In response to the police killing George Floyd, 15 unions that represent law enforcement officers across the US have endorsed a blueprint for policing that includes an unprecedented shift in the way unions protect bad police officers, according to a copy of the plan obtained by CNN ahead of its release this week.
Floyd’s death last May brought renewed attention to the idea of “active bystanders,” a relatively new concept in law enforcement which calls for officers to intervene when they see wrongdoing. Other industries and trade unions have developed industry- or union-specific programs aimed at achieving the same goal: teaching colleagues to intervene when they see another worker behaving poorly or making mistakes.
A committee convened by the AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Service Employees International Union Friday approved the plan that calls on more than 250,000 law enforcement members and more than 100,000 members in police-adjacent professions to intervene when another union member is doing something wrong.
Unions still have a responsibility to represent members they believe are wrongfully accused, but the framework challenges local unions to look at the merits of an officer’s actions when considering whether to defend them.
The program will “empower local union members to speak up and take action if fellow members are violating their professional oath or abusing their power, and ultimately helps the union weed out wrong-doers from union membership,” according to the document.
“We’ll represent you, we’ll be there for you, absolutely. Unless you don’t hold up your end of the bargain,” said Lisa Titus, who was part of the committee that wrote this plan. “But we’ll also hold you accountable. It is a big shift, and it’s going to take some time.”
Officers in these unions have enjoyed near-absolute union solidarity for decades, but a national reckoning over policing, prompted by the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of officers, led many to question whether police unions should even exist. A plan produced by the union committee is their attempt to address problems in their ranks without waiting for police department leadership or elected officials to take the lead.
“This is a huge step for law enforcement to take, and for unions to take,” said Fred Redmond, who led the task force that approved this plan. “But at this moment, regarding this profession, I’m not gonna say it’s on life support, but we’ve lost confidence of the public in many areas throughout the country.”
The Fraternal Order of Police, an organization which represents 356,000 members in more than 2,100 lodges across the country, was not involved in developing this plan. John Paul Smith, a United Steel Workers staffer who was a police officer for four years and who worked on this project, said that local FOP leaders’ “incendiary rhetoric” made labor’s job more difficult over the last year.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, declined to comment on the plan. “I’m fascinated by this but don’t have anything to say about it,” he said.
‘Another tool in keeping communities safe’
Within law enforcement, departments across the country have adopted a model of intervention developed by a psychology professor working with the New Orleans Police Department. Georgetown Law school developed a program based on that, which launched after Floyd’s death.
That program requires departments that seek their counsel to implement bystander training through the entire department and trains officers to intervene on colleagues and higher-ranking officers. They’ve trained with more than 110 police departments with more than 90,000 officers.
The New York Police Department, along with the departments in Denver and Baltimore, have committed to the Georgetown model, but what the unions are proposing would only apply to their members.
Between the two efforts, hundreds of thousands of officers could receive bystander training or see their conduct governed by a model of training that asks officers to challenge each other on the job.
Floyd’s case is the most glaring example of where an intervention could have saved someone’s life. He struggled, said he’d comply, said he couldn’t breathe, begged for his mother and died while officers watched or turned their backs to the officer on Floyd’s neck.
After Floyd’s death,the AFL-CIO, Teamsters and SEIU convened a Racial Justice Task Force and built out five labor-specific committees. One focused on policing and produced a report, called “The Labor Movement’s Public Safety Blueprint for Change.”