Correcting evil with insanity

Penalty Assessment Fees Report

Investigating the relationship between stressed public finances and rising misdemeanor fines and penalties

By Reiss Becker, David Vasquez, Zane Zovak

 

BACKGROUND

California Policy Center analysts have documented the state’s collapsing public finances over the past few decades – not just the rising level of public debt, but the subsequent effects of crumbling infrastructure, slashed government services, and rising taxes. 

More recently we’ve noted the transformation of law-enforcement into state debt-collectors seeking a source of revenue for cash-strapped state and county governments. 

This is more significant than the unethical incentivizes quota systems encourage as they motivate police to issue a greater number of traffic tickets. What we’ve identified is more troubling: throughout California, local officials as well as legislators in Sacramento have been continuously  expanding the number of programs funded through traffic tickets with little public accountability or knowledge. 

As the table below illustrates, between 1980 (when the state allowed itself to add penalties to fines) and 2000, just two penalty assessments were added to traffic tickets. But in the first 10 years of the 2000s, eight penalty assessments were added. That rapid expansion tracks with the tsunami of pension hikes granted between 1999 and 2002. As California’s government unions continue to boost the costs associated with state and local employee pay and benefits, penalty assessments will likely become the default method of funding for various programs.

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 (source: California State Auditor Report 2017-126)

 

Though only the state and county governments may apply these fees, cities are getting into the act in a new and innovative way. The city of Huntington Beach, for instance, has made skateboarding a crime and has crafted new laws to prohibit “drinking in public” – even where “public” is the front yard of one’s home. Last year the city created a new role for an assistant city attorney. His sole job: to speed collections of these fines and to prosecute those who fail to pay.

“A significant number of misdemeanors go unprosecuted,” City Attorney Michael Gates explained, adding that deploying his new prosecutor will “add a lot of teeth to our laws. There will be a whole class of crimes that will now be prosecuted where the (county) DA may not have gotten to them. We will prosecute every one of them until conviction.”

This problem is everywhere in California. In Amador, a county in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just east of Sacramento, the superior court notes that its practice is to hit misdemeanor violators with a surcharge it calls a “penalty assessment” – an additional $26 “for every $10 of the base fine amount or portion thereof as set forth by the California State Legislature.” (If you doubt its authority to do so, the Amador court helpfully directs citizens to Penal Code 1464 and Government Codes 76000, 70372, 76104.6, 76104.7 and 76000.5.)

State lawmakers have their hands out, too. The state’s surcharges on local misdemeanors are remarkable for their randomness. There’s money for the DNA Identification Fund and the State General Fund. The state also gets money for its “Penalty Fund,” a “State Court Facilities Fund” and money for “Building/Maintenance for Courts.” Some of the penalty money pays for court security and a big chunk goes to court automation and general city funds. There’s even money for the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Amador court shows you how, through the magic of the state legislature, your $25 jaywalking ticket becomes a $193 fine. (A sample traffic citation is shown below at the end of the section).

The Orange County Superior Court follows the same formula, but adds bonus penalties for lawbreakers. In addition to the state menu, Orange County adds fees to fund Emergency Medical Air Transport, Emergency Medical Services, and a fee “to fund Night Court operations.” That, Orange County says, is how a $35 speeding ticket becomes a $238 fine.

We believe these fines will lead to increasing mistrust of government in general and of law-enforcement in particular; we are certain they have allowed government officials to largely ignore the real problem in California’s local governments: the high and always-rising cost of government employee pay and benefits, particular public-safety employees.

That problem began with the rise of government unions in the late 1970s. But it accelerated with the passage of SB 400 in 1999: the state law that drove the cost of post-employment benefits for public safety employees up 50%.

Driven by demands to fund these unsustainable benefits, state and local governments are now operating on an entirely new legal principal – the principal that government can, and without limitation, take citizens’ property (in the form of fines) or liberty (by jailing those who will not or cannot pay) for even misdemeanors and traffic citations. 

This dramatic expansion of government power pits the public against the police tasked with protecting them. It immiserates the already vulnerable. It undermines the economy, and by extension all California communities. It is a bipartisan problem: conservatives are as likely as liberal public officials to mask this cash and power grab as evidence they are tough on crime and to raise government revenue without raising taxes.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that a similar public-finance strategy contributed to the rioting and strained relations with law enforcement that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014. Rarely has it been so obvious that our own government has, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

But in the past few years, we’ve also seen reasons for optimism. Raising misdemeanor fines and fees doesn’t necessarily translate into additional revenue because, as the old saying goes, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip: where the poor are concerned, boosting the costs of a misdemeanor violations simply means adding additional debt to the ticketed party. Uncollected fines were key in prompting former-Gov. Jerry Brown to ban the suspension of driver’s licenses as a punitive measure. More recently, SB 144, or the Families of Fees Act, seeks to eliminate many of these egregious fines. 

But there’s work to be done at the local level, too. To local elected officials interested in rolling back these unconscionable fines, CPC has drafted a model ordinance and resolution to spread public awareness of penalty assessments and to bolster support for reform at the city and county level. 

