By Sophia Solano
While Democrats rallied across the country to celebrate a Joe Biden victory in the days following the election, police union members garnered a more somber attitude. Having endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency, police unions began to fear what a Biden administration might mean for policing across the country.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the nation with some 330,000 members, endorsed Trump in September, just as it did in 2016.
“During his first four years, President Trump has made it crystal clear that he has our backs,” said FOP President Patrick Yotes in a press release. “Our members know that he listens to the concerns of our brothers and sisters in uniform and is able to make tough decisions on the issues most important to law enforcement. President Trump is committed to keeping our communities and families safe.”
Supporting law enforcement has always been part of Trump’s political branding as a hard-on-crime candidate. He declared himself the “law and order candidate” throughout his campaign. Police unions, on local, state and federal levels, tend to back Trump and other Republicans. Yet a study by Verdant Labs found that roughly 49 percent of law enforcement professionals identify as Democrats while 51 percent identify as Republicans. This roughly-even split in personal political identification of officers does not square with the steep preference in law enforcement unions towards Republican candidates. So why do most police unions back Trump?
Prior to the election, Trump’s criminal justice and policing plan included “full support for police right and protections.” His presidency was marked by executive orders that increased government grants for police departments that implement certain training and established databases to track police violence and misconduct. In 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act, which lowered prison sentences for certain nonviolence crimes, but he planned to increase penalties for other crimes and for anyone charged with assaulting a police officer. He is also against ending bail, calling to require people charged with crimes to pay bail or remain imprisoned until their trial.
“Cops like Trump because he backs the law enforcement,” said Dominick DeAndrea, former law enforcement officer in Newark, N.J. and New Jersey Police Benevolent Association and Fraternal Order of Police union member, in an interview. “He’s all about serving and protecting and funding the police so of course he’s going to get the support of police officers.”
Biden’s justice and police reform plans allocate $20 billion toward a grant program geared at preventing crime among state and local governments by supporting literacy and child abuse programs. Biden supports the implementation of the SAFE Justice Act which aims to improve the federal sentencing and corrections system by reducing recidivism, concentrating on violent and white-collar criminals instead of nonviolent, victimless crimes and decreasing incarceration through alternative punitive measures. Biden also wants to push the Justice Department to investigate police misconduct and to create a separate task force on prosecutorial discretion to combat discrimination. Biden has been vocal about his opposition to defunding the police. He also plans to end cash bail, the use of private prisons and the death penalty. He supports federally banning chokeholds.
“During the whole campaign, Trump said was going to give more money to police departments, and then you had Biden who was kind of ambiguous, not really saying what his police reform was going to be,” said Bob Davis, Sussex County N.J. law enforcement officer and FOP member, in an interview. “It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of unknowns with the Biden administration because he hasn’t really answered any questions.”
The two largest police unions in New Jersey, the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police and the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association, both backed Trump as well. The NJPBA, the state’s largest law enforcement union, also endorsed just five Republican candidates for Congress, abdicating Senator Cory Booker and nine other incumbent Democratic House members. The NJFOP unanimously endorsed Trump while also giving their support to most incumbents from both parties.
Some New Jersey police union members say that they are concerned about what a Biden administration could mean for policing in the state.
“There could be some other changes too,” said Davis. “There are a lot of political pressures on Biden right now coming down on him from groups that endorsed him like Black Lives Matter or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren that have big political voices and want their agendas fulfilled.”
Just as a new president appoints a new attorney general, a new governor appoints a new state attorney general who often makes sweeping changes to criminal justice and policing systems. When New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy took office in 2018, he and his attorney general appointee Gurbir Gruwal instituted legislative change. In 2019, Gruwal set new standards for state law enforcement agencies, including the creation of a public database and changes to how internal affairs probes are handled. Gruwal announced in June that all law enforcement agencies in New Jersey must publicly identify officers who commit serious disciplinary violations. In January, Murphy announced three bills that support law enforcement. One created training to address officer suicide, another created a notification program called Blue Alert to assist officers in trouble and the third established a public awareness campaign on safe driving.
