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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.