“A pack of rabid animals.” That’s how John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, described local Black Lives Matter activists who picketed outside the home of a Philly cop who shot black suspects in the back on two separate occasions. After the officer was suspended, the local FOP had a fundraiser for him, with proceeds from the $40-per-ticket event going toward the officer’s living expenses.
McNesby made the remarks at a Back the Blue rally in August and caught heat for his choice of words. It wasn’t the first time. Another Philly cop made headlines last year for having a tattoo of a spread-winged eagle under the word “Fatherland.” McNesby defended the cop’s apparent shout out to the official emblem of the Nazi Party, saying the tattoo was “not a big deal.”
In my book “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” I argue that the U.S. criminal justice system is premised on the control of black men and that this fact explains some of its most problematic features—mass incarceration, the erosion of civil liberties, brutal policing, and draconian sentences. The behavior of McNesby, and FOP leadership more broadly, further supports my claim.
Even as law enforcement has become more racially diverse, the FOP seems committed to putting white men in charge. Those leaders consistently take stances against the safety and rights of black Americans. As a result, the organization serves as a union cum fraternity for white cops and has a retrograde effect on policing, especially as it relates to civil rights.
The FOP is the nation’s largest police association, boasting more than 300,000 members belonging to its 2,000 or so local chapters—some of which are unions and others which are simply fraternal organizations. There’s also a national FOP that lobbies on various issues pertaining to law enforcement and labor.
The FOP’s national leadership consists of seven white men. Such a lack of diversity is striking in an organization that claims 30 percent of its members are officers of color. And many local chapters appear to be run by white cops—even in cities with police forces that are predominantly of color.
Baltimore’s police department, for example, is 44 percent black, but its FOP has never had a black leader. The D.C. FOP chapter board is mainly white, even though the Metropolitan Police Department is predominately black. The Chicago FOP has no black officers on the executive leadership team. Neither does the nine-member executive leadership board of the California state group.
Time and time again, those who are empowered to speak on behalf of the FOP have made it a point to support police officers involved in questionable shootings of black Americans and other alleged abuses.
One local chapter in Maryland raised money for Darren Wilson, the white officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. After Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke was fired for shooting 16 bullets into Laquan McDonald, he was hired as a janitor by his local FOP.
After 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a Cleveland officer, the president of the Miami FOP tweeted “act like a thug, you’ll be treated like a thug.” Jay McDonald, president of the Ohio FOP and the current vice president of the national FOP, started an online “Stand with Cops” petition asking for support for officers in the midst of the backlash to Tamir’s killing.
Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, the FOP has an outsized impact on criminal justice policy, especially in the Trump administration.
The organization endorsed Donald Trump for president during the 2016 race and soon after the election issued an "advisory" for the new administration’s first 100 days. The document reads like a wishlist of everything a fan of violent and undemocratic policing could hope for, and the FOP got most of it.
They got the deprioritization of the Obama administration’s policing commission recommendations, reversal of the DOJ’s ban on private prisons, the return of civil asset forfeiture, the end of DACA and a crackdown on sanctuary cities—all of which aimed to reduce the harm done to communities of color by the criminal justice system.
Perhaps the biggest gift was delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in person at the FOP’s annual convention in August. Sessions was the event’s keynote speaker and announced there that Trump would sign an executive order restoring the 1033 program, which gives local police departments surplus military equipment including bayonets, tanks, and grenade launchers. "We have your back and you have our thanks," Sessions told the crowd. According to news reports, the audience reacted “with roaring cheers.”
Some might believe that the FOP’s behavior and agenda are functions of its role as an organization that advocates for police, but the example of other police organizations suggests that’s not the case.
The Major Cities Police Chief’s organization supported the Obama policing commission’s recommendations while the FOP advisory included "de-prioritizing" "some or all" of them. The FOP is known for defending just about any officer involved in the high-profile killing of a black man while the leadership of NOBLE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, continually calls for police reform in response to such events.
Perhaps most striking: when the president urged police officers to not be “too nice” with suspects, his remarks were condemned by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Foundation, the acting director of the DEA, and police chiefs across the country. The president of the national FOP’s response? "The president's off the cuff comments on policing are sometimes taken all too literally by the media and professional police critics.”
To be sure, the FOP’s agenda is probably most informed by a warped sense of what it means to protect its membership and the law enforcement community more broadly. The result, however, is an organization that is regressive and anti-accountability with deadly consequences for communities of color, black communities in particular.
Something must be done.
Congress as well as state and local lawmakers should convene hearings on racial bias in the FOP to better understand an organization that operates with little transparency but is so heavily embedded in our system of policing. Additionally, civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU should target the FOP as a barrier to police accountability. Community organizations and activists should make it clear to their local police departments that citizens will never have confidence in cops who belong to a group so hostile to civil rights.
Finally, individual officers of conscience, and departments with a will to police democratically, should divest from the FOP. A mass resignation from the FOP by officers of color and their white allies would send the strongest message that an old boy network of Trump supporters does not represent the modern face of law enforcement.
The last part is maybe easier said than done. As unions, some local FOP chapters are entrenched in police departments around the country. They negotiate compensation and protect the labor rights of officers. Many provide life insurance, disability benefits, counseling services and legal representation for members. Still, they’re not the only game in town.
There are other police organizations, some with more diverse leadership and better track records on civil rights, poised to displace the FOP. It’s time that happens for all our sake.
The FOP, as currently constituted, should be relegated to the same historical dustbin as organizations like the Sons of the Confederacy and the White Citizens Council. Were it to go out of business, and more diverse voices in law enforcement lifted up, the streets would be safer and policing would be more transparent and accountable.
Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, is the Bennett Boskey Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School and the Albert Brick Professor in Law at Georgetown University. He is the author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.”