Police unions must take their place on the road to reform or risk obsolescence: Christopher Moraff

The backlash against an innocuous photograph of Pittsburgh’s top cop holding a protest sign reveals the extent to which police unions risk marginalizing themselves from the current dialogue on police reform if they don’t get in step with the rest of America.

For more than a week, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Cameron McLay has been on the receiving end of a disingenuous and racially charged attack from the city’s Fraternal Order of Police for the crime of doing his job.

As most readers will know, the offense in question took place during the city’s First Night Parade on New Year’s Eve, when McLay ran into some #BlackLivesMatter protesters on his way to get a cup of coffee.

In a well-intentioned display of public engagement, he accepted their request to be photographed with one of their signs – which pledged nothing more controversial than a commitment to help combat racism in the workplace.

It’s hard to imagine there are many people who would argue that racism in any form is compatible with good governance, or that enduring racial tensions are not hampering police-community relations.

I suspect there are fewer still who would argue that working to improve those relations is outside the purview of a municipal police chief.

Events in 2014 exposed the yawning chasm that exists between law enforcement and many of the communities they serve.

But after the photo went viral, one of them – the head of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police, Howard McQuillan – accused McLay of “pandering,” and condemned the display as a swipe at the integrity of the city’s police (or at least its white officers).

McQuillan supplemented his rhetoric by filing a formal complaint against McLay for allegedly violating the department’s social media policy – never mind that McLay played no role in distributing the photo.

Here’s the thing: While the criticism of McLay has been vocal – and fits nicely within a certain media narrative – it is almost entirely contained within the yellow brick walls of the FOP’s Fort Pitt Lodge.

Almost everywhere else – including on social media and in the halls of his own department – McLay has been showered with an outpouring of support for his impromptu display of community solidarity.

This is a consequential point; and it is hard to view it as anything less than a symptom of desperation from union officials who feel (rightly, so) that they are losing an existential battle against the winds of change.

Events in 2014 exposed the yawning chasm that exists between law enforcement and many of the communities they serve.

Yet even before the crisis-filled summer of 2014, many police departments had come to realize that the status quo established during the height of the war on drugs is no longer working, and they began adopting innovative new strategies for restoring public trust.

As the commander of Washington State’s police academy explained to me in a recent interview, this new ethos is “guided by the underlying goal of producing officers who are guardians as opposed to warriors.”

McLay’s dedication to that goal was no mystery when he was hired to replace scandal-ridden former chief Nate Harper last September. A former Madison, Wis., police captain with a reputation as a reformer, McLay made it clear that one of his primary tasks would be to focus on healing community ties.

Even McQuillan – while acknowledging he would have preferred a PBP insider for the job – offered his begrudging support.

“We need to have some strong leadership,” he said at the time.

Looking back, it’s hard to take that statement at face value. Most Americans recognize that in its current context “strong leadership” means restoring community trust and establishing detente with citizens who feel marginalized by an overly adversarial police force.

Indeed, McLay’s overture to protesters was consistent with the PBP’s own community policing initiative, which was recently bolstered by nearly $2 million in federal grant money.

But strong leadership also tends to ruffle the feathers of those who maintain an alternate agenda. In adopting an us-versus-them mentality, McQuillan – and his counterparts in police union leadership roles from California to New York – have made it clear that their agenda is not the same as the rest of America.

And to be fair, it shouldn’t be. Unions are inherently political institutions, and like all political groups their duty is to constituents, not stakeholders.

The role of a police union is not to advocate for citizens any more than the role of a teacher’s union is to advocate for students or the NFL Players Association’s is to advocate for battered spouses.

Reforming the police is impossible without more responsibility being placed on rank-and-file officers.

And where there is more responsibility there is more scrutiny. Union leaders like McQuillan would tell you they are protecting their constituents from this scrutiny.

Scratch below the surface, however, and it’s not hard to see that hidden behind these orchestrated public spats with police leadership is the union’s fight to prove its own legitimacy.

The fact that public-sector unions like the FOP are under attack and are confronting the threat of gradual obsolescence is no secret. Nor is the fact that to compensate many are taking a even more active stance in the political arena.

It’s no mystery that when these political organizations feel threatened they turn to hyperbole and fear mongering. (If you don’t believe me, just check out this ad from the UFCW challenging liquor privatization in Pennsylvania.)

America’s police are facing a public relations crisis, and as anyone with any experience managing such things will tell you, the best way to tackle a PR nightmare is to confront it head on.

I believe that most law enforcement officers in America want to do just that. Which is why they must begin to distance themselves from an organization that seems intent on going down with the ship.

As much as they’d like to avoid it, police unions will soon be faced with two choices: join with forward-thinking leaders like McLay to inaugurate a new era of policing, or raise the white flag and recede quietly into the night.

Christopher Moraff is a PennLive columnist. He lives and writes in Philadelphia.