Life Inside a Police Association as Protests Rage Over Deaths in Ferguson, Staten Island
William Johnson takes calls every day about the officer-involved killings in Ferguson and Staten Island. As the executive director at the National Association of Police Organizations, he hears from critics. And supporters. And media. And people who just have questions, like the caller Thursday who wanted to know the difference between a headlock and a choke hold.
The answers he gives come slowly and carefully — they have to when your organization is at the forefront of a national crisis, and every move can be scrutinized. As Johnson put it, “I don’t want to be out there as the guy in Washington running his mouth.”
Indeed, crises like this pose serious questions for associations. While there’s safety in silence, association members often look to the organization to provide vocal advocacy and leadership. It presents a dilemma. Speak up and you become a target. Stay quiet and you risk backlash from members.
‘We’ll Lose People’
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking death of Eric Garner, in Staten Island, New York — and the fact that neither officer involved was indicted — caused widespread protests and a national debate over racial equality and police abuse.
Many associations have become involved. An association representing SWAT teams lobbied for police to maintain access to military-style equipment. Media associations protested the arrest of reporters. Legal associations sued for access to documents. Mental health associations offered counseling.
But the National Association of Police Organizations represent street cops, the very people at the heart of the two incidents. And that’s a different situation entirely.
In the Staten Island case, Johnson said his association has opted to defer to its member organization in New York, which is much closer to the action and has sophisticated media capabilities. Johnson said that his group often checks in with its New York affiliate before doing interviews, to make sure that their information is current and that the messaging matches.
“We can’t just go out and run amok — we’ll lose people,” he said. “We are their representatives. We owe it to the folks we represent to talk to them.”
He added: “It’s a matter of courtesy to them and we want to make sure we get the facts straight.”
‘Counter the Misinformation’
Still, the National Association of Police Organizations represents roughly 240,000 officers, sergeants and detectives (police chiefs and sheriffs have their own associations), and it is not going to stay silent.
“They definitely want to see the association out there advocating on the side of rank-and-file police officers,” said Johnson, a former prosecutor now in his 14th year with the organization. “They want us to counter the misinformation out there.”
Johnson has been on Fox News, Voice of America, BBC, CBS and in most major print newspapers. But it’s all done carefully. In Missouri, for example, the National Association of Police Organizations doesn’t represent the officers in Ferguson. But it does represent those in nearby St. Louis. The association ultimately worked to knock down some of the bad information surrounding the case, but it moved slowly in the early days to avoid missteps.
“In a situation like that, you’re not hiding but you don’t have enough depth,” Johnson said. “We were cautious, but it was only a couple of days before we knew enough to dispute the allegations and we said ‘let’s get that out there.’”
An Open Letter
Their first major move was to publish an open letter to the people of Ferguson and officer Darren Wilson with a full-page ad in the Sunday St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August. The shooting took place Aug. 9 and the letter was published Aug. 24. The tone was measured. “It was not a reactionary ad,” Johnson said. “It was not a punch back. The tone was calm. The voice was thoughtful.”
“How the message is delivered is part of the message as well,” he said.
Johnson said that the video in the Staten Island case will make it different from Ferguson, in that it provided a visual account of what happened. “As awful as the case was, there wasn’t an opportunity for people to lie about what happened,” he said.
The National Association of Police Organizations does not always directly defend officers who are accused of misdeeds, Johnson said. But it always fights for a fair process. “Sometimes the guy is wrong, but at least the process can be right,” he said.
“We want to have credibility with the people we speak to, whether that’s the public, or politicians or the press,” Johnson said. “It’s important to acknowledge when horrible things happen.”
Johnson said the organization’s next steps are not immediately clear. There is talk about a rally in support of police generally, but the schedules of a working membership make it difficult. There’s also talk of a boycott of NFL games, after some members of the St. Louis Rams came out for a game making a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture. Whatever the case, Johnson said that, when faced with the question of whether to get active or stay silent, the National Association of Police Organizations will always stand with its members
“We’ll still do what members want us to do, even if that upsets the public or the politicians,” he said. “They pay their dues and they deserve representation.”