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(source: LCCR 2015 report: Not Just a Ferguson Problem)

 

 

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

Using the police to raise revenue for state and local government generates multiple problems throughout our communities:

Distorts the role of the police and undermines public confidence 

Using penalties as a revenue source establishes the police force as a revenue-generating agency rather than as a peacekeeping force and creates an unhealthy relationship between officers and citizens. This phenomenon helped fuel tensions in Ferguson, Missouri – frustration that contributed to the death of Michael Brown – offering a grave warning to California of what consequences may arise out of this unethical practice. 

Questionable relationship between fees and violations

As is shown in the chart below, only four of the 17 penalty assessments are directly related to the crime; the remaining 13 fees are imposed as funding mechanisms rather than punishments for the crime and the cost they impose on society. Currently, a small fee is added to traffic infractions to support the Fish and Game Preservation Fund – helping fund a worthwhile department but with no connection to any of the misdemeanors committed. The DNA Identification Fund might reasonably expect reimbursement when a DNA test is conducted, but as it currently stands, it is added to all traffic tickets regardless of whether a DNA test was carried out. 

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(source: California State Auditor Report 2017-126)

 

Even our courts are incentivized to support these fees

As they currently exist, courts have a perverse incentive to maximize the total amount that can be charged for a fine or penalty assessment. The court that processes the violations for all traffic infractions also determines the civil assessment fee, a fee that goes directly into their court’s budget. The civil assessment fee is charged when violators fail to pay on time and is supposed to be calculated in relation to the individual’s ability to pay. Under state law, the court can charge as much as $300 for the civil assessment fee; because the fee returns directly to the courts, it’s inarguable that courts are incentivized to maximize fees.

Debtor’s Prison

A 2018 Federal Reserve survey found that 44% of Americans would struggle to cover a $400 emergency. These fines have left millions of California taxpayers trapped in an endless spiral of debt. Inability to pay promptly has led to additional late fees (typically labelled the “civil assessment fee”), trapping people in court dates, missed work, and additional childcare expenses. 

They are an unreliable source of public funding

Many of the government programs funded through penalty assessments depend heavily on those assessments. But revenue from traffic violations is highly variable. Multiple studies highlight the year-to-year rise and fall of penalty revenue, with some years jurisdictions showing a fluctuation of more than 40% in sequential years. 

 

 

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS

Most penalty assessments are dictated by state lawmakers in Sacramento. But local officials in cities and counties can act directly to limit penalties. 

Our model county ordinance (Appendix I) stipulates that the county will not levy optional penalty assessments for night court and the Maddy Emergency Medical Services Fund. Additionally, it calls for an end to penalty assessments for programs and funds unrelated to the infraction committed. 

Cities aren’t able to block state or county penalty assessment collections – that’s the province of state and county officials. But our model resolution for cities (Appendix II) allows local governments to express their opposition to penalty assessments. In bigger numbers, cities and counties may encourage state lawmakers to make necessary reforms to the system. 

 

 

COMMON CONCERNS ABOUT REFORM

If you can’t do the time . . . .

Some self-described conservatives have claimed that our concern for misdemeanor violators is misplaced – even on multiple occasions offering the old adage that “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” We note that there’s a more important adage, the one embodied in our Constitution’s 8th Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The government’s responsibility for maintaining the peace is not an unlimited grant of power.

Funded programs provide valuable services

The biggest objection to our proposal comes from county, city and other local officials who observe that these fees support important government programs. We recognize that often these programs provide a valuable service to the community. But programs with real value should easily count upon voluntary public support rather than coercion. In fact, public officials opposed to raising taxes – or even afraid of raising the possibility of raising taxes – rely on these assessments to appear tough on crime while avoiding the controversy around tax hikes. 

Moving away from penalty assessments and shifting the funding to a more public source allows for debate on the merits of these programs. Additionally, it ensures the burden of these programs is shared by all of the community that enjoys the benefits rather than disproportionately falling on traffic violators. 

Ultimately, we would like to see the elimination of penalty assessments but recognize that the transition will require time to find suitable alternatives for funding.

Rigid payment methods

Recognizing the growing debt from uncollected penalty fees (shown in table below), we propose that courts make more of an effort to consider and publicize alternative methods for payment of legitimate fines.

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(source: LAO 2016 report – Improving California’s Criminal Fine and Fee System)

 

APPENDIX I: 

Fairness in Fines Ordinance

WHEREAS § 42006(a) of the state vehicle code gives the right of the county to levy fines and penalties regarding night court in addition to the base fine excluding vehicle infractions.

WHEREAS § 76000.5(a) of the state penal code gives the right of the county board of supervisors to levy and additional two dollars for every ten dollars of the base fine for vehicle infractions.

WHEREAS the use of a base fine is to discourage illegal behavior and to seek justice. Such purpose of the base fine is not to provide necessary funding to government administrative agencies. 

WHEREAS the judicial council has levied extraneous fines beyond the purview of justice. 

