Police unions in America are powerful organizations that protect vulnerable, hard working Americans… except when they don’t. Host Jay Ellis shares his personal motivations for untangling the twisted web of public safety in America. Then, Jay calls up Campaign Zero’s DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe to learn more about police unions’ stranglehold on justice and security in America. Learn more at nixthe6.org.
[00:01] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This podcast contains difficult content that may be triggering to some listeners. Please be advised.
[00:08] Jay Ellis: Oh, man, I had to be seven years old, eight years old, probably? A cop was on the road. And I remember me rolling down my window, looking out and waving at the cop as we drove by. And the cop actually waved back. And then I remember within 45 seconds, his lights were on and he was behind us. And he was writing my dad a ticket because he didn’t think that I had my seatbelt on, even though I had my seatbelt on. And the cop still gave him a ticket. And that’s one of my very first memories, because it was this moment for me where, like, the guy who I was waving at, who I thought was cool and a protector and a hero all of a sudden was punishing us, for me, feeling that way about him, for me waving at him. It was just such a weird moment for me.
[01:10] Mister Rogers clip: Could we take a close look at your badge, Officer Clemmons? My friends, I think can read it: p-o-l-i-c-e.
[01:21] Jay Ellis: This is The Untold Story: Policing. I’m Jay Ellis. Over these next four episodes we’re going to dig into public safety and policing in America. I mean, we all have memories of police, from the friendly Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers, to the more personal — the officer in your real neighborhood. The Untold Story is a podcast about holding police accountable and creating change. So on this podcast, we’ll take a closer look at some of the more technical stuff, you know, that whole “systemic problem” that we keep hearing so much about. We’ll examine which systems are in place to actually protect the public: which are working, which are not. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk with experts who actually study this stuff.
[02:07] John Rappaport: The union contracts seem to be interfering with our ability to hold officers accountable.
[02:15] Jay Ellis: There are some real pros out there: collecting, organizing and analyzing the data and they aren’t just accepting the numbers they see on the first glance.
[02:24] Samuel Sinyangwe: Many of the narratives and explanations that had been most prominent and had been used for decades to try and explain why police violence was happening were simply not supported by the actual data.
[02:37] Jay Ellis: A lot of this is heavy, and we’re not going to shy away from that. But we’re also going to talk about where change is possible and already working.
[02:45] Sukyi McMahon: No one imagined this group of young black folks would come in and take a seat like we did. And ultimately the city counsel said we agree with this group. It was, I think, our first big success.
[03:01] Jay Ellis: I grew up in a military family. For me, seeing men and women in uniform was pretty common. But my feelings about service kind of shifted when my family moved to Tulsa Oklahoma. In fact, a quick story about that…because it was pretty formative for me. I was in the 8th grade, and my best friend in the world Joe and I were riding the bus together
and he was like, “Yo, you should come spend the night at my house this weekend.” And I’m like, “alright, cool!” So I go to spend the night at Joe’s house. Joe is like, “yo, my mom goes to bed really early because she has to be up at like four in the morning to go to work.” And I was like, OK. And he was like, “I think we should sneak out when she goes to bed and we should go toilet paper Megan’s house.” And I was like, OK, cool, whatever. I’m down. I was a little bad boy.
[03:53] Jay Ellis: We toilet-paper this girl’s house. we start walking back to Joe’s house, and as we cross the street, cop lights come on. Woop, woop, woop. Oh, shit, I’m about to be in trouble.
And we don’t run because we know that’s not gonna end well. So we stop. The cop gets out. he starts questioning us. What are you doing out? We were heading home. Why are you out? We went to a friend’s house and we just realized what time it was. We have to be home. The city had a curfew of 10 p.m. for people under 18 years old. Mind you it’s 10:12, 10:10 something like that. So the cop says, you know it’s past curfew? And we say, yeah, we know And the cop says, OK, why do you have the toilet paper? We stumblin’, we lyin’, we dumb, but we stumble around it and then finally, we just say toilet-papered one of our teammates’ houses. And now we’re just heading back home. Thinking he would, you know, it’s a prank. Cuffs us, puts us in the back of a car, calls our parents. I end up having to go to court. And I remember the judge sitting up, above us and you know, my dad, because I was a minor, my dad had to stand there with me. And the way he talked to my dad, you would think that I was out robbing people at gunpoint. He just was so condescending and questioning what kind of parent my dad was.
