During the urban crime epidemic of the 1970s and '80s and the sharp decline that followed, unions representing police officers in many cities enjoyed a nearly unassailable political position. Their opposition could cripple political candidates and kill police-reform proposals, says the New York Times. Amid high-profile encounters involving allegations of police overreach in New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., the political context in which the police unions enjoyed a privileged position is rapidly changing, and unions are struggling to adapt. “There was a time in this country when elected officials … were willing to contextualize what police do,” said Eugene O'Donnell of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And that time is mostly gone.”
The Baltimore police union president accused protesters angry at the death of Freddie Gray of participating in a “lynch mob.” In South Carolina, the head of the police union where an officer had shot and killed an unarmed black man who was fleeing protested “professional race agitators.” In New York, Patrick Lynch, a local police union chief, accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of having blood on his hands after the shooting death of two police officers last December. A Quinnipiac University poll said 77 percent of New York City voters disapproved of Lynch's comments. Sixty-nine percent disapproved of police officers turning their backs on de Blasio at funerals for the two slain officers, a protest seen as orchestrated by the union. Baltimore’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, has responded with open resistance to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposals to make it easier to remove misbehaving police officers, and to give the city's police civilian review board a “more impactful” role in disciplining officers.