to be situations that occur where officers are accused of wrongdoing, but I think overall a tremendous professionalism has developed. … The thing about a grand jury process is they hear more evidence that people hear at a trial. So grand jury proceedings, contrary to popular belief, are a stalwart in our judicial system and very successful.
There are police officers in jail right now all over the country who have been convicted of excessive force. Each complaint has to be judged on its own merits. The Justice Department alone — they’ve prosecuted over 300 police officers nationwide for excessive force complaints, using the civil rights clauses [Editor’s note: The Department of Justice confirms that since 2009, 394 police and corrections officers have been charged in “color of law" cases]. A lot of police officers are discharged every year, and there’s not a national database of information, but sustained complaints result in an officer being terminated.
On race and policing:
I think we’ve probably had the conversation long before the country’s had it. The FOP’s been on record over the last 15 years denouncing racial profiling. It’s not a legitimate police practice; it’s not taught in any police academy in the country. That doesn’t mean there aren’t officers who have racial bias. But any cop who demonstrates any form of racial bias should be put off the job, and we support that.
The one topic that’s not being discussed and is never discussed is [that] we don’t believe it’s an issue of race. We believe it’s an issue of poverty. Communities that have distrust of law enforcement — it’s because law enforcement is the only part of government they ever see. They’re poor; infant mortality rates are higher; single-family homes are higher; unemployment is higher; people don’t live as long as the average American. And that is the issue in every community in America that we police.
Race is an issue that should have open discussion, but the bottom line is, when you have depressed communities, it leads to higher crime, which leads to more police, which leads to the only part of government they ever see. Law enforcement’s even used in child cases. In most states, social workers can’t take a child away: Police are required to do that. Even when it’s not a criminal matter, police are usually the people who have to enforce it.
The distrust in communities is not nearly seen as much in older Americans, because they want their neighborhoods protected, they want somebody patrolling. But I do think there’s a criminal element that distrusts law enforcement, and rightfully so, they should, because it’s our guys’ jobs to try to catch them. And in economically depressed areas, there’s lot of crime, and there’s a lot of call for law enforcement. And politicians and police management, going all the way back to the first broken windows community-oriented policing scenario, police have saturated high crime areas attempting to reduce crime rates. Look at the city of Washington, they reduced their poor communities by displacing them into Prince George’s County, and they reduced their crime rate significantly. Consequently, the Prince George’s murder rate went up. And the only thing that moved were poor people.
I relate it to: You’ve got a young male that’s unemployed, can’t find a job, has no transportation to a job, sits in his neighborhood, and he watches the kid on the corner making $5,000 a week selling dope, being able to supply his family, and feeling hopeless. And I don’t think law enforcement’s the answer to those situations.
There’s thousands and thousands of stories every year of police officers going out on their own and doing things for people in those poor neighborhoods. So I don’t agree that there’s a systemic racial bias in law enforcement. There’s hardly a police officer on the street now that was alive in the civil rights movement. It’s 20-somethings and 30-somethings out there doing police work, and they weren’t raised in segregated communities, so I think the racial bias in the ’60s that was obviously there in law enforcement is long gone.
On the Cleveland shooting of a 12-year-old with an Airsoft gun:
Obviously it’s not a real weapon, but our officers can’t tell that. Those Airsoft pistols look just as real as anything else if you take the orange off the tip. And there’s no real way to tell until you have a chance to examine it. Obviously officers have a chance to protect themselves if they’re approached by that type of weapon, and it’s a shame for the officers that have to be involved with that, they live with whatever action they take for the rest of their lives. But when the weapon looks real, they’re trained to react, and rightfully so. There’s nothing in American jurisprudence that says police officers are supposed to get assaulted or killed.
On Eric Garner:
The lessons from this week should be, even if you’re confronted by a law enforcement officer and you believe the officer’s wrong, resisting arrest is not the right answer. The right answer is to comply and use the system to file a complaint later. But resisting arrest can only lead to the officer using force to subdue you. You don’t use equal force — you use more force, because equal force doesn’t get you anywhere. If there’s an issue, there’s a lot of things in place to address that after the fact. But the most important thing is, resisting arrest seems to be the case when people get hurt.
I can’t speak to [Garner’s] state of mind, and I don’t think anybody else can, either. He had over 30 previous arrests, so I think he knew what he was doing. Even in that case, if he’d complied and was put in handcuffs, he would’ve been out of custody in a matter of hours. If he’d complied, we wouldn’t even be talking about it. Nobody would’ve cared that he was arrested for selling illegally untaxed cigarettes.
Which is a huge problem, by the way. There’s a huge criminal element. A few years ago, in Charlotte, North Carolina, they busted a ring that was sending money to al Qaeda, and they were doing it through illegal cigarette sales. So there is a nexus. Street-level selling loosies probably doesn’t lead to that, but it still was a crime that he was going to be arrested for. And he knew that. He’d been arrested before.