To Defund the Police, We Have to Dethrone the Law Enforcement Lobby

Police unions, prison guard unions, district attorney associations, and others in the law enforcement lobby have long wielded their power to nix any reforms that attack the carceral state. To defund the police, we’ll have to challenge their power head-on.

Members of the Minneapolis Police Department on June 11, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

In recent weeks, as protests erupted in Minneapolis and around the country over the police killing of George Floyd, Minnesota lawmakers promised quick action: they’d make it easier to fire abusive officers, raise the standard for using deadly force, give the attorney general (rather than local district attorneys) the authority to charge and prosecute abusive cops, ban choke holds and “warrior-style” training, and fund community-based violence intervention programs. These measures wouldn’t defund or dismantle the police. They were quite modest, given the breadth of protests and radical demands emanating from the movement. Still, on the morning of June 20, the Minnesota Legislature ended its special session without passing a single police bill.

In a moment of deep pain and anguish, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to press for an end to state violence — risking their safety from police reprisal and coronavirus — how can lawmakers turn their backs on this uprising?

The answer for many is police unions. But the problem isn’t just the police or other law enforcement unions. Scholarship on criminal justice policymaking in the United States finds that a multisided law enforcement lobby, made up of prison guard unions, district attorney associations, sheriffs’ associations, police chief organizations, and, yes, police unions, wields inordinate power. In our research on California, Florida, Texas, and other states, we’ve chronicled how the lobby has blocked efforts to change sentencing laws, abolish solitary confinement, outlaw capital punishment, close prisons and jails, end commercial bail, and on and on. Legislators tell us outright: major reform legislation has little chance of passing unless law enforcement is on board (or gets out of the way).

To reimagine policing and end mass incarceration, or even achieve meaningful reforms, we must reckon with the political power law enforcement interest groups have accrued.

The law enforcement lobby grew in size and clout beginning in the 1970s, as states and the federal government poured money into policing, prosecution, and punishment. In the 1990s, with politicians competing to be seen as the toughest on crime (especially crime associated with black and brown people), law enforcement groups — and the retributive crime victim’s organizations they supported — became kingmakers. Every politician wanted men and women in uniform behind them. In return, law enforcement organizations learned to reward political friends with endorsements and financial contributions and punish enemies through negative campaigning and accusations about being soft on crime.

Today, the law enforcement lobby has power in numbers. Organizations pool resources, delegate tasks, and present a unified front. In California, a formidable coalition has been instrumental in passing and protecting ultra-punitive sentencing laws. In New York, law enforcement organizations spearheaded a successful campaign to gut bail reforms passed last year. By joining forces, these groups overwhelm political adversaries, typically civil liberties and community groups with less money and fewer connections.

Sometimes, the power of law enforcement organizations is easy to see. The groups run ads and publicly pronounce that reforms will lead to crime, death, and anarchy. After New York State passed major bail reform legislation in 2019, the New York City police union declared, “Our elected leaders are putting kids in harm’s way by making child porn a bail-free crime.” Not only will this lobby use public shaming against its political opponents, but also against colleagues who won’t fall in line. Police unions and allied politicians have harassed, protested, and tried to oust progressive prosecutors, especially black women, who are committed to racial justice and reducing mass incarceration.

At other times, the lobby’s influence sometimes takes less obvious forms. The organizations work behind closed doors, using their unique access to ostensibly educate lawmakers about the issues. Positioning themselves as the only legitimate experts on crime control, they reinforce the belief that intensive policing, harsh sentencing laws, and incarceration are imperative to protect public safety. As a result, politicians torpedo, water down, or defer reform measures.

During the Minnesota Legislature’s special session, law enforcement successfully advocated delaying action — a common tactic that allows time for public pressure to subside and lobby pressure to intensify.

So is the law enforcement lobby too powerful to dislodge? Recent developments suggest not.

The pressure to break law enforcement’s choke hold on criminal justice policy is growing. Even Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradando said on 60 Minutes last month that leaders of his city’s police union “are going to have to come to a reckoning that either they are going to be on the right side of history . . . or, they will be left behind.”

A combination of activists, journalists, and organized labor have portrayed cop unions as self-interested organizations that block meaningful reforms and protect officers that brutalize people. If pressure continues to build, more public officials may be emboldened to acknowledge and limit police unions’ power through legislation and contract negotiations. If the narrative sticks, it also could make law enforcement endorsements less valuable, decreasing the incentive for legislators to act on the organizations’ behalf.

Rising voices are demanding lawmakers reject, return, or donate contributions from police and prison officer unions. Reform-minded district attorneys in California have asked the American Bar Association to ban police unions from contributing to prosecutorial campaigns, specifically to avoid conflicts of interest. Citizens United is a roadblock to barring spending on campaigns because it allows law enforcement unions, like corporations, to spend unlimited amounts on independent expenditures. But efforts to stigmatize law enforcement contributions could achieve similar ends if electoral candidates come to believe, to quote a New York activist, “taking police money implies that you’re actively OK with cops murdering black men or torturing people in jails.”

There are fewer direct efforts to limit the prosecutor association’s political power; reformers have instead focused on electing progressive district attorneys. They have seen some success, with renegade DAs beginning to assert independence, breaching the idea that all prosecutors share the same views. If more progressive DAs win office, there’s hope they’ll form their own associations to serve as a political counterweight to their tough-on-crime colleagues.

The barriers to a dramatic shift of power are formidable. Yet we’ve seen that disruptive politics can rapidly change the political playing field, forcing politicians to listen to people from heavily policed and imprisoned communities. By refusing to cooperate — taking over streets, threatening property, and disrupting commerce — Black Lives Matter and local activist groups like Minneapolis’s Black Visions Collective have challenged the legitimacy of the police, swayed public opinion, and forced policymakers to consider changes once seen as impossible.

With protesters still in the streets, a handful of cities have acted boldly, cutting police budgets, removing police from schools, and ending violent tactics like no-knock warrants and choke holds. Colorado recently passed a major legislative package that includes ending qualified immunity, which has shielded cops from civil liability for violating people’s constitutional rights.

Minneapolis seemed poised to go further when a veto-proof majority of the City Council publicly committed to dismantling the police. But the council then announced it would begin a year-long process of engaging “with every willing community member in Minneapolis.” Law enforcement groups and their allies, we suspect, will use the long pause to frighten voters, lobby city officials, and resist major changes. As politicians hold hearings, experts conduct studies, and public pressure decreases, law enforcement moves the conversation from systemic transformation to watered-down reform.

Now that huge majorities of people in Minneapolis and elsewhere express support for Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform, it’s critical to keep up the pressure. Policymakers need to understand that they can’t turn their backs on this uprising, and that adjourning without action is shameful — even riskier than taking on the law enforcement lobby.