[05:20] Jay Ellis: I don’t know. I felt this frustration, and I felt this anger, is the word I keep coming back to because my dad — someone who had committed his life to the U.S. Air Force — he demonstrated for me the responsibility to “serve and protect.” But my dad would also say — and I’ll never forget this — “remember, when I’m walking down the street, people won’t always see me in uniform. But they will always see that I’m a black man. You’re black first.” And on that day with the judge, I definitely felt that. And there have been no shortage of reminders all over the news lately
[06:27] Jay Ellis: Babies make everyone smile right? I’m a dad. As of, uh, eight months ago. It’s probably partly why I’m thinking about my dad, and now my daughter, and I’m feeling, you know, all those dad things. Like, every minute feels so precious to me now. Honestly, from the moment she came out, I immediately knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her. And really, I want this to be a world where her memories of police are very different from mine. I want this stuff to be better for her. So, let’s get into it.
[07:09] Jay Ellis: If I’m going to make the world better for my daughter, for everyone’s kids, I have to understand it better, right? I am lucky to have a friend who is totally steeped in all this stuff. DeRay McKesson and I met a few years back and he works all over the country trying to make change happen. He’s got a real talent for taking complex and tangled-up topics like justice and public safety, and somehow finds a way to make them clear. So I got him on a Zoom chat, you know, pandemic-2020-style, that’s how we do. And I talked through some of ths, because I’m gonna be real with you all: I don’t know everything. There is a lot I didn’t know until recently and a ton I still don’t understand. I have questions. I’ve got lots of questions, but it turns out DeRay had even more for me.
[08:09] DeRay Mckesson: Let’s start with what do you know about police unions and what are the questions you still have about them?
[08:16] Jay Ellis: I know nothing about police unions. Here’s what I know about unions: I’m in a couple different ones. SAG is one of the unions that I am in. SAG is great, bruh. There are very few actors in L.A. who would tell you that they don’t like SAG. Like my union in this town has been here to protect me on sets to make sure that my pay, my rights, my voice as an actor, my contracts as an actor, to make sure all the things are kind of thought about and available to me to go out and thrive and succeed and do my job. But police unions I know nothing about. I never even knew there were police unions. It didn’t even come across my mind until, I mean, probably within a year of Ferguson I would say.
[09:02] DeRay Mckesson: What the police need to do is some of what traditional labor does right, negotiates for benefits and for wages and for health insurance and basic worker protections. But what they do that is unlike anything else in organized labor is that they create a set of protections around discipline and accountability that almost guarantees that officers can’t be held unaccountable. Most of the things that we care about can be blocked by unions. The unions can inhibit progress when we think about budget cuts. They can inhibit progress when we think about firing bad officers. If we want to reimagine public safety, to transition away from police officers, the unions will become a huge block. And there’s actually never been a coordinated campaign to challenge the power of unions. And most people in cities don’t even know that the city council has to vote on the contract. This is a process that people have no visibility into. And the police benefit immensely from the lack of visibility.
[09:54] Jay Ellis: If you had to compare the power of police unions to something — if there was a metaphor, would it be like a lobbyist? Would it be like the Mafia? What would you compare it to?
[10:08] DeRay Mckesson: The police will tell you that they are just like firefighters and teachers. And if you have any criticism of the policing, you are also attacking teachers’ unions and firefighters. That’s their talking point every time. What we say is that the police are like the NRA. They are a lobbying force. At the negotiating table, when you are trying to negotiate a contract, almost all the tension is around money. Like, you’re an actor. You’re looking for more pay. The people are like, we’ve ain’t got the money. Like, that’s sort of how it works. What the police did over a stretch of years is that they went to the negotiating table and said we get it, city, you’re broke. So we’re going to ask for things that have no financial impact. So we’re going to say, OK, you can’t give us higher wages, but can you destroy our disciplinary records after one year? You can’t increase our health insurance because, like you said, you have no money. But can you make it so I can get 30 days before I ever have to make a statement if I kill somebody? In cities, they were like, sure, this is perfect because it doesn’t cost anything. And we are now dealing with the repercussions of those decisions.
[11:17] Jay Ellis: Wow, that makes no sense, but I understand it at the exact same time. Can you talk about why we need to start with police unions. Why is this the place that we go to first and not focus on city councils or prosecutors or federal legislators or anybody else who’s in that system? Why is this the focus?
[11:42] DeRay Mckesson: Like I said earlier, and I can’t say it enough, police unions are at the nexus of all of the things that we care about, whether it is removing bad officers tomorrow, or decreasing the size of the police departments, or moving money away from policing to something else. It’s that all of those things can be blocked by the unions if they want to. And part of our responsibility is to understand all the mechanisms that we need to move to make the change that we deserve. Now let’s talk about Louisville, because that’s where Breonna Taylor got killed by a no-knock raid in the middle of the night, plain-clothes officers. Now in Louisville, the police union contract literally says that no layoffs can happen at all during the duration of the contact. That is wild. There are a set of cities across the country that have similar protections where even if you decrease the budget, it won’t change the number of officers. So this is always a both/and strategy, it is we fight at the legislative level, we are trying to change laws, trying to change policies, and we have to focus on police unions.
