Can Black Lives Matter LA dismantle the powerful police unions?
Union members who lost relatives to officer killings are fighting to eject ‘harmful and violent’ police groups from labor associations DeAnna Sianez Sullivan and Sam Sullivan, the mother and sister of David Sullivan, a 19-year-old who was killed by Buena Park police in Orange county. Photograph: Stephanie Mei Ling/The Guardian On 22 April 2020, a Los Angeles police officer showed up to the scene of a car accident and fatally shot one of the drivers. The officer rapidly fired six shots from a distance at Daniel Hernandez, 38, who was holding a box cutter and appeared disoriented and in distress. The Hernandez family believed there might be consequences for such an unwarranted killing until they learned the officer’s identity: Toni McBride, a 23-year-old whose father is a director of the powerful LA police union, which defends officers accused of misconduct. “My brother was in a collision and he needed help,” said Marina Vergara, Hernandez’s sister. “Instead, he was executed by an officer who knew she would have the protection of her father and his associates.” Daniel Hernandez. Photograph: Courtesy of Marina Vergara One year after the George Floyd uprisings, Vergara is part of a coalition of activists in LA that has begun targeting the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), the union that represents officers after they have killed civilians. Organizing with Black Lives Matter LA, the advocates are fighting to eject law enforcement associations from public sector labor groups – in hopes of eventually dismantling police unions altogether. Tensions over police union membership have been simmering for years within the US labor movement, but boiled over last May after Floyd’s murder, which prompted the Minneapolis police union leader to launch an attack on Floyd’s character and call BLM protesters “terrorists”. LA is now home to one of the most organized campaigns against police unions, led by local union members who have lost loved ones to police killings and who are now directly standing up to a sister union within the same labor federation. “LAPPL is not a union. They don’t belong with unions. They take the lives of other union members,” said Vergara, who is part of the LA teachers’ union. “I am a union member and I advocate for my community. They don’t. They advocate for their rights and how they can avoid being held accountable. They advocate for more weapons, more funds, and more jobs for them to control the community.” How unions have escalated violence Police unions grew in the US in the 1960s as the civil rights movement was increasing scrutiny of officer misconduct. In the decades since, law enforcement associations have dramatically expanded their powers through their contracts. “It’s hard for me to think of police as traditional workers,” said Veena Dubal, a University of California, Hastings law professor and labor expert, and former Berkeley police review commissioner. “They are the only people in our country who have the right to take away life and to do so with immunity. They are unequivocally forces that seek to insulate police from any kind of accountability, and that’s very different than what a union does.” Everything that police associations push for the hardest are the things that allow the police to be harmful Nana Gyamfi The unions have negotiated a wide range of exceptional rights for officers, including requiring departments to erase misconduct records from officers’ files, giving them a clean slate. Union contracts have also mandated that abuse investigations remain secret; allowed officers found to be intoxicated at work to go home without discipline; created huge obstacles to firing police; and ensured that when police officers kill civilians, they can wait several days before they have to give a statement. The impact of those contracts, experts say, is deadly. Research has repeatedly shown that after police departments have won special bargaining rights, those agencies experienced sharp increases in killings by officers and violent misconduct. One study found that the stronger the contracts and protections, the more police abuse people. The unions in LA also wield significant power through political donations and lobbying, giving them tremendous influence in elections and policymaking. “Everything that police associations push for the hardest are the things that allow the police to be harmful,” said Nana Gyamfi, an LA civil rights lawyer and the president of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, which recently co-produced a report on US police killings in which human rights experts from 11 countries documented potential US police violations of international law. The inquiry found that unions were integral to “obstruction and manipulation” in misconduct cases. Police chiefs and mayors have also spoken out against unions, lamenting how difficult it is to fire bad officers and how their contracts block reform efforts. A former Minneapolis police chief called the union leader a “disgrace to the badge” last year, saying the union controlled the police culture, blocked transparency efforts and “fought me at every turn”. While labor groups have long resisted efforts to publicly oppose police unions, the dynamics shifted during last summer’s uprisings. The LA union members fighting back When LA sheriffs killed 18-year-old Andres Guardado, shooting him five times in the back on 18 June last year, one of the first groups that began organizing to support his family was Unite Here, the hotel and food service workers union. That’s because Andres’s father is a cook and 14-year member of the union, which called on the sheriff to resign. DeAnna Sianez Sullivan, the mother of David Sullivan. Photograph: Stephanie Mei-Ling/The Guardian Other LA labor activists began speaking out, energized by the national protests. “Our unions are for blue-collar workers and the working class, helping