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Good Cops, Bad Cops, and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of the Police Protest Movement

The police unions are telling us, loudly, they won’t be part of any meaningful reform, writes Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

June 17, 2020
Steve Skinner Photography/Getty

Of the million or so words written these past few weeks about the causes and effects of police brutality, of all the earnest observers who have weighed in with suggestions on how to reform or rebuild police departments, none highlighted the scope of the problem more succinctly than Lt. Robert Cattani of the New York City Police Department. He felt compelled on June 3 to write an anguished email apology to his colleagues for taking a knee in solidarity with protesters demonstrating on the streets of the city to bring reform to the NYPD. 

“I thought maybe that one protester/rioter who saw it would later think twice about fighting or hurting a cop,” Cattani wrote as the protests intensified earlier this month. “I was wrong. At least that [sic] what I told myself when we made that bad decision. I know that it was wrong and something I will be shamed and humiliated about for the rest of my life.” Cattani continued: “I spent the first part of my career thriving to build a reputation of a good cop,” he wrote. “I threw that all in the garbage on Sunday [May 31].”

That Cattani thinks he threw his good reputation “in the garbage” by making a token gesture of sympathy for protesters is the heart of the problem here. His email is a rare glimpse into the toxicity of the “us-versus-them” mentality within police departments in historic moments like these. It also flips on its head the hoary notion, repeated even now by tribunes of the Trump administration, about how policing in America is tarnished by a few rare “bad apples” mixed in with all the “good” ones.

Here’s a decent cop — a “good apple,” you might say — who did something while in uniform that harmed no one and that earned him respect, if not appreciation, from the people he is sworn to protect and serve. And for that he knew he would be treated as a pariah by his fellow officers — let’s call them “bad apples.” “Culture eats policy for breakfast,” one expert said of policing over the weekend. Indeed, how can anyone reasonably expect genuine accountability or transparency within a police department where such warped sensibilities prevail?

The cop who takes a knee on a street to acknowledge the existence of police misconduct — that is to say, the cop who takes a knee to acknowledge reality — is doing something to help solve the problem of police brutality. The cop who plans to retaliate against that officer — that is to say, the cop who plans to engage in the type of professional retribution Cattani says he fears — is doing something to perpetuate the problem. Answering the questions of how and why police union officials won’t recognize that obvious distinction is answering the questions of how we got into this mess to begin with.

The reaction by the NYPD cops who received Cattani’s email also helps explain the state of play as nationwide (and popular) demonstrations roll into their third week. “Police sources expressed relief that Cattani had apologized — but questioned what he was thinking,” the New York Post tells us. “‘I’m glad he took it back, because your officers are out here battling with these guys and that’s what you do to show appreciation? Never show your weakness,’ one insider said. “‘You did it to appease these people who didn’t appreciate you anyway.’”

That’s nonsense. The cop who takes a knee in solidarity with protesters isn’t doing it for the person who is taking advantage of the protests by looting or engaging in other criminal behavior. That cop is doing it instead for the majority of protesters, and millions of others who aren’t protesting publicly but who want to see sweeping police reform, who don’t necessarily see the police as enemies of peace and justice. If a central question of our time is which side will win the hearts and minds of the public, police union threats on decent rank-and-file cops is a terrible strategy. 

This is not a New York City problem, either. A form of the problem unfolded in Minneapolis, too, where the police chief and police union officials clashed over reforms. In Buffalo, an entire “emergency response team,” nearly 60 cops, resigned from that duty (but not from the force) in a show of solidarity with the police officers who severely injured a 75-year-old peaceful protester. Meanwhile, in Boston, where cops took a knee or two with protesters, the sky did not fall after that city’s police department publicly lauded the gestures.  

The tactics and mentality of police union officials is a national problem warranting nationwide attention among justice reformers. In Chicago, for example, the city’s police union leader late last week threatened to kick out of the union any cop who takes a knee during a protest. “‘If you kneel, you’ll be risking being brought up on charges and thrown out of the lodge,’” warned John Catanazana. “‘Specifically this weekend,’” he said. “‘This was about defunding and abolishing the police officers. And you’re going to take a knee for that? It’s ridiculous.’”

Except there is no evidence that anything close to a majority of protesters are demonstrating on the nation’s streets so that their police departments will be “abolished” entirely or “defunded” to the point where they are unrecognizable. Nor are all “defunding” plans created equal. Many advocates want police budgets dramatically reduced so that social service and educational programs can be enhanced in the name of public safety. That’s a form of “defunding” but it’s nowhere near as extreme as Catanazana wants you to believe.

Nowhere in these missives against conscientious objectors among police officers is there any acknowledgement by police union officials that massive criticism of police departments is a direct result of the brutality with which some cops have attacked peaceful protesters and all of the incidents of misconduct and unaccountability that came before. It’s not just a vicious cycle. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Protests against police misconduct over the past weeks have engendered countless proven examples of more police misconduct. The police themselves, on our streets, are making the protesters’ case for them.

Over the weekend, for example, Michael DeBonis, an ex-NYPD detective and former police spokesman, posted withering criticism of police work in the Eric Garner case. Garner, whose last words also included the now iconic phrase, “I can’t breathe,” was killed by NYPD cops after he was put into a chokehold during a dubious arrest on Staten Island in 2014. “We killed Eric Garner,’ DeBonis wrote, but then felt compelled to add: “In writing this post I’m fully aware that some of my cop friends may call me a traitor, a hypocrite or even un follow me.”

Police officers who tell the truth about police brutality are not “traitors,” they are heroes. They are also indispensable to the police reform movement. If police officers continue to be afraid to speak out about the misconduct they see, if police whistleblowers are punished instead of protected, the reform movement will continue to morph into a true “defund” movement. By refusing to embrace reasonable reforms, in other words, by drawing lines like the ones they’ve drawn around protesters, unions will continue to undermine their own political and moral support.

The kicker? On Sunday, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, said that changes to “qualified immunity” rules that would make the police more often liable for misconduct is a “poison pill” in pending federal legislation because of opposition from police unions. That’s despite the fact that such changes have broad support from conservatives and progressives alike. There can be no meaningful federal police reform legislation that does not take on the unions directly. Nothing in the legislation Senate Republicans are said to be readying, or in President Trump’s executive order issued Tuesday, comes close to addressing that essential challenge. Lt. Cattani surely gets it, even if Sen. Scott and his colleagues don’t.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center. A version of this piece was posted by New York Magazine.