WHEREAS administrative agencies have become dependent on the levying of such extraneous fines. 

 

Fairness in Fines Ordinance Requirements: A Moratorium On Present and Future Miscellaneous Charges and Fees on County, City and Municipality Citations

Purpose: The elimination of the use of regressive fees and assessments that disproportionately harm citizens as a means to raise revenue for government programs that should be funded through allocations from the municipality’s general fund. 

  1. Pursuant of this ordinance, the County of Merced shall adopt a fairness in fines practice beginning no later than eight weeks after passing this ordinance. 
    1. Beginning on that date, the county in question shall prohibit levying all penalties, fees, surcharges, and penalty assessments that are not directly and clearly related to the cost of enforcing the traffic violation. Current fines beyond those directly and clearly related to enforcement of the specific violation should no longer be applied to criminal and public offenses, including any and all violations of the vehicle code. 
    2. Any and all penalty assessment fees previously applicable but considered miscellaneous outside of the base penalty amount are hereby void. By eliminating additional fees, this ordinance will ensure the fine will serve as a penalty for the violation rather than a source of revenue to fund government operations. 
      1. 1.2.1.An extension period of 12 weeks may be requested before such additional fines are voided to allow the county board of supervisors sufficient time to identify alternative measures for any and all programs that will face a funding shortfall as a consequence of the prohibition of these penalties. The total time from the date of passage miscellaneous fees are void will not exceed 20 weeks. 
    3. Definitions: 
      1. 1.3.1.Base fine – A monetary sanction imposed in criminal cases as set forth in state law. The maximum base fine varies from violation to violation. 
      2. 1.3.2.Penalty or Surcharge – An amount added to the base fine and imposed as part of the monetary punishment for a crime. 
      3. 1.3.3.Fee or Assessment – An amount added to the base fine that is imposed for cost recovery purposes such as covering the cost for court operations in processing a case. Fees are intended to be used for specific purposes.  
    4. The following fees or charges should be considered exempt from this ordinance: 
      1. 1.4.1.Base fine – A monetary sanction imposed in criminal cases as set forth in state law. The maximum base fine varies from violation to violation. 
      2. 1.4.2.Penalty or Surcharge – An amount added to the base fine and imposed as part of the monetary punishment for a crime. 

 

APPENDIX II: 

Fairness in Fines Resolution

Whereas penalty assessments are being used as revenue collection strategy for counties and the state establishing the police force as a revenue collection agency rather than a peacekeeping force and creating an unhealthy dynamic between officer and citizen;

Whereas penalties are an ineffective revenue collection strategy because many citizens simply cannot afford the financial burden resulting in over $10 billion in unpaid debt;

Whereas civil assessment fees are supposed to be based on an individual’s ability to pay and offer alternatives such as community service for indigent citizens to repay their debt; and  

Whereas penalty assessments are frequently used to fund various state and county programs that often have little to no relationship to the violation; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the City of Torrance:

  1. urges the California State Legislature to amend §1464 of the State Penal Code to eliminate the state’s requirement for counties and cities to levy additional penalty assessments on violators of various traffic infractions; 
  2. encourages agencies receiving funds from penalty assessments to seek alternative sources of revenue to support their programs and eliminate reliance on highly unreliable penalty assessment funds;
  3. recommends redirecting civil assessment fee funds so that the courts aren’t directly receiving benefits from the cases they rule putting revenue incentives at odds with the requirement to consider a violator’s financial circumstances when assessing the civil assessment fee; and 
  4. advises state and counties to stop using revenue from penalty assessments to fund programs that aren’t clearly and directly related to the offense committed.

Sorry, but police unions are just as troubling as other public-sector unions

Steps to Improve Police Training and Accountability

“We’re not anti-cop. We’re anti bad cop. Bad cops have to be fired, just like bad politicians”
– Leader of Black Lives Matter counter-protest, who was spontaneously invited to speak at a pro-Trump rally (watch video).

There aren’t too many things that are easier to agree on than this sentiment. Even those of us who offer nearly unequivocal support for law enforcement can agree that bad cops have to be fired. But progress in the form of better training and more accountability will be incremental, despite the fact that social media now makes every tragic incident – no matter how statistically insignificant – visceral and immediate.

Last year the City of Sacramento enacted incremental improvements to their local ordinances governing police department officer training and police accountability. The impetus for this came after a homeless, mentally ill man was shot 14 times by police for walking around with a knife in North Sacramento. As the Sacramento Bee editorialized, the incident “cried out for a new approach to police abuse, one that would set a statewide or even a national standard. Instead, hamstrung by local and state laws that over the years have made police accountability much too hard in California, the City Council had to settle for doing what it could around the margins, revamping civilian review, pushing for better training and slightly improving transparency in officer-involved killings.”

What the City of Sacramento did was not necessarily enough, but it is a good place to start. It represents a savvy mix of steps that accomplish as much as can be hoped for in the face of existing laws, most of them enacted by California’s legislature.

