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A century ago on May 14, 1915, a group of Pittsburgh police officers, led by Martin Toole and Delbert Nagle, formed the Fraternal Order of Police to help policemen negotiate better working conditions and fair pay. By 1918, the local Pittsburgh order evolved into a national organization dedicated to representing the rights of police officers. Today, the FOP has more than 325,000 members throughout the U.S.
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By Nick Alexandrov Ph.D.
Secrecy — Chapter 2
As the FOP’s views on unions relaxed, “the orchestrated assault on police authority”—as Walsh termed it—intensified. One form of assault was “as insidious a plot against law enforcement as the fertile mind of American radicalism ever conceived.” This was the citizen review board.
“The concept behind a civilian review board is a simple one: civilians and not police personnel should have the power to investigate and make findings on police officer wrongdoing,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Udi Ofer explains.
Faced with calls for transparency, the FOP could have responded in two ways. It could have welcomed increased oversight, letting the public see why officers consider their work noble, essential—why they see themselves as civilization’s keepers, guards against “social upheaval.”
But the Order did the exact opposite: it fought to bury review boards, and—when these efforts failed—to weaken or terminate any that formed. For the FOP, the public was an enemy, intrusive, with no right to scrutinize police conduct. They “should be scared into supporting us,” John J. Harrington, National President from 1965-1975, insisted. “If you want to continue to have a police department,” Louisville’s FOP chief warned city residents in 1972, vote down the proposed oversight body.
So as the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and allied civil rights groups pushed for review boards in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cincinnati, and other cities, the FOP went to war. It resolved, in 1961, “to take an active role in preventing…Review Boards” in “any municipality in the United States or its territories where the F.O.P. exists,” promising never to rest until their “complete abolishment” was achieved.
But there were more threats at the time, like Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s attempt “to get convictions of policemen in civil rights cases.” Justice Department insubordination prompted the Order “to take whatever steps it felt necessary ‘to correct the situation,’” to propose new laws “making it a crime to accuse falsely a police officer of a civil rights violation,” and “making assault on a police officer in the performance of his duties a Federal crime.”
This hostility toward public scrutiny continues. Jerad Lindsey, Tulsa’s FOP Chairman, boasted of his Order’s ability to “weaponize,” to transform “into a war wagon” to defeat, on two occasions, city attempts “to create an Office of the Independent Monitor.” He claimed, adapting Harrington’s intimidation tactics to our era, that the Office “could lead to more violent crime.” The Order also fought oversight boards in Little Rock, Columbus, Baltimore, and Newark in recent years.
And many of its members oppose body cameras. “We cannot judge the reasonableness of an officer’s actions with information collected after the fact,” Ohio State Lodge President Jay McDonald asserted in 2015, explaining we must “interpret reasonableness from the perspective of the officer” instead. The Chicago FOP concurs. It fought to free its members from this form of accountability—“stressful and oppressive to the officers,” the Order believes.
Nick Alexandrov Ph.D. received his Doctors in philosophy from George Washington University and a bachelor’s in literature from Yale University. He’s currently an upper humanities teacher at Holland Hall School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.