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The Fraternal Order Of Police: A Union That Stands In The Way Of Police Reforms


Activists have spent years pushing for changes in policing. And now the Minneapolis City Council says it plans to dismantle the police force and replace it with another public safety model. One big stakeholder in these debates around the country is the Fraternal Order of Police. Former prosecutor Paul Butler argues that it stands in the way of change. He's the author of "Chokehold: Policing Black Men" and is a law professor at Georgetown University.

Professor Butler, thanks for joining us.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Ari - great to be here.

SHAPIRO: The Fraternal Order of Police describes itself as the world's largest organization of sworn law enforcement officers. Just begin by explaining what exactly it is.

BUTLER: It's an organization that sometimes engages in collective bargaining with police departments and, other times, acts as more of a social club. While it's the largest of police organizations, its membership tends to be not as diverse as many police departments are. And often, even in departments that have many offices of color, it's older white men who are the leaders of the FOP.

SHAPIRO: And so apart from the diversity issue, what is it about their policies that you think makes them a force against positive change? What makes them part of the problem, in your view?

BUTLER: Police unions often stand in the way of reform. They do so with their rhetoric and with protections they win for cops. So in Philadelphia, the president of the FOP called Black Lives Matter protesters a bunch of rabid animals after a Cleveland cop killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun. Another FOP union head tweeted, act like a thug, you'll be treated like a thug. So police reform is about transparency and accountability, and police unions resist those important goals. They fight to keep disciplinary records of cops secret.

SHAPIRO: Now, specifically in the case of Minneapolis, the Minnesota FOP condemned the four officers tied to the death of George Floyd, none of whom were FOP members. The chapter put out a statement saying these officers failed George Floyd, the communities in which they serve, their fellow officers and the oath they were sworn to uphold. Why does that, in your view, fall short? I mean, what more would you like to hear from them?

BUTLER: So then the president of the Minneapolis FOP went on to call the protest about George Floyd's death a terrorist movement. The head of the Minneapolis FOP has 29 complaints filed against him. And when we think about some of the problems in Minneapolis, one big one is that only 7% of officers live in the city. And we know that when police patrol the communities that they live in, they're more effective. And that's another problem. FOP, again, stands in the way of commonsense reforms, like residency requirements.

SHAPIRO: If, as you say, the police force itself is more diverse and, perhaps, more open to change than the Fraternal Order of Police, why hasn't some other organization been a countervoice that is as powerful or more powerful?

BUTLER: Many police unions are extremely influential. Some spend millions of dollars a year electing lawmakers and helping to support mayors and district attorneys who support their agenda. For a long time in the United States, the politics around law and order have been, get tough on crime. That's certainly the FOP's line, and a lot of politicians have gone along with that. In this moment, that might be starting to change.

SHAPIRO: Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University. He joined us on Skype.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: And I'll add that we have been asking national and several city chapters of the FOP to grant us interviews, and we hope to bring you those voices soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.