It was always a joke on our department that the cops who survived clear cases of misconduct were the cops most likely to end up being our union stewards. It wasn't always true, but like any good myth it had just enough truth in it to make it seem real. There was always a board member you could point to and say "There's the proof." This was brought home recently when one of our federation representatives, who just got time off for an off-duty fight and has a fairly high number of internal affairs complaints, was accused by other cops of implying (in a police training venue) that Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison was a terrorist because he was Muslim. Unbelievable! But I've seen worse.
As the supervisor of the Minneapolis Police Academy from 1994 to 1999, it fell on me to be the "expert witness" in civilian review complaints with regard to policy and procedure. I testified both for and against officers at civilian review hearings. Testimony in support of officers in order to correct a misunderstanding was always easy. Testifying against officers accused of misconduct was sometimes made much more difficult by the presence of our union stewards, known as federation representatives. It always irked me when we had an officer with a history of abuse being vigorously defended by his or her federation representative.
But like it or not, those union stewards served an important purpose. Their role on the department is sort of like the role played by the bacteria in your gut. You can't go without them, but sometimes what they do just plain stinks. If you have a perfect supervisor who reports to a perfect commander who reports to the perfect chief, you don't need a union or a union steward. But I don't know of any department like that, and it seems like every time I thought that was the case for me, somebody did something to ruin my daydream.
I can think of two examples where a less-than-perfect administration on my department attempted to force terminations unfairly. In the first one, I was called upon to review and testify about the actions of another supervisor who had been involved in a number of excessive force cases. Over the years, his version of street work had cost the city millions of dollars in payouts for lawsuits, and now they wanted to use a relatively minor incident to terminate him. I told the attorneys involved that I could testify, based on the officers' reports, that this supervisor's actions were a deliberate provocation intended to give him an excuse to use physical force. I also told them that it was not a firing offense, and that I was sure the arbiter would never fire him for this incident. At the hearing, the supervisor was represented by a good attorney and his federation rep. They supported him, arguing about the righteousness of his actions, the need for quick action, fast decisions, etc. The arbiter ruled in favor of discipline and not termination. It was a fair ruling.
In the second case, an officer was being charged with a whole laundry list of conjured violations of the policy manual. A particular deputy chief wanted to punish this officer for his past history and, I believe, his associations with a gay, former Catholic priest. The officer involved asked me to read through the file. The charges they trumped up against him were outrageous. Some of the conclusions reached in the internal investigation were so blatantly false that the investigator must have been mentally gagging as he typed up the final report. The supervisor that reviewed and approved of the report was no better. Worst of all was the deputy chief that pushed this case through. I wrote a letter to the Chief, detailing the deception and false conclusions that I found in the investigation. Most of the charges against the officer were eventually dropped.
I'm not defending the conduct of either one of these officers, but I am ready to defend against injustice when I see it, and it always struck me as ironic when one of our administrators would attack a police officer for trampling on someone's rights and then be willing to do exactly the same thing to their own cop.
If you're a righteous sort of cop, it would be easy to take the moral high ground in these cases and get angry about stewards who protect dirty cops. If moral justice and legal justice were the same thing, we could do that--but they're not. Legal justice is about the fair application of the law, to everyone. Moral justice is an objective we can strive for, but is met only occasionally or accidentally in the criminal justice system. In our country, moral justice and legal justice are more likely to be in conflict than agreement. If they weren't, and we let moral justice rule our country, like they do some Middle Eastern countries, we would be at the mercy of religious groups. And depending on which group was in power, that could be very scary. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not against religion. I'm just against religious beliefs replacing the rule of law.
The bottom line is this. As good cops who refuse to defend the actions of dirty cops, we can take the moral high ground with regard to their actions. But, as good cops, and the guardians of everyone's civil rights, we must support an aggressive defense of every charge made against a cop, guilty or not. We can't let people in power think they can get away with marginalizing anyone's rights just because they have the power to do so.
The union steward, federation representative, whatever you call them, have a job to do.
We don't have to like it. We do have to support it.