By Dennis Hull | California Policy Center
By the time we saw him kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin already had at least 17 excessive-force complaints against him, just one of which ended in disciplinary action. Neither the city’s progressive city council nor its black police chief could alter that tragedy because of the power of American police unions to control the disciplinary process for police.
Minneapolis isn’t unique. Consider Los Angeles County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey. California DA’s rarely come with a more progressive resume. A black woman, Lacey was just a deputy DA when she prosectuted Los Angeles’s first race-based hate crime murder. She won that case, and won again when she ran for the top DA post in 2012, marking another first: LA’s first African-American – and first female – District Attorney.
Many hoped that electing a progressive woman of color would usher in a new era of justice for Los Angeles, a city plagued by tension between its formidable police department and its black community. But by 2016, when Lacey ran unopposed for a second term, it was clear she was not the reformer some Angelenos were looking for. None of her obviously progressive qualities had prompted her to act on numerous police shootings and instances of brutality. In 2014, for instance, Lacey faced calls for her removal after refusing to prosecute the LAPD officer who killed Ezell Ford. Outrage swelled in 2015, when Lacey refused to act in the dramatic, high-profile shooting of Brendon Glenn, an unarmed black man who was shot twice in the back by an LAPD officer. Caught on a nearby security camera, the incident was so egregious that LA Police Chief Charlie Beck took the unusual step of calling for manslaughter charges against his own officer – the first time an LA chief had made such a recommendation. Glenn’s family received a whopping $4 million from the city to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. It took Lacey three years to announce she would not prosecute the officer who shot Brendon Glenn.
It may seem odd that LA’s first African American DA would actively oppose police accountability — until you consider the police union’s role in her success.
Over the eight years of Lacey’s tenure, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) has shielded her from political blowback. This election year, the police union has already given nearly $1 million to a political action committee dedicated to crushing her campaign opponent. The LAPPL regularly spends such high figures on local elections: in addition to giving more than $100,000 directly to city council candidates over the last decade, the union employs a network of independent expenditure committees to donate millions more. In fact, 11 out of Los Angeles’s 15 current city council members have received donations from the LAPPL. That money makes it difficult — if not impossible — for them to remain honest brokers between the police and the public.
By financing city council campaigns, the union also has the upper hand in pay and benefits negotiations – a serious problem in itself. But in funding DA candidates like Jackie Lacey’s, the union gains a powerful ally in the heart of the justice system. Without LAPPL contributions, Lacey might find it harder to win reelection. So, when issues of police misconduct arise, she has a very real incentive to side with the union and protect the accused officer, even in obvious cases of abuse. This corruption is systemic and dangerous.
Los Angeles leads the nation in law enforcement shooting deaths. Yet, it is still far too easy for a few bad cops to run to their unions for protection, escape justice, and bring infamy to an entire department — or nation. Politicians like Lacey, backed by millions in union donations, have become major obstacles to real reform.
Dennis Hull is Summer 2020 fellow in journalism at California Policy Center, and a junior in politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.