Protecting and Serving Themselves: The Fraternal Order of Police at 105 Years

By Nick Alexandrov

Prelude

Bobby Rush shouldn’t be here. Chicago Police meant to murder him in December 1969, when 14 of them invaded the West Monroe Street apartment to execute his fellow Black Panthers, killing one with a bullet to the heart and another, the one the FBI informant drugged, with two shots to the head. But Rush was miles away that night.

Now he’s a Congressman. When asked, last month, how police today compare to 1960s forces, his response was firm: they’re “more vicious now.” More menacing, he stressed, because of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

I) Strike

This was not a union. Delbert Nagle and Martin Toole wanted that clear from the start. They founded the FOP in 1915, in Pittsburgh—“the very heart,” wrote anarchist Alexander Berkman, “of the industrial struggle of America.”

The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers formed there in 1876, five years before the American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) birth. Women and children led the city’s 1845 and 1848 Textile Strikes. In the Great Railroad Strike, in 1877, militiamen “gunned down twenty-six persons” before the U.S. Army came to crush the uprising.

Police were also skilled labor suppressors, “often used on behalf of employers as against employees in circumstances which do not justify their interference at all,” Raymond Fosdick, attorney and writer, noted in 1920. “Lawful picketing has been broken up, the peaceful meetings of strikers have been brutally dispersed,” publications “favoring the strikers’ cause have been confiscated and printing establishments closed on the supposition that they would ‘incite to riot.’”

Nagle and Toole, to clarify their fraternity’s non-militant aims, met with Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph G. Armstrong. “The word strike is ruled out completely,” they assured him, “because we who are obligated to protect life and property will see that obligation fulfilled regardless of all else.” Armstrong was duly calmed. The FOP, its homebase established, began to look beyond Pittsburgh.

It soon founded branches in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, then in Youngstown, Ohio. Union men tried to stray the Order from its course as it grew. In 1918, when Nagle was in Zanesville, Ohio to set up a lodge, AFL representatives “met with [him] personally,” proposing an alliance. He refused. Police had to cut themselves off from the AFL and anyone like them, so that, during strikes, “law and order would be enforced, life and property protected,” and “social upheaval” prevented. The FOP’s first constitution codified this ban on strikes—language in effect until 1967, Justin E. Walsh, author of the only book ever written on the Order, emphasized. “We are not organized as a labor union,” Thomas Lloyd, with Pittsburgh’s FOP, affirmed.

This anti-union line made the group “the only viable alternative for policemen” in the decades after its founding. The era’s crackdowns on organized labor, the state laws banning police organizing thinned the competition, and in some cases slowed the Order’s expansion. City Manager H. E. Bailey, disbanding the Oklahoma City FOP in 1943, “called the organization a dressed-up union.”

But membership rose nationwide. It was under 5,000 in 1930, surpassed 15,000 by 1940, and exceeded 60,000 by 1967, spreading beyond the Midwest in those decades. Tulsa founded its branch in 1937—“thought to be the first FOP Lodge West of the Mississippi”—and Oklahoma’s statewide chapter dates to 1951. Now the Order has 330,000 members nationwide, 2,200 local chapters, and lobbies for legislation at the local, state, and federal levels.

The FOP had to adapt to reach this size. When it “found itself struggling with more militant police groups for policemen’s allegiance” in the 1960s, it took on “a more militant stance” to stay relevant, to win new members. Several FOP branches proceeded to strike: Youngstown in 1967; in 1975, Oklahoma City, where roughly “half the city’s normal number of officers” quit for five days, the full force returning only when their FOP secured “a 9% pay increase.” The Kansas City Order also took action that year, and Youngstown, again, in 1976. “In each instance the F.O.P. won favorable contract settlements,” Walsh observed.

II) Secrecy

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.

The strategy worked. Boards slated for Philadelphia, Wilmington, Newark, Albany, Cleveland, and elsewhere either stalled, or were canceled.

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.

III) War

The Order’s position on crime is consistent: police should be free to subdue, confine, or eliminate criminals as they deem necessary. One more thing: police decide who these lawbreakers are.