[12:45] Jay Ellis: So, what else do I need to know?
[12:48] DeRay Mckesson: What do you know about qualified immunity? What have you heard, I want to get it from you.
[12:54] Jay Ellis: Say it one more time?
[12:55] DeRay Mckesson: Qualified immunity?
[12:58] Jay Ellis: You could have literally just told me the formula for plastic. I have no idea what you just said.
[13:07] DeRay Mckesson: OK. What about the law enforcement officers’ bill of rights?
[13:10] Jay Ellis: I don’t understand it.
[13:11] DeRay Mckesson: What do you think about this idea that the officers have a waiting period before they can be interrogated? And what about, you know, you’ve seen on TV that there are some places where officers’ disciplinary records are secret or they get destroyed. What do you think of that? What is your wish-list around data? And then you heard of abolition. What does that mean to you?
[13:27] Jay Ellis: You know, I got to say, like, as you talk about this stuff it makes me want to know more. It makes me a little upset. It makes me mad. I’m not gonna lie, you know. It makes me want to dig in more, to learn more to be honest, to figure out, you know, not only what can I do, but where can I send someone to learn for themselves so they can learn what they can do and how they can be a part of figuring this out and how to change it.
[13:56] DeRay Mckesson: I have questions, too. We all have questions. And I can tell you the first place I always go — or I should say, the first person I go to is my partner, Samuel Sinyangwe. Because he has immersed himself in this data so long, he knows it like the back of his hand. And I remember when we started Campaign Zero that was his first push, he was like DeRay, I think we should have a database. The way that people even look and see that the data around this issue is off. And I was like, cool, let’s do it. And whenever I start to feel like there are too many questions, or when I start feeling overwhelmed, I want to just know, where’s the data? I go to him because he centers our analysis, and the work, in the numbers. Let me see if we can get him on the Zoom for a second. Give me one second.
[14:41] Sam can you hear us?
[14:43] Samuel Sinyangwe: Yeah, I can hear you, Hey guys.
[14:44] DeRay Mckesson: Hey Sam.
[14:45] Jay Ellis: Hey Sam, good to meet you.
[14:46] Samuel Sinyangwe: You too.
[14:51] Jay Ellis: So DeRay was just telling me about police unions and about their position at the center of all these struggles for increasing police accountability. And he says you’re the man, you’re his go-to for the hard numbers. So can you just hit me with some knowledge, what should I know? what’s the data, surprise me, just shock me with something.
[15:11] Samuel Sinyangwe: So I think the first thing that people should understand is just the scale of police violence in America. So I mean, by now we’ve seen video after video after video of black folks being killed by the police. Over the past five years, we’ve been building the most comprehensive database of people killed by the police in the country. And one of things that we’ve found is that every single day there are between three or four people killed by the police. And that in a given year —
[15:38] Jay Ellis: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Every single day?
[15:41] Samuel Sinyangwe: A day.
[15:43] Jay Ellis: Like every single day? Every day?
[15:45] Samuel Sinyangwe: Yes, every single day. And so that means every single year there are about 1,100 people killed by the police.
[15:49] Jay Ellis: 1,100 every year.
[15:52] Samuel Sinyangwe: And that didn’t start last year or this year or the year before that. That has been a fairly stable trend year after year after year. So it is just a wild scale of violence if, for every person killed by the police, there are an estimated two people who are shot by police and survive. And there are another 50,000 people who are hospitalized by the police and survive. So the scale of this is just mind-boggling. And that doesn’t even include all the people who witness police violence, who are traumatized by seeing a family member or a friend impacted by this issue, seeing the videos on TV on loop again and again and again. So I think this is just an issue that has a massive, massive scale and an impact on so many lives across the country. And all the more reason why it’s so important that we sort of deconstruct the contributing factors to those numbers and bring those numbers down to zero, which is what Campaigns Zero is all about.
[16;50] Jay Ellis: All right. So, Sam, we constantly are fed this narrative. We’re constantly hearing this narrative of cities and urban centers being more dangerous for people to get shot by police. For more police violence. Is that true? Like, what does the data actually say? Does it support this?
[17:08] Samuel Sinyangwe: Up until now, we’ve seen the nationwide trends. And again, year over year over year, it looks like a fairly similar number of people are killed by the police. But when you dive deeper into the numbers over time, what you see is that the places in which people are being killed by the police, that the landscape of police violence is shifting over time in urban areas, in big cities. There’s actually been a reduction in killings by the police since about 2013. There are about 30 percent fewer people being killed by police in big cities now as we’re being killed by police in 2013. But the nationwide picture doesn’t show that there have been substantial improvements, because those reductions in the cities have been offset by an actual increase in people being killed by police in suburban areas and rural areas. And there are actually about as many people killed by police in the suburbs alone as are killed in both rural and urban areas combined. So it is a huge sort of hotspot of police violence all across the country, in the suburbs. That often doesn’t get as much sort of media attention, but nevertheless impacts a huge number of people every single year.
