LA Police Union Official: 'Every Dollar You Take Away' Has Consequences | WCAI

LA Police Union Official: 'Every Dollar You Take Away' Has Consequences

Jun 11, 2020

In the two-and-a-half weeks since police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, the question of how to change policing has eclipsed almost every other topic of debate.

Some of the loudest voices opposing dramatic change are from police unions.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to cut the police budget by as much as $150 million. In a recent speech, he referred to police as "killers." In response, union directors questioned the mayor's mental health.

Robert Harris, an official with the city's police union, says he's not opposed to reassessing the budget in order to better serve the community.

In L.A., and across the country, police are often called on to deal with issues such as homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

"Let's identify things that we have stereotypically put at the feet of law enforcement and see if we can address those better, and let's see what that impact would be in our communities, specifically our higher crime areas or our minority communities," says Harris, a director with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, in an interview on All Things Considered.

But that, he argues, isn't what the current conversation is about.

"What's happening is a philosophy that says police are harming minority communities. Therefore, we're going to punish them by taking money away from them," Harris says. "Every dollar you take away from a department has a real consequence in our neighborhoods."

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Many argue that police unions often stand in the way of reform. For example, California changed state law, over union objections, to open records of officer misconduct to the public. That law took effect last year. What kind of impact has it had?

It's generated an immense amount of administrative work onto police departments. With every new reform, something like body cameras ... all of those things come with administrative functions that then require funding, which is the irony here, every time we ask for something new, it requires funding to do that. I would disagree that rank-and-file union stand in the way of reform. I think that makes for a great clip. I don't think it's rooted in reality. ...

But on that specific state law, the union did oppose that particular effort for transparency and accountability. And when I ask you how it's gone, you say it's created a lot more work. So you can understand why people would have that perception.

... When you reduce some of these issues that are nuanced and have unintended consequences to them, when you reduce them down to "well, the police just don't want to release their personnel records," that's just not true. And it's not fair.

Can you just explain to listeners why unions have so often opposed rules such as clearly prescribed use of force continuums, civilian oversight with subpoena power, things that give unions a reputation for fighting changes in American policing?

Look, some rank-and-file unions have gotten it wrong. ... I think there should be a national minimum use of force policy standard. I think all agencies should have something that ingrains reverence for life in their officers' minds. I think that they should include policies that address de-escalation techniques, tactics and training. I think training itself needs to be better at a national level for police. And these are all things that Los Angeles has implemented over the last two decades, and it has served us very well. I think it is very important for people to have the proper perspective and perceptions when it comes to how do we move forward towards the shared goal of building trust and respect between communities and the officers that serve them.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis less than a month ago, on May 25. And in that short time, the question of how to change policing has eclipsed almost every other topic of debate in this country. Some of the loudest voices opposing dramatic change are from police officers' unions. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to cut the police budget by as much as $150 million dollars. He referred to police as killers. And in response, union directors questioned the mayor's mental health. One of those directors, Robert Harris, joins us now.

Thanks for taking the time.

ROBERT HARRIS: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: As you know, LA police are often called on to deal with homelessness, addiction, mental illness. That's something your own police chief has complained about. So why not redirect funding from the police to agencies with expertise in those areas?

HARRIS: Yeah. I think it's a valid conversation for city leaders to say, hey, let's look at what our global city budget is and let's identify things that we have stereotypically put at the feet of law enforcement and see if we can address those better. And let's see what that impact would be in our communities, specifically our higher-crime areas or our minority communities.

In Los Angeles - and what I'm seeing across the country, that's not what's happening. What's happening is a philosophy that says police are harming minority communities, therefore, we're going to punish them by taking money away from them. Every dollar you take away from the department has a real consequence in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

SHAPIRO: You and other union leaders criticized Mayor Garcetti by questioning his mental health. When you fall back on that specific insult, does it undermine your ability to earn the trust of people with real mental illness who officers encounter in the course of police work?

HARRIS: No, I don't think so. I think it highlights just how absurd his lack of leadership and his political posturing was in that moment.

SHAPIRO: You just don't think it's offensive to people with real mental illness?

HARRIS: No, I don't. I think the comment to Mayor Garcetti was a tongue in cheek. I don't think it should be taken seriously. I think it was meant to highlight just how irrational his proposal was. It borders on not thinking clearly.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this week, I spoke with Georgetown law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler about the role of police unions in the U.S. And he told me they often stand in the way of reform. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PAUL BUTLER: Police reform is about transparency and accountability, and police unions resist those important goals. They fight to keep disciplinary records of cops secret.

SHAPIRO: As you know, California changed state law, over union objections, to open records of officer misconduct to the public. That law took effect last year. What kind of impact has it had?

HARRIS: Well, it's generated an immense amount of administrative work on two police departments. With every new reform - you know, something like body cameras being introduced to your departments - all of those things come with administrative functions that then require funding, which is the irony here. Every time we ask for something new, it requires funding to do that. I would disagree that rank-and-file unions stand in the way of reform. I think that makes for a great clip. I don't think it's rooted in reality if you actually look at what rank-and-file unions can do.

SHAPIRO: Well - but on that specific state law, the union did oppose that particular effort for transparency and accountability. And when I ask you how it's gone, you say it's created a lot more work. So you can understand why people would have that perception.

HARRIS: Yeah, again - and it comes down to when you reduce some of these issues that are nuanced and have unintended consequences - when you reduce them down to, well, the police just don't want to release their personnel records, that's just not true. And it's not fair.

SHAPIRO: I hear you saying that in principle, the union supports changes. In practice, so often the union opposes specific changes that are put forth. Can you just explain to listeners why unions have so often opposed rules such as clearly prescribed use of force continuums, civilian oversight with subpoena power - things that give unions a reputation for fighting changes in American policing?

HARRIS: Yeah, look - some rank-and-file unions have gotten it wrong. I think having minimum use of force policy standards is important. I think there should be a national minimum use of force policy standard. I think all agencies should have something that ingrains reverence for life in their officers' minds. I think that they should include policies that address de-escalation techniques, tactics and training. I think training itself needs to be better at a national level for police.

And these are all things that Los Angeles has implemented over the last two decades, and it has served us very well. I think it is very important for people to have the proper perspective and perceptions when it comes to, how do we move forward towards the shared goal of building trust and respect between communities and the officers that serve them?

SHAPIRO: That's Robert Harris, a director with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing LA's police.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

HARRIS: Absolutely. I appreciate the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.