Here are key features of the City of Sacramento’s reform:

1 – De-escalation: Greater police training to emphasize de-escalation and other nonlethal tactics when confronting suspects.

2 – Body Cameras: Police also will have to wear body cams, which tend to make interactions between officers and the public more transparent and civil.

3 – Transparency: Dashcam video of police shootings will be made public after 30 days unless the department can prove it will compromise an investigation, and victims’ families will get a first look, which will shine a light on cases that too often get complicated by emotion and hearsay.

4 – Accountable to City Council: The Office of Public Safety Accountability will at last get some money and staffing, and will report to the City Council, not the city manager, who also oversees the Police Department.

5 – Civilian Oversight: A new oversight commission, made up entirely of civilians, will get broader powers to review complaints filed with the accountability office. This will include the ability to subpoena information when needed.

SAMPLE LANGUAGE – “OFFICER NEXT DOOR” FRAMEWORK

RESOLUTION NO. 2016-Adopted by the Sacramento City Council

ADOPTING THE OFFICER NEXT DOOR FRAMEWORK

BACKGROUND:

A. During the State of the City address on January 30, 2015, Mayor Kevin Johnson announced the Officer Next Door Program (OND).

B. The vision of the OND is that Sacramento will become the safest big city in California and a model of community policing practices.

C. The goals of implementing the OND program are a measurable decrease in crime and a measurable increase in community trust and engagement.

D. The OND framework consists of four pillars: Training, Diversity, Engagement, and Accountability. Implementation of these four pillars is in the best interest of the City of Sacramento to achieve the OND vision and goals:

1. Training: The police officers of the City of Sacramento will receive training that is nationally recognized as the best practices in community policing.
2. Diversity: The City’s police department (at all levels) will reflect the diversity of our City’s residents.
3. Engagement: The OND police force is actively engaged in the community that he or she is sworn to protect.
4. Accountability: Our police department is held accountable to the highest professional standards and embraces transparency.

BASED ON THE FACTS SET FORTH IN THE BACKGROUND, THE CITY COUNCIL RESOLVES AS FOLLOWS:

Section 1. The Officer Next Door Framework attached as Exhibit A is hereby approved.

Section 2. The City Manager or the City Manager’s designee is hereby authorized to take administrative actions and develop procedures to implement the OND Framework.

Exhibit A – Officer Next Door Framework

VISION & GOALS
To make Sacramento the safest big city in California and a model of community policing demonstrated by a measurable decrease in crime and a measurable increase in community trust and engagement

FRAMEWORK
– Training: The police officers of the City of Sacramento receive training that is nationally recognized as the best practices in community policing strategies.
– Diversity: The City’s police department (at all levels) will reflect the diversity of our city’s residents.
– Engagement: The Officer Next Door police force is actively engaged in the community he or she is sworn to protect.
– Accountability: Our police department is held accountable to the highest professional standards and embraces transparency.

TRAINING
Our Officers Receive Training That Is Nationally Recognized As The Best Practices In Community Policing Strategies

SUMMARY
We want our police officers to receive consistent, high-quality training to ensure that they are well equipped to address challenging situations that may arise as they are doing their important work in the community. Over the last decade, a myriad of training programs have been developed for public safety officials which can make them more effective when faced with difficult issues. Our police department must have the necessary resources to provide access to this type of training.

ACTION STEPS
We will continue to ensure that our officers are trained in the following:
– Cultural sensitivity
– Implicit bias and discrimination recognition
– Peaceful conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques to include less lethal options.
– Chronic and mental illness recognition training including peaceful conflict resolution and deescalation techniques.
– Problem-oriented policing

DIVERSITY
Our Police Department (At All Levels) Reflects The Diversity Of Our City’s Residents

SUMMARY
Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in America. As such, it is critical that we put proactive and deliberate strategies in place to ensure that our police force becomes more diverse. We strongly believe that this diversity will result in stronger community relations and robust engagement with our residents.

ACTION STEPS
We will work to implement the following:
– Targeted recruitment strategies focused on increasing diversity (of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).
– Mentoring and professional development geared toward increasing diversity in police leadership and command structure.
– Incentive programs to encourage police officers to live in the City and hiring more officers who currently live in the city.
– Exploring the development of a public safety charter school.

ENGAGEMENT
Our Officers Are Actively Engaged In The Communities They Are Sworn To Protect

SUMMARY
Our police force is most effective when they have meaningful and trusting relationships in the communities they serve. We must work toward creating true collaboration and understanding between officers and residents, so that our work can be proactive and preventative.

ACTION STEPS
We will implement the following to increase engagement levels:
– Community activities such as youth listening sessions and education events.
– Youth development and crime prevention strategies like Summer Night Lights and the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Taskforce.
– Restoring police staffing levels to support community policing.
– Addressing underlying, systemic issues such as education and unemployment.