families and lifting up the community,” said DeAnna Sianez Sullivan, an LA member of the electrical workers union. “The police unions are there to defend officers at all costs.” Her son, David Sullivan, was 19 years old when police in Buena Park, south of LA, killed him during a traffic stop in 2019; he was unarmed and had been pulled over for expired tags, and eventually tried to flee during the stop. Bruce Praet, the lawyer representing the police department in the Sullivan family’s civil lawsuit, is a former LA police union attorney and co-founder of Lexipol, a private corporation that helps craft law enforcement policies for cities. The company works to protect departments from litigation and has been accused of thwarting accountability. “He founded a for-profit company that writes policies for the police … and then a police officer kills somebody, and he gets another job defending the police,” said Sam Sullivan, David’s sister. The family said Praet’s involvement in their case was a reminder of how police unions and their associates have influenced higher-level policies while also fighting against accountability in individual cases. “If you say, ‘I feared for my life,’ that justifies everything,” said Sam, 23, noting how unions rely on policies that give officers wide latitude to kill when they claim that a civilian posed a deadly threat. “Why are you afraid of a boy who was running away and had no weapon?” Praet did not respond to an inquiry. When LAPD officer McBride killed Hernandez last year, his family was distraught to learn that not only was she the daughter of an LAPPL union leader (who called BLM a “hate group”), she was also a popular Instagram influencer, who posted videos of herself firing assault rifles at targets and hanging out with celebrities. The conflict of interest posed by McBride’s father was so problematic that the local prosecutor, who has accepted significant donations from LAPPL, had to recuse herself from reviewing the killing. Vergara, Hernandez’s sister, said it was enraging to watch McBride’s Instagram videos: “It made me realize what kind of person she was.” In a rare rebuke of an officer shooting, the LA police commission ruled in December that McBride violated policy when she fired the final two shots at Hernandez while he was on the ground. But because of the secrecy around the process, Hernandez’s family does not know what discipline McBride faced as a result – if any. “We miss Danny every day, and we’ll never really get justice,” said Vergara. “But we want accountability. We want to know what happens to a police officer when they kill out of policy.” Lawyers for McBride did not respond to multiple inquiries, and the LAPD did not answer questions about her status. Family of Daniel Hernandez, who was killed by Los Angeles law enforcement, speak at a protest organized by Black Lives Matter. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Rex/Shutterstock ‘We will win’ BLMLA is now hosting weekly protests outside the LAPPL union building and is advocating for the LA County Federation of Labor (LA Fed), an umbrella union group, to eject LAPPL and other police unions. “If we stop thinking of police associations as labor unions, and we have them removed, it would really lift the veil on who they are – a special interest group,” said Dr Melina Abdullah, a BLMLA co-founder, who is also a Cal State LA professor and member of the California Faculty Association union. The police unions have significant influence within LA Fed, and ejecting them would likely have far-reaching consequences. Last year, LA Fed declined to endorse a criminal justice reform ballot measure that police groups had opposed, and refused to support a progressive district attorney candidate who was supported by other non-police members. Chiquita Twyman, whose brother was killed by LA sheriffs in 2019, is a board member with SEIU Local 2015 (which represents long-term care workers), and she showed up to an LA Fed meeting in 2019 to urge members not to endorse incumbent district attorney Jackie Lacey, who almost never prosecuted officers for killings. But the police union members showed up “in full force” to support Lacey, and Twyman’s pleas were ultimately ignored: “It was upsetting. The Labor Federation has to stand with us union members.” DeAnna Sianez Sullivan said it was frustrating that more union leaders weren’t speaking out: “While they support their union members, they don’t want to denounce the police associations out of fear of possible repercussions.” Chiquita Twyman at a recent protest. Photograph: Sam Levin While the LA Fed has so far resisted calls to eject police, some labor groups across the country have started to take a stand, said Andrea J Ritchie, a researcher with Interrupting Criminalization, an initiative at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Seattle officers were expelled from the region’s largest labor council last year; the teachers’ union successfully campaigned to remove Minneapolis police from schools; and the Writers Guild of America formally urged AFL-CIO (America’s largest union association) to kick out police. “It’s in labor’s interest to organize as broadly and deeply as possible,” said Ritchie, noting that police membership has become untenable in many unions. “If the majority of the folks that you want to organize don’t want to be in a room with the people you’re allied with, then you’re going to have to make a choice.” LA Fed and LAPPL spokespeople did not respond to inquiries. LAPPL leaders have dismissed the movement to oust the union as “laughable” and “undemocratic”. But organizers with BLMLA, which did similar weekly protests outside DA Lacey’s office until she was voted out in November, said they were confident the campaign would be successful. “We intend to be there every week, because it reminds people that we have the power,” said Abdullah. “We’re committed to it. It might be a long struggle, but we will keep going until we win.”