The other day, the chief of Pittsburgh's Police was photographed holding a poster saying "I resolve to challenge racism @ work. End White silence." (The chief, Cameron McLay, is White). The local police union erupted in rage, accusing the chief of calling his force racist.
Chief McLay's act, and the union response, are part of an emerging pattern I've observed. It's not just that police unions -- and the rank-and-file more generally -- are behaving exceptionally poorly in response to protests over racist police work. It's that police leadership is performing, comparatively at least, so much better. In Richmond, California, the chief of police joined a protest with the sign "Black lives matter"; the local accused him of breaking the law. In Phoenix, a police chief who long clashed with the union was fired, one alleged source of the antipathy was the chief's crackdown on bad apple cops. And in Nashville, Tennessee, Police Chief Steve Anderson made news with a thoughtful letter to a constituent complaining that he had not cracked down sufficiently on protesters, defending their right to protest and observing that all of us have a tendency to get stuck in the views of our own social circles (in fairness, I've seen no reports of any bad behavior or backlash from Nashville police).
This divergence poses a puzzle for some on the left. To be sure, they are reckoning with the fact that a public sector union seems to be among the primary bad guys in this saga -- this article in Jacobin Magazine is a good example from a perspective well to my left. As befits their Marxist perspective, Jacobin argues that police officers are so fully integrated in the project of defending capital and the dominant classes that they have no conception of themselves as in solidarity with the everyday, working class. They are hired to manage and suppress that precise class. I wouldn't buy this explanation anyway, but it is particularly notable in that it can't explain why the police leadership isn't worse (and seems to be better) than the rank-and-file. After all, this narrative (which boils down to little more than "cops are terrible") should see a unified front of police awfulness, indeed, the police leadership should if anything be more enthusiastic players in the capitalism-preserving project. Still, one almost can't fault them for the oversight -- it is hard enough to ask a Marxist rag to abandon a union, to further expect them to throw their lot in with management is obviously a bridge too far.
But those of us not slaves to a defunct economist can think further. So what is the explanation? One answer is simply to blame the unions, and that definitely is part of the story. Protests against police racism are in large part about demanding accountability (firings, lawsuits, or prosecutions) of police officers, and protecting police officers from precisely these consequences is part of the union's job. In general, unionization increases the relative power of labor vis-a-vis management, to the extent that labor is behaving badly, unionization will accentuate those effects. But while unionization may accentuate the hostile attitude police workers take towards reform efforts, I think it is a stretch to say unions produce them. The hostility seems to be genuinely organic to the rank-and-file (witness the mass back-turning on Mayor De Blasio; an action opposed, natch, by NYPD Chief Bill Bratton). So we need another explanation for what causes the working cadre to differ so substantially from its leadership.
If I were a regular police officer, the answer I'd probably give is that police leaders are desk jockeys who don't understand the risks and realities of being a beat cop. It's easy for them to criticize, they just shuffle papers all day. Unfortunately, nearly all police leaders came up through the ranks and have plenty of experience on the streets -- indeed, they almost certainly put in their time in an era when crime was far more prevalent than today. It is unlikely that police leaders are under any delusions regarding the stresses of being a cop.
Another possibility relates to political and interest group pressure. It is almost certainly the case that police leadership are more democratically accountable than are their peers on the line. Sometimes this accountability is direct (as in an elected sheriff), but in nearly all cases the police chief can be hired or fired by the local city or county government. To the extent that the politicians are being pressured to implement reform, those pressures will diffuse down to the police management. Obviously, this depends on who the effective pressure groups are, and perhaps we'd expect to see this divergence be more stark in large cities with majority-minority electorates than in the suburbs. But maybe not -- Pittsburgh and Nashville are both majority-White cities, and Phoenix is 46% non-Hispanic white. Indeed, the only city where minority groups are a clear majority is the suburb, Richmond (though with a population of over 100,000, it isn't exactly typical).
Finally, it may be the case that the structure of police work creates a different perspective for the leadership compared to the beat. Not everything a regular cop does is particularly antagonistic -- directed traffic or providing security at a street fair, for example -- but it is no stretch to say most of their interactions with the populace occur when something bad has happened. That creates a particular perspective wherein their community is the sort of place where bad things happen and they're going to be at the center of it all. Police leadership, by contrast, gets to occupy a much wider vantage point. In addition to engaging with the police themselves and hearing their stories, they also read aggregate crime statistics, listen to public complaints, interact with local political leadership, and liaison with the community. This likely alters their understanding of what good policing is.
Either way, this presents an interesting case. It is one thing to focus on attacking the police unions, it is quite another to suggest that empowering police management might be the most progressive response. At the very least, we need to develop a theory for why in a non-trivial amount of cases, it is the police leadership that seems most amenable to the sorts of reforms progressives want to see with respect to policing behavior.