How Police Unions Bully Politicians

The comity didn’t last. Elevated by the movement, Javellana set about asking questions on police policy: Why had the department stopped issuing citations and resumed making arrests for low quantities of marijuana? What could be done about use-of-force rules? She met fierce opposition. “Our commission meetings are like WWE matches,” she told me. “Personal attacks and shouting and insanity.” Meanwhile, the city was negotiating a new contract with its police department. By May 2020, negotiations had stalled. The police union wanted larger cost-of-living adjustments than the other public-sector unions had assented to. The commissioners, even those who were pro-police, agreed that the city couldn’t afford it. When the nation convulsed in protest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Hallandale’s own demons resurfaced. In early June, Javellana joined a march demanding the city reopen the investigation into Howard Bowe’s death. “We have our own George Floyds and Breonna Taylors in our own city,” Javellana told the local paper. During the march, Javellana kneeled with other marchers. Police Chief Sonia Quiñones took a knee as well.

The image enraged the police union. A day later, the city’s entire SWAT team resigned en masse. Among them were the union president, Sgt. Pietro Roccisano, and five other officers who took part in the raid on Howard Bowe’s house. (The 10 officers kept their jobs on the force; they only resigned their special detail to the tactical team.) The former SWAT team members blamed the 22-year-old vice mayor for stoking a “political climate” that was making them unsafe. “Sabrina Javellana has openly made ignorant and inaccurate statements attacking the lawful actions of the city’s officers,” they wrote in their resignation letter. The maneuver—which came days after 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department riot response team stepped down in solidarity with two officers who were suspended for shoving an elderly protester to the ground and seriously injuring him—made national news. Javellana went on CNN. The SWAT resignation, she explained, was a stunt, orchestrated by the union to generate sympathy from the city commission. And the stunt seemed to work. “You have received a lack of empathy from one of my colleagues,” Mayor Joy Cooper said to the SWAT team. “I want to apologize to you.”

For Javellana, the ordeal was just beginning. “I’m not thin-skinned,” she told me. “I get hate mail all the time and I’m just, like, ‘whatever.’” But after she was singled out by the union president in the SWAT team’s letter, the barrage of hostile comments, emails, and social media messages became more extreme, and she began to worry about the safety of her mother and brother. In June, Javellana learned of a public forum, LEO Affairs, where members of the city police department post anonymous messages. After the SWAT incident, she became a frequent topic of conversation on the platform. The posts, on threads about the Hallandale Beach Police Department, refer to Javellana as a “P.O.S.,” a “juice box,” and a “righteous slut.” Another stated that “if anybody deserves police brutality” it was her father. “No wonder you defend the NW drug dealers,” the poster wrote, referring to the part of town where Howard Bowe was killed. “You were raised by a criminal.” (As mentioned, Javellana’s father’s conviction was overturned.) “Don’t worry about her,” read another post. “Maybe at the next protest she attends, Ft Lauderdale [PD] will hit her with a rubber bullet, and she gets amnesia.” The commenter appended the post with a peace-sign emoji.

For Javellana, this last missive was particularly disturbing. It appeared a week after the protester LaToya Ratlieff was shot in the face by a rubber bullet, and nearly blinded, while marching in Fort Lauderdale. In body cam footage of the incident, officers can be seen laughing and celebrating after firing the barrage of bullets that hit Ratlieff and other marchers. Javellana had attended the same protest. (Ratlieff, who is the great-niece of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, testified before Congress in June about her experience.)

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