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AFT and NEA Join Push for National Overhaul of Police Practices

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The two national teachers' unions have signed on to an effort to get Congress to create a federal standard for when police officers can use force, prohibit racial profiling, and end a program that provides surplus military supplies to local law enforcement, including school police.

In a Monday letter to congressional leaders, hundreds of organizations—including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—say that these and other changes to police practices and oversight will "protect Black communities from the systemic perils of over policing, police brutality, misconduct, and harassment, and end the impunity with which officers operate in taking the lives of Black people."

The letter cites the recent deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and other black people at the hands of police, saying that these incidents are examples of "abusive police practices" and "devastating state-sanctioned violence."

"We urge you to take swift and decisive legislative action in response to ongoing fatal police killings and other violence against Black people across our country," the letter states. "Federal statutory reforms are urgently needed on a range of policing issues, including use of force, police accountability, racial profiling, militarization, data collection, and training." 

The support by the AFT and NEA for radical changes to law enforcement and protections for police officers highlights divisions within the labor movement that could grow. The extent to which teachers' unions cultivate an alliance with police unions on certain labor issues, but differ with them on other political issues, has been an interesting one for some time. Both teachers' unions have expressed concerns about the presence of police officers in schools, who disproportionately arrest black students

In 2016, however, at a rally of Chicago teachers, then-Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told the crowd, "Cops are not our enemies. If they let us, we will make them more helpful. Our kids are not criminals." But later at the same rally, an activist from a different group, which had called for the abolition of police, told the crowd, "F-- the police, f-- CPD, and f-- anybody who roll with them." 

And some conservatives have expressed unease about police unions in addition to teachers' unions.

The AFT is an affiliated union of the AFL-CIO, and so is the International Union of Police Associations. Some activists want the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the police union

The call in the letter to end a program that provides local police with surplus military supplies comes a day after Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, also called for its abolition. As we wrote Monday, this program—known as 1033—has led to equipment such as grenade launchers and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles ending up with police who work in schools

Among other demands, the letter says that new legislation in Congress should:

  • "Prohibit all maneuvers that restrict the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain, including neck holds, chokeholds, and similar excessive force, deeming the use of such force a federal civil rights violation."
  • "Prohibit racial profiling, and require robust data collection on police-community encounters and law enforcement activities. Data should capture all demographic categories and be disaggregated."
  • "Prohibit the use of no-knock warrants, especially for drug searches."
  • "End the qualified immunity doctrine which prevents police from being held legally accountable when they break the law."

Read the full letter below:

This article has been corrected to reflect the date the letter was sent by groups to Congress. 

Photo: Motorists are ordered to the ground from their vehicle by police during a protest on South Washington Street on May 31 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)


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