So there was this crazy thing that happened down in San Antonio this week, when Donald Trump flew to the Texas city to raise some campaign cash from well-heeled GOP donors. At the airport, Trump's jet was greeted by about a dozen apparently on-duty city police officers, attired mostly in their regular-duty uniforms. Except for their heads -- decked out in bright red, pro-Trump "Make America Great Again" hats.
And they would have got away with it too, if not for the meddling Trump campaign and their dumb decision to release a video of the tarmac scene to encourage voter registration. Both the mayor and the police chief of San Antonio instantly voiced outrage that these public servants would seemingly endorse any political candidate, let alone a divisive figure such as Trump, while on the job. At least one voter -- shocked at the blatant favoritism -- vowed never to visit San Antonio.
Yet this is one of those things in 2016 that manages to both shock and not shock at the same time. Increasingly, overt police support for the Republican billionaire with an authoritarian bent (even our own John Yoo, the Bush-era torture architect, today compared Trump to "early Mussolini"!) is on display. Journalists at a pro-Trump rally outside Manhattan's Trump Tower this weekend watched an NYC police cruiser show down as an officer blared from the speaker: "Go Trump!"
This should not come as a huge surprise. After all, Trump's supporters are disproportionately white, male, and suburban -- and so are the police, even in many large cities with significant non-white populations. Last month, the nation's largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, representing 330,000 officers, endorsed Trump, calling the never-elected, quadruple-bankruptcy businessman "a proven leader." Philadelphia's FOP Lodge 5 has signed on to the national's position, and its president John McNesby -- who's speaking only to friendly conservative media -- has criticized Trump's rival Hillary Clinton for her willingness to engage mothers of young black men killed in police encounters.
The widespread support by police -- predominantly white cops, at least -- has sent a terrible signal in the middle of a decade that's been marked by unrest over policing in underprivileged neighborhoods as many are looking to rebuild bonds of trust between law enforcement and communities who've feel they're treated like occupied territories. That's because Trump -- who's branded Mexican migrants as criminals, called for a return to unpopular and arguably unconstitutional "stop-and-frisk" policies, and generally talked of the African-American community as if his knowledge comes from '70s "blaxsploitation" films -- would clearly exacerbate tensions beyond anything we've seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere the last couple of years.
And if overt police support for Trump was a bad idea on Sept. 16, when the national FOP announced its endorsement, it became a terrible, unconscionable move on Oct. 7, when the Trump-Billy Bush tape was leaked and America received confirmation of Trump's intolerable lack of respect for women and heard his boasts of actions which -- if actually indeed carried out -- would amount to criminal sexual assault. America's women desperately need a society in which law enforcement can be seen as an ally, a protector, a confidante. In its overwhelming support for Trump's campaign, it's hard now not to see the police community as instead excusing and enabling rape culture. And that is simply a morally unacceptable state of affairs.
It's sad but not surprising that a demagogue such as Trump would seize on the crisis over American policing and social justice. Most activists -- angered but mainly heartbroken by the deaths of black men and youths such as Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and so many others -- want nothing more than a dialogue over better practices such as less-militarized community policing and real accountability. Real reform could result in a safer environment -- not just for citizens but for officers who risk their life every day on the job dealing with life's most dangerous situations.
Unfortunately, police unions such as the FOP have chosen, for the most part, to fight positive change and protect the status quo. In many cities, including Philadelphia, police commissioners have found it impossible to dismiss cops who've done wrong or have lengthy misconduct records. The union-fed lack of police accountability creates situations like the one in Cleveland when a cop was hired even after a suburban department had found him unfit -- the officer who later gunned down Tamir Rice. And yet despite their clout, the police union response to any dissent is often amazingly petulant, even childish, In Santa Clara, California, union officers unhappy with football's Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protests even threatened to stop protecting the public at 49ers games at Levi's Stadium there. Needless to say, in Trump these police unions have found their soulmate.
But it's one thing for officers to groove on Trump's Nixonian calls for "law and order." The bigger problem is that a President Trump would actively support policies that would take American policing back to the Dark Ages. And it goes beyond stop-and-frisk, in which police stops have disproportionately targeted law-abiding black and Latino citizens. Trump has also said during the campaign that he wants to remove the restraints that he believes holds back agencies like the Chicago Police Department. In August, Trump said the CPD could solve the Windy City's crime problem "in a week" simply by "being much tougher than they are right now."
Really? Does Trump know about Homan Square, the off-the-books facility where Chicago police where suspects were detained and interrogated with few if any constitutional protections? Or about the "code of silence" protecting corrupt officers in the department, and the massive delay in seeking justice in the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald until after Mayor Rahm Emanuel was safely re-elected? What would be an acceptable level of police toughness in Chicago for a President Trump? The Spanish Inquisition.
Still, the FOP and other police support for Trump was just arguably bad politics before the release of the 2005 Trump conversation with Billy Bush, then of Access Hollywood, in which the presidential wannabe (newly married with a pregnant wife) boasted of his attempted conquest of a married women and said that stardom allowed him to do anything he wanted with women, including grabbing them by their genitals. Scores of GOP officials, such as Sen. John McCain, abandoned their already tepid support of Trump at this news. Surely, this would be a game-changer for America's law enforcement officers, who would recoil from supporting a presidential candidate with such a lax attitude toward the sexual assault laws that they enforce.
Apparently not. The brave knights of the FOP Lodge 5 here in Philadelphia aren't even picking up the phone these days to discuss its support for The Donald. "We're not answering questions about Donald Trump -- we're referring them to the national FOP," an assistant to local police union chief McNesby told me this morning. But the national FOP's spokesman, Jim Pasco, never returned my phone message or email. Imagine that.
Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League of black police officers in Philadelphia, would talk to me; she said that many rank-and-file officers, especially the underrepresented but growing number of non-white cops in the nation's police departments, will reject the FOP's guidance on Nov. 8. She said that endorsement -- "probably by 50 males sitting around a table" -- served to validate complaints by black and Latino community leaders that police aren't taking their pleas for reform seriously. She said the union's Trump backing tells activists "they were right, that they (police officers) don't really care about the communities they serve."
Did Bilal think the FOP might consider after Trump's incendiary comments about women?
"I hope there would be, in light of the continual unveiling of who Trump really is."
I hope the same thing. I'll never know what it must be like to be the victim of an assault -- alone, in the darkness, holding a phone, wondering whom to call and whether there will be a supportive voice on the other end of the phone. The notion that so many of America's cops seem to support the notion of a man in a White House who promotes casual rape culture would have to shake confidence in the entire system, in a time when women need society's support, not mocking. But then, if Trump's hostile and often Constitution-shattering positions toward migrants, Muslims, blacks and Latinos didn't trouble America's unionized cops, then why would Trump's obscene misogyny tip the scale?