Monday, September 27, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: More Brooklyn 99

It looks like Brooklyn 99 will be using the Policeman’s Benevolent Association as a recurring antagonist in its final season. In Episode 3 (The Blue Flu), the uniformed officers fake an attack on an officer (mouse in a burrito) in order to pressure the NYPD to support the officers and buy them new tactical equipment. (These are likely reasonable demands from the perspective of the workers, but they are not explored and simply dismissed as self-interested.) When the NYPD won’t play along, the officers call in sick (i.e., strike illegally) and the main characters have to investigate and foil this job action.

Again, recognizing that writing a police comedy is tricky these days, there was a lot of interesting stuff packed into this show. First up, we don’t often see workers engaging in direct action on television. While the direct action is eventually contained by the employer, that the workers forced the employer to respond highlights how effective direct action can be. I’m not sure that was the intent of the writers, but it was an interesting facet of the show.

The sick out is basically treated as illegitimate. But one of the workers' demands was for new tactical gear (i.e., personal protective equipment), which you’d think the main characters might have some sympathy for. This suggests that there may be more to this work stoppage than worker laziness and manipulation (which is how it is presented).

The speed at which the main characters (who are generally written as moral, upstanding, and sometimes politically aware) jump to bust the patrol officers’ job action is quite striking. This again highlights how police officers sit in a conflicted position as workers. The main characters are workers but their job is to act against other workers on behalf of the powerful. That none of them (particularly Rosa, who left her job as a cop because of racist policing practices) were in any way discomforted by this was a missed opportunity.

To fill out the ranks while the patrol officers are out sick, detectives are dragooned from other precincts. The other precinct captains use this demand as an opportunity to take out the trash, dumping their least productive detectives on the 99th Precinct (my wife and I laughed aloud, having witnessed this exact play in government). This requires Amy to figure out how to covert these detectives’ capacity to work into actual work. She does this by offering an incentive program linked to pedometer metrics. The workers immediately subvert this effort, which is played for laughs and further amplifies the lazy worker trope.

The sick out is eventually brought to an end when the Captain tells the union rep that the strike has revealed that fewer patrol officers actually resulted in better policing. The threat here is that, if the patrol officers stay off, they won’t have jobs to return to when they come back. This is a classic management power move (threatening jobs to gain worker compliance). It has echoes of employers threatening to dump a product line, close a business, or automate a process if the workers don’t do management’s bidding.

While the police union has only appeared in two episodes, it seems that Brooklyn 99 is drawing upon the corrupt union (or union boss) trope to create a recurring antagonist for its final season. This makes sense given that the show is trying to highlight racist and violent policing, to which police unions have contributed, while also trying to be a comedy. To the degree that viewers don’t distinguish between this particular example and the behaviour of the broader labour movement, Brooklyn 99 is likely doing workers a disservice.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 20, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Brooklyn 99

Brooklyn 99 is a police comedy series that has just released its final season on Netflix. The first episode (“The Good Ones”) deals with police brutality and the role of police unions in shielding officers from the consequences of their actions. The release of the final season was delayed as the writers sought to write a police comedy in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Two of the characters (Rosa and Jake) investigate the assault, arrest, and false charging of an African woman by two NYPD police officers (to generate overtime payments, according to their captain). The police union (the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association) bars Rosa and Jake from talking to the officers and accessing bodycam footage that might demonstrate the charged woman is innocent. When Jake and Rosa steal the footage from the union offices, the precinct captain deletes it and explains how the disciplinary system is broken.

The plot and characterization of the police union was interesting in several ways. In no particular order:
  • The assault and false arrest is explained as the officers seeking to extend their shift and receive overtime. This may well happen but this explanation seems to ignore the racial context of the George killings.
  • The union official is written as a caricature (living with his mom and loving the NYPD and Billy Joel) prepared to overlook any bad behaviour by his union’s members. The union member are also shown as caricatures (making ridiculous complaints, dressing like RWNJs).
  • There is collusion mooted between the union and the employer to undermine any discipline the officers might experience. In the end, the only outcome is the charges are dropped against the African woman.
Before jumping into any analysis, it is worth appreciating that Brooklyn 99 is a comedy show that is trying to navigate tricky terrain. And using tropes (e.g., corrupt union officials protecting irresponsible union members) is a common way for television shows to engage with unions (because viewers can much more easily understand the plot).

The precinct captain explaining the officers’ behaviour as economic is a very interesting way to portray how racism (which is the root issue) can be obscured by how the issue is framed. It is way easier for an organization to grapple with time theft than with systemic racism. I wonder if the elision of racism by the framing should have been made clearer? But perhaps I am under-estimating the audience.

The characterization of the police union officials and members was unsympathetic (but funny). These NPCs created an interesting foil for the main characters (who viewed themselves as “the good ones”) and allowed the show to highlight how good intentions often get subverted by systemic pressures. That said, this episode contributes the almost universally negative framing of unions and union members.

Near the end, there is an interesting discussion of how the discipline system works. Essentially, says the captain, trying to discipline the officers will not work. They will simply get a paid vacation, any finding of wrongdoing will be overturned on appeal (because the employer colludes with the union), and the officers will simply return to the job emboldened (while the female captain’s career gets sidelined for breaking the code).

There is a lot to unpack in that one scene. That the police officers would be placed on paid leave pending a hearing seems to be framed as rewarding bad behaviour (and it is certainly far different from most American’s experience of employment at will). Yet, if you think about it, a collective agreement compelling the employer to abide by the principle of innocent until proven guilty is a good thing.

The idea that the employer will collude with the union to prevent the police officers from being disciplined highlights how police unions operate in a far different realm than every other union. One of the functions of police officers is to (essentially) protect private property. In practice, this means that they act against workers on behalf of employers (who own most private property). This makes police officers effectively agents of capital. Consequently, their employer may excuse behaviour that no other employer would.

The position of the captain (who views herself as one of the good ones) is also an interesting study in the conflicted role of middle managers. The captain is basically a disposable tool of the employer (if she does the objectively right thing, her career is over). So, she does the “best” she can, which leads her to fix the immediate issue while, at the same time, enabling the officers’ ongoing bad behaviour.

The captain rationalizes her behaviour, in part, as an equity issue. She is one of the few female captains. Doing the right thing (by a racialized person) will set back gender equity in the NYPD. This was a really fascinating analysis of how racists systems can create conflicts of interests between and among racialized and non-racialized people.

Overall, this episode provided a lot of meat to chew over about systemic racism and the structures and dynamics that perpetuate it.

-- Bob Barnetson