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

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