In the 1930s, FOP National President Henry “Squires argued for sterilization of habitual and mentally defective criminals,” writing that “criminals who cannot be reformed” should “be prevented from reproducing their kind.” Not even the Nazis approved this kind of policy. Under their control, “opponents of the sterilization of criminals succeeded in having criminals excluded from the sterilization law of 1933,” and from later legislation.

Oklahoma was different. “Sterilization legislation [there] allowed for the sterilization of inmates of asylums, prisons, and other state institutions,” under a trio of laws passed in 1931, 1933, and 1935. “For the period of 1935 to 1942 about 65 sterilizations occurred per year,” and while the U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice in 1942, for the state’s Indigenous women it “may have occurred as late as 1976.”

Apart from chronic lawbreakers, the FOP also considers Blacks extermination targets. A Black FOP member, Cleveland Sergeant Lynn R. Coleman, recalled his local president Frank J. Schaeffer’s insistence, in 1970, “that all Black Panthers should be ‘wiped out.’” Decades later, Philadelphia FOP chief John McNesby dismissed Black Lives Matter as “a pack of rabid animals.” He was channeling, among others, the Puritan author and minister Cotton Mather, who praised white New Englanders for “exterminating the rabid animals”—Indigenous peoples—plaguing the region in the 1670s. In the same vein, Tulsa Police Major Travis Yates said today’s police “probably ought to be” shooting more Blacks than they are, less than a year after Human Rights Watch featured Tulsa as a city with “significant racial disparities in police use of force and violence towards civilians.”

To punish criminals, the Order campaigns to lock them up as long as possible, to raid their neighborhoods like Navy SEALs swarming an al-Qaeda compound. Chuck Canterbury, FOP National President from 2003-2019, championed these policies. He lobbied against reducing the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity, a difference with “no scientific or penological justification”—indefensible, because crack and cocaine are the same drug, just used in different ways, and because harsh crack penalties hit Blacks hard. But Canterbury dismissed “the so-called ‘disparity,’” warning efforts to lessen it “weakened the overall fight against crack-related crime,” and would “release en masse crack dealers and drug offenders into our neighborhoods.” The degree to which his fear of freed Blacks mirrors an Old South plantation owner’s, the reader can decide.

Canterbury also defended police SWAT teams and the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, which shifts material, like military-grade weapons and armored vehicles, to local law enforcement. This model, blurring the police-army distinction to a vague haze, “is based on a presumption of the citizen as a threat”—reflecting the same mindset behind the Order’s war on civilian review boards. Or it presumes a Black threat, to be more specific. Because “militarized police units are more often deployed in communities with large shares of African American residents.”

But Canterbury was not finished: he backed civil asset forfeiture as well. “Civil forfeiture” sounds complex, legal even. But it is jargon for highway robbery. It refers to an officer’s “right” to seize someone’s assets if they are suspected—again: suspected; not convicted—of criminal acts. The process transferred “$36.5 billion in assets” from the public to law enforcement in the last 20 years. Disproportionately from people of color.

IV) Race

Calling to annihilate the Black Panthers; dismissing Black Lives Matter as “rabid animals”; backing measures that trap Blacks in penitentiaries; supporting SWAT terror raids on Black communities—the Order’s preferred mode of policing is not subtle.

So the group takes pains to deny its clear bias. “We first must reject any notion that law enforcement culture is intrinsically racist,” Canterbury proclaimed. Only then can police-community relations heal.

But the records of police nationwide, and the Order specifically, suggest a different notion—that racism, in this culture, is elemental.

Look first to Klan-police ties. A century ago, the Los Angeles Chief of Police and a top sheriff had Klan connections, like the head officer in Bakersfield, “seven Fresno officers, twenty-five cops in San Francisco, and about a tenth of the public officials and police in the rest of California’s cities.” Badge-bearing supremacists upheld their preferred form of order in Portland, Oregon; Denver and other municipalities throughout Colorado; Pontiac and other Michigan cities; and, no surprise, Atlanta and the South generally.

Look next to FOP culture. In Birmingham, the group “campaigned and lobbied against the hiring of any black police officers” in 1963, succeeding for three years—and barring Blacks from the fraternity until 1977. In Atlanta, in 1969, the FOP “reportedly expelled Negro patrolman Dewitt Smith” because “he violated his fraternal oath in raising charges of police brutality at a news conference.” At an FOP picnic in Pittsburgh the following year, “violence erupted” after “a white female guest consented to dance with a black guest.” Soon one Black officer “was beaten and kicked into unconsciousness,” his teenage daughter “was similarly beaten,” his wife “battered, and three other Negro officers abused.”

