Police unions under fire from left as calls for reform ring out in aftermath of Floyd death

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In the wake of George Floyd's death, police unions are coming under fire from the political left as impediments to the reform of a system many claim is racist, as politicians and organizations say the groups are more interested in protecting their members than the public.

The tension is no more clear than in Minneapolis, ground zero for the recent unrest, where City Council member Steve Fletcher -- a leader in calls there to disband the city's police department -- took Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis President Bob Kroll to task over a letter sent to members of his union following Floyd's death.

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"Bob Kroll’s letter yesterday to the Minneapolis Police Federation membership showed us what rank-and-file officers voted for in their leadership, and it is yet another sign that the department is irredeemably beyond reform," Fletcher said in a tweet.

He continued in another: "I want to be clear: I am about as pro-union as a person can be. The Police Federation should not be thought of as a union. They do not affiliate with the AFL-CIO. They don’t walk picket lines in solidarity. How do I know? Because I do and I’ve never seen them on a line. Not once."

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But the criticism goes beyond Minneapolis.

California Democratic State Sen. Scott Wiener on Thursday announced, after pressure from his left-wing opponent, that he would no longer accept contributions from law enforcement unions and that he would donate such proceeds from his most recent election cycle to "nonprofits serving at-risk youth of color."

Jackie Fielder, his opponent, immediately said his move was not enough.

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"My opponent @Scott_Wiener conceded to my challenge issued on Sunday," she said. "However, this: 1) Doesn't account for $45,000+ from your first State Senate campaign 2) Falls short of a commitment to reject contributions from PACs funded by law enforcement associations."

She added: "No loopholes."

The ACLU of Minnesota, which is running a lawsuit against Minneapolis over its police department allegedly violating journalists' rights during the unrest after Floyd's death, also chimed in.

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"Police are supposed to protect and serve the people," the organization said. "But when the people cry out for an end to police violence and aggression, police unions only protect themselves."

And Megan Ellyia Green, a current alderwoman in St. Louis, Mo., and candidate for Missouri Senate, responded to a recent story in the New York Times about the power police unions are able to exert on local governments by calling the local union in St. Louis "the worst."

"Police unions are impediments to change, and #STLPOA is about the worst," she said. "Thanks to @nytimes for elevating the harassment that @StLouisCityCA and I have received from them by pushing for reforms, and shining a light on how reform gets stopped."

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Meanwhile, those on the right have backed police unions' message.

Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative organization Judicial Watch, tweeted in support of the New York Police Department Sergeants Benevolent Association as it gave an update on a police officer who was run over by a car during unrest in the city last week.

"Violent left update -- another casualty in the war on police. Thank God that Sgt. Maher survived," Fitton said.

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The defense of police unions by conservatives like Fitton, and criticism from members of the left, is a stark reversal from how they traditionally treat organized labor.

Fitton is regularly critical of labor unions and the ACLU touts its support for organized labor.

"The ACLU has championed the right of workers to organize unions since its inception more than 90 years ago, beginning with efforts to counter the vehement anti-union crusades of the 1920s," the national ACLU says on its website.

The criticism of police unions by liberals -- who are traditionally at odds with the police groups but not other forms of organized labor -- comes as some police unions are defending officers caught on camera roughing up or injuring citizens.

Two Buffalo police officers were charged with assault Saturday, for example, after a video showed them shoving a 75-year-old protester in recent demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.

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Attorney Tom Burton, who is representing the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association and one of the officers who was charged, defended the actions of the officers.

"Nobody from the police is delighting in the fact that this fellow got hurt, OK. Nobody intended to hurt him. But the bottom line is the events which triggered this were not started by the police," he said according to WGRZ.

Meanwhile, the letter Minneapolis union chief Kroll wrote that upset Fletcher sought to transfer blame for Floyd's death to Floyd himself and defended the officers involved.

"What is not being told is the violent criminal history of George Floyd," Kroll said. "I've worked with the four defense attorneys that are representing each of our four terminated individuals under criminal investigation, in addition with our labor attorneys to fight for their jobs. They were terminated without due process."

The statement elicited anger from former Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau.

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"A disgrace to the badge!" she said. "This is the battle that myself and others have been fighting against. Bob Kroll turn in your badge!"

Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used his knee to pin Floyd to the ground by his neck for nearly nine minutes before Floyd's death as he gasped for air. Floyd was not visibly resisting Chauvin. Chauvin was fired and is now charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.

As movements to dismantle and defund police departments sweep the country, Democratic politicians say they can count on opposition from police unions.

"Unfortunately, in history in our city, and I think the history of other cities, unions are extraordinarily reluctant to embrace reform and that's a current state of affairs here," Chicago Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in an interview with NPR over the weekend. "We have had to take them to arbitration to win very modest reforms, and that's a shame of the history of collective bargaining where there hasn't been an emphasis on reform and accountability."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.