During the chaos that was the first presidential debate, one topic largely flew under the radar: Joe Biden’s shriveling support from police unions. For Americans who believe that the government should work for us and be held accountable when it fails us, this is not a bad thing.
The back-and-forth went something like this:
Trump: [Biden’s] talking about defunding the police.
Biden: That—that is not true.
Trump: He doesn’t have any law support—
Biden: Would you—look—
Trump: He has no law enforcement support, almost nothing.
Biden: That’s not—look—
Trump: Oh really? Why do you have? Name one group that supports you. Name one group that came out and supported you.
Trump: Go ahead.
Trump: Think. We have time.
Biden: We don’t have time to do anything except—
Trump: No, no, think about it.
As was the case for most of the evening, no actual productive exchange of ideas occurred. While Biden does not actually want to defund the police, his relationship with law enforcement groups did, in fact, used to be much cozier.
At a dinner for the National Organization for Police Organizations (NAPO) in May 2015, the former vice president courted the police lobby with talk of his 1994 crime bill: “There wouldn’t have been a Biden crime bill,” he said, “there wouldn’t have been that crime bill that put 100,000 cops in the street in the first place were it not for the fact that from the very beginning [NAPO] was the staunchest, staunchest advocate for it.”
NAPO endorsed the Obama-Biden campaign in both 2008 and 2012. After declining to weigh in on the 2016 election, they have thrown their support behind Trump.
“For Joe Biden, police are shaking their heads because he used to be a stand-up guy who backed law enforcement,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of NAPO. “But it seems in his old age, for whatever reason, he’s writing a sad final chapter when it comes to supporting law enforcement.”
A list of 175 officials, including former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and former Madison, Wisconsin, Police Chief Noble Wray have endorsed Biden. Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, who oversees Portland, Oregon, pushed back on Trump’s debate claim that he had endorsed the president. “As the Multnomah County Sheriff I have never supported Donald Trump,” he tweeted, “and will never support him.”
But Trump seems to think that having the backing of police unions reflects positively on his campaign. Whether it gives him any electoral advantage is an open question, but we know with more certainty that police support reflects Trump’s unwillingness to grapple with meaningful police reform, such as his refusal to even consider changing qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it considerably more difficult to sue police officers when they violate your civil rights. Biden would not promise to eliminate the doctrine, but rather said he wants to “rein it in.”
With that in mind, NAPO’s reversal shouldn’t be a surprise. The point of police unions is to protect all cops at all costs, even the bad ones, even at the expense of the people they pledge to protect and serve. When former New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo choked and killed Eric Garner after he was caught selling loose cigarettes, a police magistrate ruled that he had violated department policy. He was terminated. The union, however, stood by his side, blaming the result on “anti-police extremists,” the implication being that all cops need to reserve the right to use unconstitutional force that violates internal guidance.
Republicans rightly acknowledge that teachers unions monopolize the education system and then weaponize it against the public. Trump should apply that logic to the law enforcement lobby. If he did, perhaps he’d understand that losing their endorsement isn’t such a bad thing.