Now look to the Order’s stance towards violent police. A Maryland FOP lodge “raised money for Darren Wilson, the white officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson.” The Chicago FOP hired Jason Van Dyke as a janitor after he killed Laquan McDonald. The Baltimore FOP, after Freddie Gray’s death, blasted the prosecution of his murderers. The Cincinnati FOP demanded Ray Tensing, who fatally shot a Black man—Sam DuBose—“in the head after pulling him over for a missing front license plate,” be given his job back. The Oklahoma City FOP stated that Sergeant Kyle Holcomb reacted correctly when he shot and wounded 14-year-old Lorenzo Clerkley, Jr., as he played with an airsoft gun. Tulsa’s FOP stood by Betty Jo Shelby after she slayed Terence Crutcher.

Look last to the Order’s political endorsements. In 1968, National President Harrington backed George Wallace—“the embodiment of resistance to the civil rights movement”—for U.S. President. Five years earlier, Wallace had promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” upon winning the Alabama governorship. Harrington’s decision drove “a large contingent of black police to cancel their memberships in the organization,” and “boosted its appeal among majority-white police in Chicago.”

 With this record, the FOP’s endorsements of Donald Trump and his legal henchman Jeff Sessions were predictable, almost mathematically certain. Order approval, one theory goes, “propelled Trump to victory”—a sign of its insidious influence.

V) Myth

Running through FOP press statements and op-eds, through its congressional testimonies and official monograph, is a purposely warped sense of the past. The Order doesn’t record history—it makes myths.

Walsh’s book, for example, opens with a long gloss of police history. He suggests “policing originated with the cave man,” then stumbles through reviews of ancient empires, political philosophy, legal theory. The point: modern U.S. policing channels this “glorious past,” enabling, as police always have, “the process of civilized life.”

The truth is different. Pittsburgh, the FOP’s birthplace, created its first police department only in 1868. And U.S. law enforcement, as we know it today, dates to the 1830s, emerging to quell “disorder” as “defined by the mercantile interests” of the time—a class with “a greater interest in social control than crime control.”

Before then, northern states had the “watch system”: “community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn of impending danger.” In the South, slave patrols stalked and captured runaway slaves, maintaining “a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts.”

But FOP narratives distort more than the distant past. The Order’s assault on reality aims to erase nearer histories of police-community relations as well.

For example, National President Patrick Yoes claimed last year that “officers were once universally respected.” But today, they “are often viewed with suspicion and disdain”—attitudes leading, he warns, to “physical hostility.” Public distrust, mysterious and baseless, endangers police. Tulsa’s FOP Chairman blamed last month’s shooting of two city officers on “the national anti-police narrative.”

In the real world, there has long been reason to fear our alleged protectors. Consider just one city to start. “The trouble is police brutality in Baltimore has gone as far as some people are going to stand,” the Afro-American reported—in 1930. “Baptist Minister Says Brutality Surpasses Anything South Has Seen,” ran another headline from the same paper that year.

Police abuse was pervasive nationwide, the Wickersham Commission concluded in 1931. There were “arrests made and prosecutions instituted without sufficient evidence to justify them,” and “the inflicting of pain, physical or mental, to extract confessions” was “extensively practiced.” The latter tactic later flourished in Chicago, where “Commander Jon Burge and his crew tortured false confessions out of hundreds of black men,” using “electric cattle prods and simulated executions” to torment their victims. And Burge’s sadism echoed in Los Angeles. The Christopher Commission, after Rodney King, identified “a significant number of officers…who repetitively use excessive force against the public.”

When this force is lethal, FOP mythmaking intensifies. Harrington, the former National President, complained in 1970 that “many liberal and Negro spokesmen rushed to the defense of the Panthers and castigated the police” after “a clash,” late the previous year, between Chicago officers and the Black activists.

This “clash” was the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, executed in a raid the FBI helped orchestrate. Police, storming the men’s West Monroe Street apartment, shot Clark to death immediately, then killed Hampton, drugged asleep, with two shots to his head.

They would have killed Bobby Rush, had he been there.

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