[18:16] Jay Ellis: You know, when I think back to Ferguson, and then bring that all the way forward to today, and also then hearing you go through these numbers, I mean, even though things may be shifting around, it feels like it’s all kind of the same. Is there anything in your research that we should be hopeful about?
[18:37] Samuel Sinyangwe: So I think first and foremost, there are solutions, right? I think, you know, it’s been six years since the uprising in Ferguson and so the beginning of this nationwide conversation and focus on police violence. And in that time, you know, it feels like nothing is changing, that nothing is getting better. We continue to see example after example of police violence. But what is also clear is that there are some places where things are getting better, where there are fewer people being shot by police, substantially fewer people, than were being shot by police, just, you know, three years, four years or five years ago. And that there are places that have made dramatic improvements to the accountability structures to hold officers accountable, that have taken on the issues of police union contracts, like in Austin, and even in some places are beginning to experiment with alternatives to the police and scaling those up. Like in Berkeley, they just passed legislation that is intended to remove the police from traffic enforcement. There’s really no reason for somebody with a gun to be pulling you over for speeding three miles over the speed limit, or to be intervening when you had a car accident. And yet that’s who gets sent to the scene most often. And we’ve seen case after case, you know, thinking about Philando Castile, for example, where the police have killed people. It’s even in dispute whether they were even breaking the speed limit.
[20:00] Samuel Sinyangwe: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 30 million people a year receive what is called police-initiated contact, which is a research term, meaning they were stopped by the police. And of those 30 million contacts, or stops by the police, about 24 million of those are traffic stops. So there is a huge, huge opportunity to reduce police contact and reduce police violence by looking at the data, figuring out how these encounters start. What are the biggest sort of levers of change and then implementing these types of policies that can just remove police from the equation.
[20:33] DeRay Mckesson: Sam, thank you. I knew you’d be the person to talk to, especially as we start to talk more and more about what we do to fix the problem. You’d help us contextualize it.
[20:42] Jay Ellis: Yeah. Sam, thanks so much, man. Thanks a lot for stopping by.
[20:49] DeRay Mckesson: Jay, I have faith in you. I think that you’re going to help us demystify these things that seem really complicated, and I know that the status quo is dependent on the system seeming too complicated for anybody to interact with. The only people who can understand unions are activists who do this all day long, 24 hours a day, like ACLU lawyers. The status quo benefits from everything feeling inaccessible. And the truth is that are things that people can understand. We just have to figure out how to help people understand them really well. So that’s why I want you to follow your curiosity and ask a million questions, find the academics or the researchers or the activists. And what I found is that the way we ask questions, and the way we sort of push, leads us to learning the kernels of how we actually undo the damage. Sometimes that people with the least experience are the most imaginative. They are the people with the sort of biggest questions, and sort of the like: how dare this happen? And everybody in communities should have the answer to all of these questions because we have all had the police bear down on our lives in really wild ways and that is unacceptable.
[22:07] Jay Ellis: I get it, this is a lot to take in. But DeRay is really good at spitting questions. And then my brain is making, I don’t know, about a hundred more. So we’re going to think of this podcast like a crash course. All the information we need to know about why and how police unions are at the heart of the conversation we’re having right now as a nation. Because, a crash course is kind of what we need. These contracts, these arbitrations, the police bill of rights — there are things we can do, not in 100 years, but right now to change this. So, what is the first thing you can do? Well, subscribe to this podcast, and tell your friends. We’re going to be releasing three more episodes, and we’re going to tell you the stories of how change is being made already in cities like Austin and Portland. We’re going to talk about things that are true, things that are not true. And how to keep the energy up so that this stuff improves before my daughter, and your daughter or son, and if you don’t have kids, your future kid’s kids kids are old enough to host their own podcast.
[23:20] Jay Ellis: The Untold Story: Policing is presented by Campaign Zero and Lemonada Media. It’s produced by Matthew Simonson and Rae Solomon. Supervising producer is Jocelyn Frank. Music by Hannis Brown. Sound design and mixing by Matthew Simonson. Executive producers are DeRay McKesson, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Stephanie Wittels Wachs and me. For more information, follow campaign zero on social @campaignzero. And you can donate to support the work of Campaign Zero by visiting joincampaignzero.org. For more information about this, check out nixthe6.org. I’m Jay Ellis. Thank you for listening y’all.