ACCOUNTABILITY
Our Police Department Is Held Accountable To The Highest Professional Standards And Embraces Transparency

SUMMARY
As a community, we need to have faith that our law enforcement officers are always operating in the best interests of our residents and community. We should consistently be sharing and discussing public safety data to ensure that we’re identifying where potential issues may exist and working to correct them. Equally important is the responsibility the public has to support our police department with the resources they need.

ACTION
We will implement the following to increase transparency and accountability

Increase transparency and availability of data to the public
– Release all video associated with an officer involved shooting, in-custody death, or complaint reported to OPSA within 30 days, where said video does not hamper, impede, or taint an ongoing investigation or endanger involved parties. The family of the decedent shall be offered the opportunity to review the video prior to public release. All faces will be blurred to protect the identity of those present and a warning will also be included to advise of the graphic content of the video. If the video cannot be made public by the 30th day, the Police Chief will provide the reasons and obtain a waiver from the Council.
– Work in coordination with the Coroner’s Office to notify the impacted family as soon as possible, an assign staff to the family to act as a liaison through the process.
– Adopt a use of force policy that encourages transparency and accountability.
– Respond to public records requests and other information requests in a reasonable and timely manner consistent with law.

Implement a body camera program
– Adopt a body camera video policy consistent with council policy and law.
– Ensure the program enhances transparency and availability of data to the public.

Changes to the Office of Public Safety Accountability (OPSA)
– Have OPSA Director report directly to the Council.
– Have OPSA be responsible for staffing the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission.

Changes to the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission (SCPRC)
– The Commission should be 100% civilian led.
– SCPRC to make policy recommendations to the City Council.
– SCPRC’s governance structure to be 11 members with one from each councilmember and three from the Mayor.
– The commission shall review quarterly reports prepared by the office of public safety accountability consistent with California Penal Code section 832.7(c), relating to the number, kind, and status of all citizen complaints filed against police department personnel, to determine whether there are patterns of misconduct that necessitate revisions to any police policy, practice, or procedure.

Monitor the national movement towards independent investigations

Monitoring and follow-up
– Bi-annual presentation and quarterly reports to the City Council and SCPRC on implementation of the OND Framework.
– Annual review of OND Framework implementation including activities of OPSA and SCPRC by the City Auditor.

SAMPLE LANGUAGE – ADOPTING A USE OF FORCE POLICY

RESOLUTION NO. 2016-Adopted by the Sacramento City Council

ADOPTING A USE OF FORCE POLICY

The sanctity of life is inviolable and every person is precious. Developing and maintaining a professional and highly trained police force is imperative. In an effort to guarantee that all lives are protected and valued in the City of Sacramento, Council is adopting the following policy that requires the City Manager to ensure the police:

A. Are authorized to use deadly force only when an officer reasonably believes that a suspect poses a threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others.

B. Issue a clear and comprehensible verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force.

C. Use the minimum amount of force necessary, under the circumstances presented to the officer, to apprehend a subject.

D. Develop and issue specific guidelines for the type of force and tools authorized for a given level of resistance.

E. Are issued and carry less-lethal weapons consistent with current best practice.

F. Do not move in front of moving vehicles.

G. Do not shoot at moving vehicles unless the person poses a threat with a weapon other than the vehicle OR has exhibited a specific intent to use the vehicle as a weapon.

H. Intervene when an officer observes another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances, and when in a position to do so, to prevent the use of unreasonable force and report the incident to their immediate supervisor as soon as reasonably possible.

Monitoring Method: Council Report

Frequency: Semi-Annual (March & September)

I. Receive training in de-escalating encounters with the public, to include mentally ill individuals.

J. Are trained in basic first aid and render such aid (as soon as it is safe to do so) after a deadly force incident.

K. Make death notifications to family members of a subject that has died as a result of an officer involved shooting or while in police custody.

L. Release all video associated with an officer involved shooting, in-custody death, or complaint reported to OPSA within 30 days, where said video does not hamper, impede, or taint an ongoing investigation or endanger involved parties. The family of the decedent shall be offered the opportunity to review the video prior to public release. All faces will be blurred to protect the identity of those present and a warning will also be included to advise of the graphic content of the video. If the video cannot be made public by the 30th day, the Police Chief will provide the reasons and obtain a waiver from the Council

REFERENCES

City of Sacramento City Council Report, November 29, 2016
http://sacramento.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=22&clip_id=3900&meta_id=485761

City of Sacramento City Council, Archived Meetings
http://sacramento.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=22

Sacramento’s new rules are just a first step toward police reform, Sacramento Bee, December 1, 2016
http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article118330608.html

Heavyweight Los Angeles law firm to challenge Sacramento on police practices, Sacramento Bee, November 27, 2016
http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article117615278.html

A lost opportunity on police reform, Sacramento Bee Editorial, June 6. 2015
http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article23220456.html

If Police Unions Were Abolished and Police Associations Were Restored

Earlier this month the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “When Police Unions Impede Justice.” They make the point that collective bargaining agreements for police employees often make it very difficult to hold police officers accountable for misconduct. When you have nearly 1.0 million sworn police officers in the United States, you’re bound to have a few bad apples. According to the NYT, these collective bargaining agreements discourage citizens from lodging misconduct complaints, micromanage investigations, and minimize disciplinary sanctions.

