When police unions poison the public debate

In the wake of a horrifying mental-health incident, the Madison Professional Police Officers Association offers vile and boorish rhetoric.

In the wake of a horrifying mental-health incident, the Madison Professional Police Officers Association offers vile and boorish rhetoric. (Photo via City of Madison.)

In the modern-day debate over criminal justice, police violence, and racial disparities, the unions that represent cops have served as a voice of grisly authoritarian grievance. The statements police unions in America make at the most heated, painful, and traumatic moments often are less about protecting union members (i.e. by ensuring acceptable working conditions or a fair disciplinary process) and more about defending a culture of impunity, often while tormenting grieving families in the process. Cleveland’s police union, for instance, treated the shooting of Tamir Rice as some sort of teaching moment for the dead 12-year-old’s family. Another, in Missouri, declared the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson “Darren Wilson Day,” in honor of the officer who shot Brown, in 2015. New York City’s second-largest police union has declared that “Ferguson Missouri was a lie” and is just generally insane online. In the wake of extrajudicial killings and beatings by their members, police unions are the first to remind us of the importance of due process and reserving judgment until all the facts are in. 

In short, police unions often function as trolls, advancing a narrative that Americans would like police just fine and officer morale would improve if soft politicians and all those pesky people who lost a loved one at the hands of the cops would just pipe down. Often, the kind of statements mentioned above are couched in the need to keep the public safe and protect officers who go into dangerous situations. But in their extremes, these statements also serve the effect of antagonizing victims’ families and taunting those who try to hold police accountable.


Such behavior from police unions in Madison would seem redundant, given Madison Police Department Chief Mike Koval’s bile-throated temperament and hostility to oversight and reform. We somehow still allow Madison police to enjoy a progressive veneer—Koval even once described himself to Isthmus, half-jokingly, as “this sort of ACLU, tree-hugging guy”—and local cops earned themselves some goodwill by joining other unionized public employees at the 2011 protests against Act 10. Yet our police unions have joined in on the crassness, and punching down their counterparts around the country relish so much. At times police unions in the state have found common ground with advocates for police accountability, but whether it has fundamentally changed the culture of policing is another question. It certainly hasn’t stopped police unions in Wisconsin from making cruel and arrogant statements. 

After the City of Madison’s insurance company reached a settlement in 2017 with the family of Tony Robinson—who was having a mental-health crisis when MPD officer Matt Kenny shot him dead in his Willy Street apartment in 2015—the Madison Professional Police Officers Association lashed out at the bereaved, issuing a statement that said, in part: “the Robinson family has done their best to drag [Kenny’s] name through the mud.” (Chief Koval has also displayed appalling behavior toward the Robinson family.) When the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch displayed artist Mike Lroy’s painting “Don’t Shoot”—which portrays militarized cops facing down a small child as the child holds up a squirt gun—in 2015, the MPPOA and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association released a joint statement saying that the painting “only serves to advance patently negative law enforcement stereotypes at the expense of the important and selfless jobs that our dedicated officers perform.” The statement went on to claim that the art, rather than the fact that cops are shooting people, was unhealthy for the public discourse: “This is a sensitive time in our community, and the library’s decision to showcase this piece in such a one-sided manner is a disturbing endorsement of an inflammatory perspective.” 

The Madison Professional Police Officers Association has once again decided that it has something to contribute. This time it’s in the wake of an incident in which MPD officers restrained a black 17-year-old, who was having mental health problems, and repeatedly punched him in the head. Madison365 released a video of the incident in June. Much like video of the 2016 arrest of an 18-year-old black woman at East Towne Mall, this one shows an unambiguously brutal pile-on. Even Koval, in an at once farcical and spot-on comment about this latest incident, has admitted that “The reality is, any use of force, though lawful, can look very awful.” In response to community outcry, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway wrote a blog post last week laying out proposals for improving how the city handles mental-health crises. They included “Explore the reduction of MPD involvement in response to mental health crises via different models.” Rhodes-Conway also acknowledged public frustration with our processes for oversight of police, and stated an obvious fact, which is that the MPD officers’ actions were unacceptable: 

While I need to allow the investigative process to run its course, as everyone in a free democracy is entitled to due process, some of the actions in this case offend our values and sense of justice. The fact that the law, in certain circumstances, allows certain actions to occur, does not make it right. Nor does it make it just. The fundamental duty of police is to serve humanity. Police are required to only use force that is reasonable and necessary, and it is my belief that we must do better.

