What a shift in public opinion means for powerful police unions

Police unions historically have had strong political influence over local U.S. police departments. But facing protests and shifting attitudes on law enforcement, Minneapolis leaders are signaling support for legislation denounced by the city's union.

Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune/AP
Protesters force National Guard vehicles driving toward the blockade under the Hiawatha Light Rail station in Minneapolis to reverse course on May 29, 2020. The swell of protests has put unprecedented pressure on Minneapolis' leaders to pass police reform legislation.

The fiery leader of Minneapolis' police union has built a reputation of defying the city, long before he offered the union's full support to the officers charged in George Floyd's death.

When the mayor banned "warrior training" for officers last year, Lt. Bob Kroll said the union would offer the training instead. When the city restricted officers from wearing uniforms at political events, he had T-shirts made to support President Donald Trump. He commended off-duty officers who walked away from a security detail after players on the state's professional women's basketball team, the Minnesota Lynx, wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts. And after Mr. Floyd's death, he didn't hold back as he called unrest in the city a "terrorist movement."

As Minneapolis tries to overhaul its police department in the wake of Mr. Floyd's death, city leaders will collide with a pugnacious and powerful union that has long resisted such change. But that union and Lieutenant Kroll are coming under greater pressure than ever before, with some members daring to speak out in support of change and police leaders vowing to negotiate a contract tougher on bad cops.

Other unions have publicly called for Lieutenant Kroll's removal, while public opinion polls show more Americans are shifting their views on police violence and believe offending officers are treated too leniently.

"People recognize that this just can't just be half-baked measures and tinkering around the edges in policy reform. What we're talking about right now is attacking a full-on culture shift of how police departments in Minneapolis and around the nation operate," Mayor Jacob Frey said.

Mr. Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a white officer, used his knee to pin Mr. Floyd to the ground while he was handcuffed. Mr. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter. Three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter.

All four officers were fired, but Lieutenant Kroll issued a statement saying they had the union's full support and warned against rushing to judgment.

The Minnesota AFL-CIO and some of the state's biggest unions called for Lieutenant Kroll to quit. Lieutenant Kroll, whom the Star Tribune reported is planning to step down when his term ends in 2021, hasn't responded to interview requests.

Mr. Floyd's death sparked outrage in Minneapolis and beyond, as protests erupted around the world amid emphatic calls for police reform. In Minneapolis, the first steps are being aimed at the union, long seen as a barrier. Chief Medaria Arradondo said he would withdraw from union contract negotiations to consider structural changes, and Mr. Frey is calling on state lawmakers to fix an arbitration process that he said reverses roughly half of police terminations in the state.

In an interview Sunday on "60 Minutes," Chief Arradondo said Lieutenant Kroll is "absolutely ... an influencer."

"He and others are going to have to come to a reckoning that either they are going to be on the right side of history or they're going be on the wrong side of history… or they will be left behind," the chief said.

One of the union's victories happened in 2007, when it persuaded the city to curtail the power of the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority by shielding from public view a finding that a complaint had been sustained against an officer.

The union's power has consistently stymied change, community leaders say.

"It makes it very hard to implement reforms if… the federation is in the background saying, 'Don't worry about this, we'll file a grievance,'" said Steve Fletcher, one of nine City Council members who pledged to revamp the police department. "That sends a strong signal that you can just ignore leadership. That has, over time, created a culture that is very resistant to change."

When the City Council declined last year to put additional officers on the street, Mr. Fletcher described police pushback as a "protection racket." He said business owners began calling him to complain that officers were slowing response times or not resolving issues, and telling businesses to call their council members.

Police unions across the country are seen as just as powerful, enshrining protections for officers who have been accused of crimes, including such special privileges as allowing them to wait 24 hours to be interrogated. They also have fought against making public misconduct claims, and traditionally lawmakers have been reticent to battle them over fears of being seen as anti-police.

There are signs that the power of police unions may be eroding. In New York, lawmakers passed on party lines a reform bill for the nation's largest department and others that makes major changes to officer security reviled by the union.

In Minneapolis, 14 officers signed an open letter condemning Mr. Chauvin, saying they "stand ready to listen and embrace the calls for change, reform, and rebuilding." The move was seen as a big deal for a police department where such public dissent is rare.

A recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that when compared with five years ago, more Americans believe police brutality is a very serious problem that unequally targets Black Americans. The poll also found that Americans are far more likely now than they were five years ago to say that police officers who cause injury or death in the course of their job are treated too leniently by the justice system.

Allen Berryman, a retired police sergeant and president of the union for most of the 1990s, said the union is doing its job.

"People like the idea of due process for themselves when they get arrested ... or anything like that, but they don't seem to like it" for officers, he said, adding that a lack of progressive discipline by management is part of the problem.

In answers to emailed questions from The Associated Press, Assistant Chief Mike Kjos said issues involving discipline are complex and the union's involvement is just one piece. One hurdle, he said, is that discipline handed out in past cases may be used as precedent for present cases that results in light punishment.

"It's not impossible, but it does present challenges for increased levels of discipline when previous administrations may have operated from a different lens on accountability," he said.

Michael Friedman, who chaired the Civilian Review Authority for three years, said the union's history of supporting officers "without any common regard for community standards for what policing should be" is a problem "that rightfully frustrates many."

"But it's also very convenient for others to say, especially right now, 'Hey, it's a union problem,'" Mr. Friedman said. "And say if we change the union, or get rid of the union, or remove a right or two, that changes everything."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Doug Glass contributed to this report.

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