Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Democrats used to fear being called soft on crime. After George Floyd, ‘that dynamic has changed entirely.’

The police killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests against systemic racism have accelerated a shift for Democrats away from embracing police and the unions that represent them.

Police in riot gear on June 23, 2020, at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, where tensions have erupted between protesters and residents who oppose the removal of a statue of Christopher Columbus.
Police in riot gear on June 23, 2020, at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, where tensions have erupted between protesters and residents who oppose the removal of a statue of Christopher Columbus.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

In Philadelphia, Democrats are starting to rethink the political value of an endorsement from the police union, and all but one Democrat on City Council have called for “fully resourced, independent police oversight.”

In the suburbs, a police union leader’s threat to “destroy” people who speak out against cops presented an early challenge for newly empowered Democrats who took control of county government just six months ago.

And in Harrisburg, the Democratic state attorney general, who has long been seen as positioning himself for a run at the Governor’s Mansion, could find his law enforcement pedigree out of step with the party’s increasingly progressive streak on criminal justice.

For decades, Democrats were fearful of being painted as soft on crime, a legacy of electoral defeats at the hands of law-and-order Republicans like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. But the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting protests against systemic racism have accelerated a shift for the party that began in recent years amid highly publicized police violence against Black people.

“It does feel like some things are drawn into sharp relief right now, in a way I’m not sure has been true for a very long time,” said Lisa Miller, a Rutgers University professor who studies racial politics.

The presidency of Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, and low rates of violent crime compared with the late 20th century have helped make this a turning point in American politics, Miller said: “There are a lot of things going on here that have converged in this moment that have opened up space for critical examination of the police.”

Now, Democrats are facing pressure to reconsider their relationship with police unions, which have come under scrutiny for using labor protections that liberals generally support to protect cops who were fired or disciplined for misconduct. In Washington on Thursday, every House Democrat from Pennsylvania, even ones representing conservative-leaning districts, voted in favor of the most sweeping police reform bill in modern memory. And unions representing police officers have become a crucial constituency and voting bloc for Trump, who regularly threatens protesters.

“There is a very strong affinity between especially white police officers and Trump,” said Michael Zoorob, a doctorate student at Harvard who has researched the influence of the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement of Trump in 2016. “Democrats are sort of distancing themselves. I think this is accelerating pretty rapidly after the George Floyd killing.”

Over the last 10 years, he said, the public’s confidence in police has diverged along partisan lines, with Democrats expressing less confidence over time and Republicans showing more.

“I think that will trickle down to state and local levels as well, that police unions will become consistent supporters and organized supporters of Republican candidates,” Zoorob said.

In heavily Democratic Philadelphia, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the city’s police officers’ union has backed plenty of Democrats, including Mayor Jim Kenney. But even the union acknowledges it has lost allies. The lone Democratic holdout from a City Council letter to Kenney this month urging him to adopt 15 police reforms was Bobby Henon, who represents a Northeast Philadelphia district that is home to many police officers.

Council passed legislation Thursday to put a referendum before voters on whether to create a civilian oversight commission, something Lodge 5 has long opposed. Henon voted in favor of it.

FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby didn’t return a message seeking comment for this article. But in an interview with The Inquirer earlier this month, he conceded the political winds may be shifting. “Some of the ones who were our friends,” he said, “now their phone is off the hook.”

A harbinger came in 2017, when the FOP-backed candidate lost in the Democratic primary for district attorney to civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner. Progressive candidates have continued to rack up wins, including in the South Philadelphia-based 1st Senate District, where self-described democratic socialist Nikil Saval defeated State Sen. Larry Farnese in this month’s primary.

“I think the FOP endorsement, a lot of people will start to see that, with reason, as support for lack of accountability for the police,” Saval said in an interview.

Saval and Rick Krajewski, another progressive who beat an incumbent Democratic state representative in West Philadelphia this month, have been marching with protesters. Speaking Tuesday outside City Hall, Krajewski promoted efforts to “defund the police” and called Philadelphia’s budget an “oppressive document.”

Mustafa Rashed, a public relations consultant and lobbyist, said more and more Philadelphia-area Democrats would decline endorsements from FOP Lodge 5.