With Democratic Governor Phil Murphy in office, several of the plans Biden supports for national policing are already in place in New Jersey. The state already has a database citing instances of police misconduct, no bail on warrants and, with the new legalization of marijuana, lower incarceration rates for drug crimes. New Jersey also has some of the best trained law enforcement officers, according to a study by Zippia.
“We’re already doing what Biden wants us to do, so I don’t know what else he wants for us,” Davis said.
Davis, who has been in law enforcement for 15 years, represents a larger union opinion when he vocalizes concerns about aspects of the Biden law enforcement plan. One such concern is with the banning of chokeholds.
“How do you expect to take down a 250-pound man? Or do you, as somebody in society, think that it’s okay for me to get killed, stabbed or beaten because I’m a police officer and I signed up for it?” said Davis. “There’s going to have to be a whole lot of training and money involved if we can’t use chokeholds.”
Advocates for police reform in New Jersey are pushing to give civilians the ability to sue officers in civil suits following unlawful arrests. Their aim is to decrease the amount of unlawful arrests, which is a factor advocates see as an avenue for police brutality and racial discrimination. Some officers are uncertain about how these suits would be pursued.
“Judges can’t be sued, and prosecutors can’t be sued. But now you’re going to take away my house, my car, my livelihood, everything I have because someone perceived what I did as an illegal arrest or whatever?” said Davis. “We expect doctors, lawyers to be correct and do their job right. But society expects me to do my job 100 percent correct 100 percent of the time, like I’m inhuman? Like I’m a machine?”
Some state law enforcement union members are also concerned with potential implementation of civilian oversight in police disciplinary matters.
“I really don’t think that civilian oversight has a place in law enforcement. I’m not saying I don’t want civilians involved in our business, but the town is already involved in hiring and firing,” Davis said. “Being a law enforcement officer in the United States is tough because everybody thinks they know this job better than the people that are doing it. People aren’t running around telling a plumber how to do his job, but everybody has an opinion on law enforcement.”
Antidiscrimination advocacy organizations like the New Jersey People’s Organization for Progress take a different approach; they argue that civilian oversight of police is necessary to counteract internal review boards they view as biased towards officers.
“Big cities like Newark should have full blown police review boards with subpoena power and disciplinary power,” said Lawrence Hamm, director of NJPOP and former Congressional candidate. “The police think they are power themselves, and they think they’re above the law. And they’re right. Because of all these rules and laws and departmental regulations and contractual provisions actually put them above the law. They have to understand that if they commit a crime, they have to be punished in the same way as a civilian who commits a crime.
The endorsements by the state police unions come against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of police killings that garnered national attention this summer. National attention has shifted to law enforcement reforms and national conversations centered around defunding police departments and racial disparities. Tensions between advocacy groups, who often lean left, and law enforcement are at a high.
Advocacy organizations in favor of police reform see law enforcement union endorsements of Trump as signals of their support for his inflammatory rhetoric regarding policing.
“They had a congruence in perspectives,” said Hamm. “Trump is not for any type of anti-police brutality. On more than one occasion he’s intimated that police should rough people up. It’s a signal to them. Police supported Trump because they know he’s not opposed to police brutality.”
As a result of these tensions, some Black law enforcement officers broke with their unions to support Biden, who they view as the candidate who favors equality in policing. In August, the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers issued a letter condemning use of deadly force, abuse in communities of color and police misconduct.
With tensions high between law enforcement and the political sphere, there is a growing disparity between how Democrats and Republicans view policing. Pew Research found that the mean rating for public support for law enforcement on a “feeling thermometer” (measured between 0-100) is 67. However, Republicans gave police officers a higher average rating than do Democrats, at 84 and 62 respectively.
“As the Fraternal Order of Police, we gave endorsements and participated in the political process,” said FOP Press Secretary Jessica Cahill. “As law enforcement officers, we leave our personal politics at the stationhouse door. We protect and serve the community.”