How police unions present barriers to change in Canada

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Image: Mitchel Raphael

Police unions, like any union, work to protect the interests of their members. Those interests, however, are exactly what situates police unions outside of the labour movement in Canada. 

Police wield a great deal of authoritative social power, and have the actual firepower to back it up. Often, police use this power at the direct expense of labour movements, surveilling strikers and even arresting picketers

Instead of an interest in worker's rights, police interests include expanding police budgets, maintaining their militarization, and defending their jobs -- even when they have unduly harmed or even killed members of the public while doing those jobs. 

Until recently, the institution of policing and the power it holds have seemed impermeable to criticism. 

Now, after a full month of impassioned protests in North America in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, calls to defund the police have entered mainstream consciousness with unprecedented urgency. From those wishing to defund police entirely, to those seeking the most basic reforms, history tells us that police unions will mount an impressive defence of the status quo.   

Police unions in Canada have been known to unabashedly brandish their political influence to stamp out criticism of policing and to shut down calls for more civilian oversight to be introduced to the system. 

In 2000, the Toronto Police Association (TPA) launched a highly criticized fundraising campaign (Operation True Blue) in order to raise money in part for the purpose of targeting political opponents. Targets included several members of the Toronto police services board who had been critical of the force, and then-deputy police chief Robert Kerr, all of whom were supportive of increased civilian oversight of Toronto police. Those members and Kerr publicly admitted they were afraid of Craig Bromell, the TPA president at the time, while Toronto city councillors said they were afraid to speak out against the union for fear the union would attack them in the next election. 

At the time, the CBC reported that Bromell denied that the funds would be used to hire private investigators to investigate politicians critical of police, though Bromell had made it known the union had done so in the past and might do so again.

Shortly thereafter, Bromelll also endorsed a list of conservative municipal candidates who were publicly opposed to increased civilian oversight of the police, despite provincial law stipulating that police officers are not to endorse or oppose any politician. Bromell was far from the only TPA president -- and the only police union -- to insert themselves into politics in spite of this law. In 2018, the Ottawa Police Association endorsed Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives.  

Steven Tufts and Mark Thomas are sociologists at York University who co-wrote a January 2020 paper on police unions. They say that intervening in politics, and in particular, aligning with conservative politicians, is a common way that police unions preserve their interests -- and their budgets.  

Police unions are "very strong political lobbying groups," said Thomas in an interview, and have strong connections to politicians at all levels of government, but especially with those at the municipal level. 

Police unions in Canada have thus far been dismissive of calls from politicians in many municipalities to defund the police or to redistribute their budgets to other forms of community engagement. 

This month, the Regina Police Association tweeted that should the Regina Police receive cuts to its budget, the first thing to go would be the force's cultural unit which works with Indigenous communities. "Choose wisely," read the tweet, which was initially defended by the union, but has since been deleted.

In a June 8 statement titled "Racism and the Importance of Respect for all Canadians, including Members of the RCMP," National Federation of Police president Brian Sauvé said that "when elected officials offer negative anti-police comment publicly...it is not only unfair but contributes to sensationalized media coverage and bias which could negatively impact public safety." 

Also this month, Vancouver's city council voted to request the Vancouver Police Department take a one per cent cut to its $340.4 million budget to assist with the city's pandemic costs. The budget cut was unrelated to activists' calls to defund the police. Even so, Ralph Kaisers, the president of the Vancouver Police Union, told the CBC that if the budget were to be cut, the first thing to go would likely be training, offering some insight into the priorities of police forces. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has outright rejected calls to defund the police. "I don't believe in that for a second," he said.

John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, said that police unions exist to protect their own and attack anyone who criticizes them -- something he says he's been on the receiving end of throughout his career. 

"Part of police culture is about standing up for each other. The [Toronto Police] Association is part of that," he said. 

Tufts and Thomas identify such behaviour within police unions as "blue solidarity." 

"The solidarity that police unions practice is very internal," said Thomas, in that they do well to look out for one another, but often actively undermine the interests of the labour movement and racial justice movements that challenge their authority -- through efforts such as the Blue Lives Matter campaign, which was led by American police unions. 

Police unions and the labour movement

In an anti-Black racism webinar on June 10, hosted by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Sandy Hudson, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, suggested that those few Canadian unions in the labour movement that do have police or police unions in their ranks should be distancing themselves. 

In Canada, police unions are distinct from the larger labour movement, with some exceptions. CUPE, for instance, represents fewer than 100 police officers in two municipal forces on the East Coast, as well as a few Indigenous forces in Quebec, it said in an email. 

Marie-Clarke Walker of the CLC says no police unions have membership with the congress. Walker said it's not a controversial issue, but is simply because no police unions have applied.

In 2015, the CLC and the Public Servant Alliance of Canada argued at the Supreme Court alongside the Canadian Police Association in favour of the RCMP's right to unionize.

In Walker's view, "workers are workers are workers," and many of the issues facing police are shared by workers in other sectors, as well. She believes police unions play a valid role in supporting their members. 

"The distinction is they hold greater power over everybody else, which was exactly what the union movement was developed to deal with -- that power imbalance," she said. 

While the CLC has stopped short of calling for police to be defunded, it has been advocating for a reallocation of some police resources into other forms of response, such as specialized social workers, Walker said. 

Walker said that in her personal view, while this moment calls for a broader conversation about the future of policing, she's not sure that police unions should have a voice in that discussion.  

"While we've been shouting and demonstrating and all of the various things that I think they need to hear, many have not been listening," she said. If there is to be a path forward, Walker believes police need to be at the table, but they need to really listen to the Black and Indigenous communities they often target. 

Mark Thomas noted a lack of meaningful response from police unions on the protests to be indicative of their position. 

"They're not just contributing, they are creating racial tensions by protecting officers," he said. 

In Tufts and Thomas' article, they conclude with the suggestion that the labour movement should distance itself from police unions. 

Their argument is that police unions use their significant power to stamp out criticism, maintain the militarization of police, and consistently lobby politicians to increase their budgets, all while police participate "in governing capitalist labour relations through the surveillance of picketing and strikes."

However, Thomas said the question of whether police should have the right to unionize is not the right question. "The question is about policing itself...Ultimately in the end, the power of police unions lies in the power of police."

Current calls for defunding or at least significantly reforming police are growing by the day, creating a new political climate in which politicians might feel they can safely question police budgets, police behaviours, and police oversight without experiencing severe blowback from police unions and voters who support them. 

"Even a few years ago, as Black Lives Matter was emerging, it was deeply attacked by police unions. I think that what's happened in recent times is making that more difficult for police unions. That's not to say they're not going to try," said Thomas.  

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Mitchel Raphael

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