This isn’t news. It’s one of the reasons collective bargaining agreements for police officers are especially problematic. The other big problem with collective bargaining agreements for members of public safety are the often excessive and unaffordable benefit packages they’ve “negotiated” with the politicians whose careers are made or broken by these same unions. So what if police unions were abolished?

One may argue that abolishing police unions in favor of police associations – which could not engage in collective bargaining – would actually benefit all parties. An immediate benefit would be greater accountability for police officers. Why wouldn’t greater individual accountability be supported by the overwhelming majority of police officers who are conscientious, humane, compassionate members of the communities they serve? In turn, why wouldn’t greater police accountability foster rapprochement in neighborhoods where mistrust has developed between citizens and law enforcement?

With respect to pay and benefits for police officers, the risks of abolishing collective bargaining may be overstated. As it is, rates of base pay for police officers are not excessive by market standards. If they were, it would be easier to hire police officers. The primary economic problem with police compensation is retirement benefits, which in California now easily average over $100,000 per year for officers retiring in their 50’s after 25+ years of service. As the unions defend these excessive pensions, younger officers are left with far less generous benefits. The perpetually escalating contributions the pension funds demand – for all public employees – are behind virtually all tax increases being proposed in California. It can’t go on.

So abolishing collective bargaining for police would lead to several benefits (1) more police accountability and improved community relations, (2) minimal impact on base police pay, and (3) quicker resolution of financial challenges facing pensions, which will increase the probability that the defined benefit will be preserved, and will increase the potential retirement benefit available to the incoming generation of new police officers.

Apart from ending collective bargaining agreements, abolishing police unions in no way abolishes the ability of police officers to organize in voluntary associations to pursue common professional and political objectives. Before we had unionized police forces, police associations were very influential in civic affairs and could be again. And there are broader political objectives that may animate these police associations, beyond protecting bad cops and fighting for financially unsustainable retirement benefits. Police and other public safety employees, whether they are part of a union or part of a voluntary association, should think carefully about where the United States is headed. This is especially true in California.

The most dangerous risk of politically active police unions is the fact that whenever government fails, whenever our common culture is undermined, whenever social programs breed more problems than they solve, we need to hire more police officers. And whenever government expands to regulate and manage more aspects of our lives, we need to hire more police officers. Social upheaval and authoritarian government create jobs for police officers. For a police union that wants more members, a failing society and an authoritarian government suits their agenda.

For this reason, police officers have a choice to make. Do they really want to enforce the laws emanating from the climate extremists, the tolerance extremists, the sensitivity extremists, the equality extremists, the multi-cultural extremists – the entire ostensibly anti-extremist extremist gang of elitists who currently control public policy in California? Do they want to deploy drones to monitor whether or not someone got a permit to install a window in their bathroom, or watered their lawn on the wrong day? Do they want to fine or arrest people who aren’t willing to adhere to speech codes, or who refuse to hire less qualified employees in order to fulfill race and gender quotas? Do they want to police a society that has fragmented irretrievably because we continued to import millions of unskilled, destitute individuals from hostile cultures, than indoctrinated their children in union-ran public schools to falsely believe they live in a racist, sexist society?

It’s a tough choice. Will politically active police organizations redirect some of their resources to support policies that might actually reduce the number of police we need? Abolishing collective bargaining may make the right choice easier, because police will then be less immune to the economic and social havoc the elitists are currently imposing on the rest of us.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

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Appreciating Police Officers, Challenging Police Unions, July 26, 2016

Public Safety Unions and the Financial Apocalypse, May 17, 2016

The Challenges Facing Conservatives Who Support Public Safety, March 22, 2016

In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement, January 19, 2016

Pension Reform Requires Empathy, not Enmity, October 20, 2015

Public Sector Union Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, June 16, 2015

Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?, June 23, 2015

Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety, April 20, 2015

Conservatives, Police Unions, and the Future of Law Enforcement, January 6, 2015

Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014

Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014

How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014

Appreciating Police Officers, Challenging Police Unions

In the wake of tragic and deadly attacks on police officers, those of us who have never wavered in our support for the members of law enforcement, but have questioned the role of police unions and have debated issues of policy surrounding law enforcement have an obligation to restate our position. Civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives have disagreements with police unions which were summed up quite well recently by guest columnist Steve Greenhut, writing in the Orange County Register. Here are some of the principal concerns:

Police unionization protects bad officers and stifles reform. Lack of transparency into investigations of police misconduct aids and abets the worst actors. Police unions often support laws designed to extract increased revenue from citizens in the form of excessive fines. The “war on drugs” and militarization of law enforcement can further increase the tension between police and the populations they serve. And, of course, police unions fight relentlessly for increases to compensation and benefits, especially straining the budgets of cities.

