Atlanta police officers across the city last week staged a “sick-out” in protest after the Fulton County district attorney brought charges against the two officers who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks. The Atlanta police department did not confirm how many people called in sick, but “confirmed a larger-than-usual number of absent officers.” In three of the police department’s six zones, officers were not responding to calls, and many refused to leave their stations unless another officer required backup.
A similar scene played out in Buffalo, New York where 57 officers quit an elite police unit in protest after two officers were suspended for pushing an elderly man during an anti-police brutality protest. Likewise, in Philadelphia and New York City police are rumored to start calling in sick during protests, and organizing work slowdowns.
As protests continue nationwide against racist policing, with calls now to defund and abolish policing — and as officers face punishment for using lethal force against civilians and brutalizing protesters — more and more of them are in talks to walk off the job. In effect, the cops are protesting the protests against them.
But what’s the point of protests led by police officers, and what do they actually accomplish, especially amid ongoing national calls to abolish policing altogether?
Police have organized work slowdowns in the past in response to institutional action being taken against them. As The Daily Beast reports, when local governments take action against police over misconduct, particularly when these incidents are caught on video and go viral, “cops can feel like they’re being punished for carrying out orders in a way their superiors secretly condoned.” In other words, they feel like scapegoats for following orders and then being met with public pressure to be held accountable.
Work slowdowns are generally organized to sway public opinion of the police force. But in a moment of national unrest in response to police brutality, a police-led protest may not be the best tactic to gain public support.
“It doesn’t seem to be a particularly well thought through strategy,” Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College told Refinery29. “The idea behind it is to express dissatisfaction with the way they perceive they are being treated. It seems a bit of a misplaced activity this time.”
Kenney further explained that police-organized protests at this moment is a “very different ballgame from the perspective of their unions” because they aren’t focused around a labor dispute. Instead, the entire country is engaging in a conversation about the very existence of these agencies. “It seems self-defeating,” said Kenney.
Police have historically organized strikes for a variety of reasons and with different results. Perhaps the most famous police protest was the Boston police strike in 1919 when 80 percent of the city’s police protested to organize a union. During the work stoppage the city experienced more robberies.
Kenney described this as an effective strategy for that particular demand, but one that doesn’t actually fit this current moment: First, because people are talking about abolition globally, and second, because the conversation around police brutality isn’t confined to any single region. Likewise, with more people questioning whether policing should exist at all, the debate around whether police should even have labor unions has picked up again within the American labor movement.
A more recent police slowdown occurred in late 2014, when the NYPD protested following the death of Eric Garner. New York police placed Garner in a chokehold during an arrest, despite the practice being banned in 1993. The department’s work slowdown involved officers only performing essential duties, like responding to emergency calls. Officers refused to arrest or ticket people for minor offenses, with overall arrests dropping by 66 percent.
Criminologists Christopher M. Sullivan and Zachary P. O’Keeffe noted in a paper about the 2014 slowdown that reports of major crime also dropped during that period. They further suggested that the absence of police activity could be what led to the drop in crime, which seems important to consider in our current moment. The results of the study “imply that aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts” specifically because such enforcement “disrupts communal life” that leads to more crime, Sullivan and O’Keeffe argued.
Perhaps some officers are hoping that not responding to calls right now will be a lesson to communities that they are actually needed. In New York, for example, where people have reported a spike in fireworks every night for several weeks, “Police are not responding to [them]. The idea is people will notice the police are not there so that you’ll miss them and want them back," said Kenney.
But perhaps communities across the country will instead think through new ways to respond to their needs that don’t involve policing, especially because a work slowdown will likely do little to improve public opinion of police departments. “For me, a slowdown only tanks the relationships, drives more of a wedge between the community and the cops,” Corey Pegues, a former deputy inspector in the New York City Police Department told The Daily Beast.