“It feels that dynamic has changed entirely,” he said.

One question is whether Democrats in Northeast Philadelphia will distance themselves from the union. “I want the endorsement of working folks,” said State Rep. Jared Solomon, who represents a Northeast district. Others were reluctant to discuss the subject on the record.

If Democrats do end up breaking with police unions, it probably won’t happen as quickly in the suburbs.

Consider the Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District, where 86% of the population is white and which Hillary Clinton narrowly carried over Trump in 2016. In 2018, Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, promoted endorsements from police unions and portrayed Democrat Scott Wallace as hostile to law enforcement.

Fitzpatrick was reelected even as Democrats won elsewhere across the region. In a sign of how much has changed since then, Fitzpatrick on Thursday was one of the only Republicans to vote for the Democratic House bill.

In down-ballot races, Democratic operatives said having the endorsement of police unions in candidates’ campaign literature signaled to suburban voters that “you were an OK Democrat,” as one put it.

Some Democrats in the suburbs are just now forging relationships with police unions, which for years backed Republicans in the former GOP strongholds. As Democrats seemed poised last year to take control of the Delaware County Council for the first time since the Civil War, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27 decided to endorse the party’s slate of candidates — also for the first time.

“I think that shows they are at a point in their leadership and also their mind-set that they might be willing to think outside the box and move in a new direction,” said first-term Councilmember Monica Taylor.

The Democrats won, and the party swept to power in other collar counties as well.

» READ MORE: Democrats now outnumber Republicans in all suburban Philly counties as GOP loses the edge in Chester County

But their relationship with FOP Lodge 27 was tested earlier this month. After a local business owner expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement on Facebook, a union official replied on the FOP’s account: “If you choose to speak out against the police or our members, we will do everything in our power to not support your business.”

“Try us,” the union official, Sgt. Robert “Skippy” Carroll, added on his personal page. “We’ll destroy you.”

The incident prompted an outcry from Black community leaders and others. Carroll deleted the post, and the FOP apologized. Newly elected District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, a Democrat who was opposed by the union in last year’s campaign, tried to smooth things over between Carroll and the business owner — but faced criticism himself for initially failing to condemn Carroll’s remarks.

Last week, Stollsteimer announced a county task force on criminal justice reform. It includes the FOP. “They are coming to the table,” Taylor said.

In Upper Darby, newly elected Democratic Mayor Barbarann Keffer said she did not seek the police union’s endorsement. “I think it’s sort of a dangerous combination to mix politics and policing,” she said.

Upper Darby has to negotiate new contracts with police and other unions this year. “It definitely, going into the negotiations, looks a lot different now than it did three months ago,” Keffer said. “It’s just a different atmosphere now.”

The current reckoning could also have implications for statewide politics.

Long seen as a rising Democratic star, Josh Shapiro served as a state lawmaker and chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners before he was elected attorney general in 2016. He is widely seen as a leading contender for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2022.

“He made a calculation ... that being in law enforcement was the right next step for him,” said Ben Waxman, a former Krasner aide. “I think traditionally that has been a safe bet.”

“He’s definitely on more unsteady ground than I think he expected to find himself on,” Waxman said.

Some progressives have griped that Shapiro is too cozy with police unions like FOP Lodge 5, which endorsed him in his 2016 campaign and has contributed more than $40,000 to his reelection bid this year.

They also have questioned his record on the Board of Pardons, criticizing Shapiro as a roadblock to efforts to increase use of commutations for inmates serving life sentences. Dozens protested outside his offices in February, urging him to support more commutations.

Shapiro this month announced a coalition of law enforcement organizations and police unions to support legislation that would require authorities to maintain a confidential police misconduct database for officer background checks. That bill passed in the state House on Wednesday.

Dana Fritz, a Shapiro campaign spokesperson, said the attorney general is a “progressive reformer” who had “rebuilt” the office to “work for the people.”

“In his first term,” Fritz said, “he’s created Pennsylvania’s first statewide conviction integrity unit and reentry council, formed the coalition to advance long-stalled legislation including police hiring reform and a choke hold ban, defended against President Trump’s repeated attacks on civil rights and taken on big banks and predatory lenders.”