To have a balanced discussion on these topics, however, it is necessary to revisit why police work has become more controversial and more expensive. Here are some of the reasons:

(1)  The value of life has never been higher. A century ago, when the life expectancy for Americans was 49, tragic deaths were commonplace. Compared to Americans in 1916, Americans today on average can expect an additional three decades of productive life, and premature death is proportionately more traumatic. This means the premium that police officers deserve for their service is higher than it’s ever been, and should be.

(2)  The expectations we have for law enforcement have never been higher. Along with longer lives, Americans suffer less crime. For nearly forty years, in nearly all categories, crime has steadily diminished. While there remains enough crime to generate a daily barrage of lurid local news reports, we enjoy more safety and security than at any time in history. We are getting this service thanks to our police forces, and better service deserves better pay.

(3)  The complexity of crime has never been higher. Crime itself has become far more sophisticated and menacing, morphing into areas unimaginable even a generation ago – cybercrime, global terrorism, financial crimes, murderous gangs, international criminal networks, foreign espionage, asymmetric threats – the list is big and gets bigger every year. Countering these threats requires more capable, better compensated personnel.

(4)  The statistical risk to police officers, even in the wake of recent tragedies, may remain low, but that could change in an instant. In the event of severe civil unrest or well coordinated terrorist attacks such as we saw in Sept. 2011, hundreds or even thousands of officers could find themselves on the front lines of a cataclysm. Statistics are not necessarily predictive, and police officers live with this knowledge every day.

So how do civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives manage their debates with police unions while conveying their respect for police officers? First, by acknowledging the complexity of the issues. Police should make more money than ever before – the debate should start there, not end there. Police have to be armed to the teeth, because in a free republic, the citizens themselves are armed to the teeth. That’s the choice we made, and unless we want to disarm the citizenry, we can’t disarm the police. These are fundamentals where there should be agreement.

Beyond that, it is necessary to appeal to the patriotism and decency that animates the vast majority of members of law enforcement, and ask them: Please work with us to curb the inherent excesses of police union power. Of course we have to get bad cops off the street. Of course we have to come up with effective non-lethal uses of force. Of course we have to figure out how to fund police departments without levying excessive fines. And of course we have to face a challenging economic future together, where police are partners with the people they serve, not an economically privileged class. Is this possible? One may hope so.

There’s more. If police unions are going to be intimately involved in the politics of law enforcement and the politics of police compensation, and they are, they may as well start getting involved in other causes where their membership may find common cause with civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Police officers see first hand how welfare destroys families and how public schools fail our children. So why aren’t they fighting to replace welfare with workfare and why aren’t they fighting to destroy the teachers union? You can say what you will about police unions, but they did NOT turn this nation into a lawless hellhole, quite the opposite. The teachers union DID destroy public education. So help us reduce their influence.

Similarly, police officers need to decide if they really feel like enforcing the myriad environmental harassment laws that are criminalizing everything from installing a window or water heater without a building permit to watering your lawn on the wrong day. The global environmentalist movement – of which California is ground zero – has become fascism masquerading as anti-fascism. It has become neo-colonialism masquerading as concern for indigenous peoples. It was a previously noble movement that has been hijacked by cynical billionaires, monopolistic corporations, and corrupt financial special interests. In its excess today, it has become a despicable scam. Help us to crush these corrupt opportunists before our freedom and prosperity is obliterated.

These thoughts, perhaps, are challenges that civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives might offer up to the police unions of America.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

RELATED POSTS

Public Safety Unions and the Financial Apocalypse, May 17, 2016

The Challenges Facing Conservatives Who Support Public Safety, March 22, 2016

In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement, January 19, 2016

Pension Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, not Enmity, October 20, 2015

Public Sector Union Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, June 16, 2015

Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?, June 23, 2015

Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety, April 20, 2015

Conservatives, Police Unions, and the Future of Law Enforcement, January 6, 2015

Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014

Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014

How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014

 

 

 

Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?

“We thought [the employees we fired] were inappropriate to be employees of the city.”
– Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks (ret.), in reference to the termination of corrupt police officers, Rampart scandal (late 1990’s)

About a year ago we published an editorial asking this question, “How much does professionalism cost,” using as an example the tragic death of Kelly Thomas. In that case, six police officers repeatedly struck with batons and tased an unarmed man, who died a few days later of his injuries. Since that tragedy back in 2011, numerous cases of police misconduct have surfaced, many of them with equally tragic consequences. The latest one, while inexcusable, is more farce than tragedy, involving a team of Santa Ana police officers who recently raided a marijuana dispensary in that city.

The misconduct didn’t involve murderous violence, but it did involve blatantly unprofessional behavior. Once the officers secured the dispensary and ejected the staff and customers, they proceeded to disable the security cameras, and, at least according to the video recording from the camera they neglected to destroy, some went on to gobble up marijuana “edibles.” Watch this video and make up your own mind whether or not these individuals are engaging in conduct appropriate for employees of the Santa Ana police department.

