Policing the Unions is a five-part series that examines the renewed friction between police unions and politicians in the wake of unrest over George Floyd’s death, and the dynamics at play in efforts to reform law enforcement. Part One looked at the political pressure unions are facing. Part Two focused on police reform legislation. Part Three examined the difficulties in firing police officers deemed unfit for the job. Part Four, below, shows how police unions often stick by officers accused of excessive force.
Americans reacted with disgust when a video rippled through the nation showing police officers in Buffalo shoving a 75-year-old man to the pavement, which caused blood to come out of his head. Politicians sprang into action, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo encouraging the firing of the two officers and potential criminal charges, saying the video made him “sick to my stomach." The next day, the district attorney filed second-degree assault charges against the officers.
But at the Buffalo police union, officers felt their two colleagues were unfairly punished and fell victim to political winds after George Floyd's death. To protest their disgust with the swift discipline, 57 fellow Buffalo officers resigned from the special riot unit. Hundreds of supporters, including off-duty police, firefighters and law enforcement officers from neighboring communities, crowded outside the courthouse where the two officers were arraigned June 6 and erupted in cheers for the men.
The police union president called the courthouse turnout "tremendous" and unlike anything he's ever seen in 19 years of policing to protest the "politically motivated attack on these officers."
"This administration left them to hang out to dry horribly," John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, told Fox News. "We just want to keep their spirits up ... so they know that we are behind them 100 percent. We're going to remain with them to the end here. It's really shameful that our administration has not come out to support these officers."
The stark contrast of reactions illustrates the wedge right now between many politicians and protesters who call the cops involved in the recent spate of excessive force incidents criminals and the law enforcement unions who say if individuals just complied with orders, police wouldn't be in a position to use force.
Officers and unions around the country have widely condemned ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for kneeling on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes despite him calling out "I can't breathe." But in the face of political protests across the nation and rising anti-police sentiment, police unions, like the one in Buffalo, have banded together and stood by their fellow officers who are facing fresh allegations of misconduct in other cases.
In Atlanta, police officers have called out sick in waves after two officers were criminally charged in connection to the June 12 fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard Jr. charged Garrett Rolfe, who was fired after killing Brooks last week, with felony murder, which could potentially lead to the death penalty, among numerous other counts. A second officer, Devin Brosnan, is facing three charges, including aggravated assault.
The Atlanta police union president Jason Segura panned the charges as politically motivated since Howard is in the midst of a tight election race and criminal investigation for misappropriation of funds. And officers are walking off the job and calling in sick because they are at their "wits' end." Segura said officers are puzzled by the lack of due process for the two officers and feel the mayor and city council are throwing them under the bus.
"The morale is terrible," Vince Champion, the southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, told Fox 5 Atlanta in confirming the walkouts in the wake of the criminal charges. "It's the worst day in law enforcement in the city of Atlanta that's ever been."
In Minneapolis, where Chauvin and three other officers were fired in connection with Floyd's death, police union president Lt. Bob Kroll sent a letter, as reported by the Star Tribune, to his members saying the four police officers were terminated without "due process" and the union will "fight for their jobs." He commended the police officers for their outstanding work and blasted the media for failing to report on Floyd's "violent criminal history." (Black Lives Matter supporters have been protesting the Minneapolis union and demanding Kroll resign.)
This reaction is not a new phenomenon, reflecting a “brotherhood” mentality that’s been in place for decades, with unions and the rank-and-file often standing by fellow officers accused of misconduct – frustrating efforts by officials, especially now, to enforce discipline as they scramble to address brutality and racism allegations. But that show of support can also amplify simmering criticism of that process, such as in Georgia where Howard has faced accusations beyond the union of overstepping with a felony murder charge.
Meanwhile, police chiefs, local leaders and politicians from both sides the aisle are calling out unions as an obstacle to reforms and protector of bad cops. That tough criticism has made the bonds of unity among an already tight-knit group of officers even stronger.
"Police officers are fed up," Evans, the Buffalo union president, said. "There's no support coming out of our [local] administration for our members and ... that appears to be countrywide. They're attempting to implement these reforms without any negotiation and without consideration to the police officers."
Evans described the mood right now among officers as reaching "a boiling point" because they are all suffering for Chauvin's actions. "We're being blamed for the actions of one police officer," he said.
While protesters and politicians have decried the use of force, particularly against black men, union officials have decried the lack of compliance and respect for police.
Arrests would go smoothly if individuals complied with officers' orders, Evans said. He suggests giving all ninth graders a police compliance class in school. “Even when you're doing something illegal and you get caught, simply put your hands up in the air. … Comply with the police officer, and I want to say 99 percent of these events wouldn't happen," he said.
Two weeks ago -- before the fatal shooting of Brooks in Atlanta -- one Florida union took to social media to recruit police officers from Buffalo, Atlanta and Minneapolis who were involved in excessive force cases.
"Hey Buffalo 57… and Atlanta 6… we are hiring in Florida. Lower taxes, no spineless leadership, or dumb mayors rambling on at press conferences… Plus… we got your back! #lawandorderFlorida," the Brevard County F.O.P. President Bert Garmin posted on social media June 6.
The post garnered more than 2,000 comments and 1,000 shares before it was deleted two days later, Florida Today reported. The Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey distanced himself for the union, calling the posts "extremely distasteful and insensitive."
The protesters' demands -- from defunding the police to ending brutality -- have sprung politicians to action. Lawmakers in Washington are advancing massive criminal justice reform bills. States like Iowa and New York have swiftly passed statewide police reform laws. And local leaders are considering slashing police budgets to answer the call from Black Lives Matter protesters.
Evans says the Buffalo officers charged with second-degree assault, a class D felony -- Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski -- are only facing prosecution because of the political climate post-Floyd's death.
If the shoving incident happened prior to Floyd's death, "I don't think there would have been any discipline," said Evans, who said the arrests were designed to "appease" activists.
The officers have been suspended without pay.
The viral video showed the 75-year-old man, Martin Gugino, bleeding on the sidewalk after getting shoved by police. Gugino approached a line of riot police as they were giving the order for protesters to get back and clear out in accordance with the 8 p.m. curfew set in place to quell the civil unrest. The mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown, said Gugino was asked to leave the area "numerous times."
Officers are seen continuing to walk by Gugino as he's laying on the sidewalk, bleeding.
Evans said what the public may not understand is that medics are embedded in that unit and positioned behind the row of officers in that formation, who then attended to Gugino. The elderly activist suffered a skull fracture and is unable to walk, according to his lawyer.
"I think we will be successful in the courts in defending these officers, I believe they'll be exonerated without question," Evans said. "... Their intent was not to injure this gentleman. And I think that will be clearly portrayed once the court does go into session."
Fox News’ Kathleen Reuschle, Bryan Llenas and Chris Irvine contributed to this report.