The MPPOA then jumped into the local news cycle with a statement that accused Rhodes-Conway of making “judgmental statements” on the basis of an “incomplete” video clip. Rhodes-Conway’s statements, the union claimed, threatened to prejudice ongoing investigations of the incident before all the facts were known. But the only thing that could prejudice anyone in this case is the video of the incident. While brief, it definitely shows an MPD officer, Sgt. Joseph Engler, pulling his elbow back several times and punching a kid in the head as three other officers hold the victim down. I fail to see what sort of facts or context would make that even remotely justifiable. 

In the statement, MPPOA also derides the very idea of a mayor voicing an opinion about the conduct of her city’s police department: “Despite how the laws, rules, policies and training might ordinarily govern their actions, should they now be told to first ask themselves, ‘What would Mayor Rhodes-Conway do?’” At no point, by the way, does the statement acknowledge the pain this incident must have caused to the 17-year-old, his family, and everyone in the Madison community who feels personally threatened by the excesses of the criminal justice system. The implication is that the police are the real victims, and that the Mayor should help the cops keep a lid on it. 

The idea of officers second-guessing themselves on Rhodes-Conway’s account is a massive straw man. Under Wisconsin state law, a mayor doesn’t have much direct power over what police do. Mayors don’t hire and fire police chiefs or direct the disciplinary process for officers; the Madison Police and Fire Commission and its counterpart bodies in other cities do. Mayors can appoint members to that body, with City Council approval, but a case like this will come down to applying laws and MPD rules as they currently exist. A mayor could exert some pressure through the city budget process or try to sway public opinion about police, but I very much doubt that the average cop in Madison cares what Mayor Rhodes-Conway would do. The laws, rules, policies and training already in place obviously supersede the public statements of a mayor.

Statements from police and their unions, including this latest one, play on the idea that even the feeble accountability apparatus we have—reflected in elected officials’ comments or the occasional civil settlement, or the very occasional instance of justice actually being served in the most extreme cases—will cause cops to melt into quivering blobs of defenseless indecision. A police union official in New York even claimed that firing one of the officers who killed Eric Garner would “paralyze” police, and its counterpart recently tweeted that “cops are hesitant to stop anyone!” In 2017, after a jury awarded $7 million to the family of an armed, suicidal woman MPD officers shot in 2014, the WPPA’s Jim Palmer opined that “This sends a disconcerting message to officers because this will lead to second-guessing that puts officers at risk.” (DiPiazza’s family later ended up settling for a smaller amount.)

Even considering that it’s normal for cops and their unions to be pretty brash, it’s a bit shocking that MPPOA didn’t tread a bit more lightly here. The deaths of Robinson, DiPiazza, and Paul Heenan, and now the beating of this mentally ill teenager, might prompt a more sensitive approach to talking about police interactions with Madisonians in mental-health or substance-use crises. I mean, do cops or their union reps really want law enforcement to be the de facto mental-health intervention squad, handling people who slip through our meager social safety net? Who exactly is happy about this situation? Are Madison cops stage-whispering to us that they absolutely cannot be trusted with this shit?

If anything, Rhodes-Conway’s statement last week was mild, and constructive within very narrow parameters. It shouldn’t have taken such a gruesome incident for city officials to seriously consider reducing the role MPD plays in addressing mental health. And notice that Rhodes-Conway has only talked about reducing it, not going so far as to question why police should be a part of this equation at all, or why policing as we know it should be part of our lives at all. Her post talks about improving training and oversight, not fundamentally transforming our approach to public safety. These are reasonable ideas and I hope the city implements all of them, but they fundamentally leave an unjust system intact. 

Cops know that union contracts, civil-service laws, and their agencies’ own disciplinary codes serve the purpose of insulating them from political pressure. The very assumptions that undergird American policing generally mean the people investigating the cops (often other cops, or prosecutors who depend on their relationships with police) can really only ask so much. If you kill or hurt someone you didn’t really need to kill or hurt, but can convince investigators that you followed your department’s rules in the process, that tends to soften the consequences. Cops have just about all of modern American history to remind them of how much they can get away with. I think statements like MPPOA’s are their way of reminding the rest of us.

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