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Police unions, accustomed to closing ranks, rethink how to address shootings


Amid nationwide outrage over a police officer’s shooting eight bullets at the back of an unarmed, fleeing suspect in South Carolina, the statement by the local police union had a half-sentence of regret and contrition: Yes, it said, the fatal shooting was "beyond comprehension."

But the rest of the seven-paragraph statement by John C. Blackmon, the president of Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 in South Carolina, was more about lashing out at the "untruths" of critics and defending the police than reflecting on the shots fired by Michael T. Slager, the North Charleston police officer who killed Walter L. Scott.

"Do not allow the professional race agitators to seize this moment to advance their often self-serving opinions of what is wrong in South Carolina," said the statement, which was issued April 9. That was two days after a video surfaced showing Slager, 33, gunning down Scott, 50, in a field beside a muffler shop on the edge of North Charleston.

"Do not allow them to bemoan the lack of trust of police by the minority community," the statement added. "Do not allow them to beat down the hardworking men and women of the Lowcountry’s law enforcement."

When street enforcement goes bad, police unions historically close ranks around suspect officers, whether in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Missouri; New York City; or other places where the police have drawn scrutiny in the past year.

But amid a rising tide of anger and resentment directed at the police and, perhaps more important, vivid video documentation debunking or calling into question the accounts of officers, police union officials around the country are rethinking how best to get their message out.

The instinct of many is to hold the line against what they see as efforts to undermine the police by focusing on relatively rare failings of officers. But others are considering whether a new, more inward-looking approach is warranted.

"It is important for unions to become honestly self-critical about police conduct and to not blindly defend each and every egregious incident by officers," said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who testified in January to President’s Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing. "But to get there," he added, "officers within departments must step forward and take control of the unions and point them in the right direction."

A lot is at stake. Police officers not only need to maintain the respect and good will of citizens to do their job effectively, they also depend on that good will in political battles over salary, pensions and benefits, in which they have been far more successful than other public employees in recent years.

So, many officers and officials say, it is essential to put out an effective message and not just a reactive one.

"If you’re not talking, no one’s listening. No one’s getting both sides of the story," said Detective Stephen S. Loomis, president of Cleveland’s largest police union, the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association.

But Cleveland is an example of how hard getting the right message can be.

Loomis lost his position as president in 2011 after his outreach, including monthly lunches with prosecutors, the clergy or the local NAACP leader, became grist for attacks by traditionalists in the department. Three years later, colleagues voted him back into office just as a new wave of criticism of the police was erupting after the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, 12.

"They were not happy with the idea of self-preservation, or circling the wagons," Loomis said. "They wanted someone out in front."

But the instinctive reaction is usually in the opposite direction, said Eugene J. O’Donnell, a former officer who is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Criticism from outsiders reinforces officers’ tendencies to feel misunderstood, or like an "alienated subculture," O’Donnell said. He said many think: "With so many people maligning us, why would we get on line to malign ourselves?"

Union leaders, when reflecting that mindset, can come to "represent almost a tribe, rather than a labor force," he said.

In New York, communications between police unions and Mayor Bill de Blasio disintegrated after a grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. At the hospital where two officers were taken after being fatally shot in December, union leaders turned their backs on the mayor, and Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, accused de Blasio of having blood on his hands.

Still, unions face inherent contradictions in trying to put a kinder face on broad injustices in American policing, said Robert J. McGuire, a lawyer who served as New York City’s police commissioner in the 1970s and ’80s. Their obligation to defend accused officers "kind of chills their ability to speak more broadly on the social stuff, on police-community relations," he said. "You are asking the union leadership to be almost schizophrenic."

Blackmon, the South Carolina union leader, said that in Slager’s case, action, including his firing, was swift, so there was not an urgent need for the union to focus on his failings.

"We felt that the criminal justice system was doing what it was supposed to do," said Blackmon, a retired officer.

"Then, they were bashing law enforcement as a whole," he said. "To say every police officer is racist is ludicrous, and we felt we had to put a stop to it."

Also in play is resentment many officers feel – that police successes in reducing crime or individual acts of bravery are overlooked in the focus on high-profile shootings or abuse claims.

And one police union leader said he felt powerless to sway opinion over a common theme that he deemed important: that the deaths of Garner after a police encounter on Staten Island, New York, in July; of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August; and of Scott in South Carolina all occurred after someone failed to follow instructions from officers.

"It’s not to say any one of those three individuals deserves to die for whatever they did, but if we stop that, from that point forward, there would be none of these issues," said the union leader, who, in a sign of how divisive the issue remains, requested anonymity. "And that’s where I think this conversation should be taken, and no one wants to take it there."

Walter Mack, a former federal prosecutor who has also worked to root out police corruption, said it was time for police unions to communicate more effectively.

"Maybe they should have spokespeople who are quick to gather data and quick to try to shape the public space," he said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent organization in Washington, said the initial silence by police unions over the South Carolina shooting could also be chalked up to simple shock. But union voices, he predicted, will be heard, if only because the killing plays so powerfully into a notion the police are desperate to refute.

"You will hear it," he said. "Because the image of a police officer shooting an unarmed black man and appearing to alter the crime scene fulfills the conspiracy theorists’ worst nightmare, which is that this is what cops do when there’s no camera around."

Al Baker, New York Times

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