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, on his radio talk show, has frequently discussed the issue of police misconduct. He makes an observation that bears repeating – in a population of over 1.0 million police officers in the United States, it is inevitable that you will have bad apples. It is statistically impossible to have a group of humans that large, where every single individual will be beyond reproach. There will always be a percentage of crooks and thugs who slip through. It can’t be helped.

Critics of police fall roughly into two camps – those who are concerned about police respecting civil rights, and those who are concerned about excessive police pay and benefits. While there’s overlap, these are very distinct concerns. But those who are concerned police overstate the risks of their job in order to justify increasing their pay are often the same ones who overlook the fact that police misconduct can also be overstated. Critics can’t have it both ways. Police fatalities are rare. Police misconduct is also rare.

What can be helped, however, is how police who do cross the line are held accountable.

According to a source at an Orange County blog that covered the pot bust, the supervising officer on the scene was Alex Sanchez, a police sergeant with the city of Santa Ana who in 2013 made $107,952 in regular pay, $27,205 in “other pay,” $16,184 in overtime pay, and earned employer paid benefits of another $68,820. In other words, this officer earned pay and direct benefits during 2013 of $221,162. This rate of pay is not unusual. Take a look at the pay for Santa Ana city employees – note how nearly all of the high paying positions are for police officers.

Citizens have a right to expect better behavior from a police officer who makes this much money. And a police officer who makes this much money should be prepared to be held accountable. In the corporate world, on-the-job drug use, vandalism, or insults directed at a member of a protected status group are all grounds for instant termination. And in the corporate world, despite repeated claims to the contrary by government union propagandists, total compensation packages in excess of $200,000 per year are very unusual. Notwithstanding that incessantly cited handful of rapacious and untouchable Wall Street bankers, corporate managers and executives who make $200,000 or more per year have little or no job security, and are held accountable, and terminated, for transgressions of far less import.

There’s more. When critics of police conduct say police should not consider themselves above the law, they’re right, but they don’t go far enough. Police should not merely obey the law, they should be role models. By their words and deeds they should inspire the rest of us. The destruction of cameras, the needless vandalism, the profanity, and the insults undermine respect for law enforcement, which is the human face of the laws we must obey.

Police unions not only highlight the risk officers face as the reason they deserve excellent pay and benefits, they highlight the professional requirements of the job. Police perform an incredibly difficult job that goes well beyond the physical risk they live with. Every day, they have to deal with uncertain, volatile situations, with agitated individuals and groups, with hostility and disrespect, and with violent criminals. Police work in 2014 America requires more professionalism than ever. That’s why they’re paid like professionals. But with professionalism comes accountability.

Police officers depend on the trust and solidarity of their colleagues. That is a necessary and proper element of an effective police force. But police unions overlay onto that solidarity an us-vs-them mentality, as well as a layer of protection against individual accountability, that at the least may be described as problematic. Police unions, like teachers unions, may consciously proclaim their commitment to the broad public interest, but their organizational agenda invariably pulls them away from the people they serve.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Police Unions Behaving Badly

Itching to get rid of your crummy boss? Consider employing a private eye to tail him, tag his car with a GPS tracking device, and then attempt to nail him for drunken driving. If the mood strikes you, follow him to Las Vegas, or sic a voluptuous woman on him in a bar and secretly tape it.

Too bare-knuckled for your taste?

It wasn’t for one police union in Costa Mesa, Calif., when a contingent of council members there pushed to reform the city’s pension system and outsource some city services to the private sector.

New documents released by county prosecutors reveal that in the lead-up to the city’s 2012 mayoral election, the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association pulled out all the stops, deploying investigators at the law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir to conduct “candidate research” against their political foes.

Needless to say, candidate research appears to have more to do with guerilla tactics intended to eliminate a target than poring over microfiche. Two private investigators employed at the law firm were arrested and charged earlier this month for their role in the 2012 events. Costa Mesa’s mayor (a council member at the time), his wife, and a second council member have filed a civil suit.

The police union has fired the law firm and claims the union had no role in directing the misdoings, but according to an affidavit filed by the Orange County district attorney, the two investigators, former police officers themselves, were carrying out services for the union at the time the alleged crimes occurred.

E-mail records unearthed in the civil and criminal investigations trace months of back-and-forth between union members on creative ways to solve their council problem, eventually leading to the decision to increase union dues in order to triple the retainer the union was paying Lackie for the aforementioned research.

In one particularly rich exchange, a union board member, a rank-and-file cop himself, wrote it was “time to expose [the] buffoonery and paranoia” of the then-mayor, who had remarked that he was receiving “stink eye” from officers while out on the campaign trail for another council member, the same candidate about whom the union’s private investigators later made a false DUI report. (Sounds as if the paranoia was justified.)

This might be reminiscent of a Hollywood plotline, but there are signs it may also be business as usual for police unions throughout the country. That now-defunct law firm employed by the Costa Mesa union was hardly a rare rogue outfit; nor were the two investigators, now fighting multiple felony charges, employees who had gone off the reservation. In its prime, the firm represented more than 100 law-enforcement associations in California and made no effort to hide its rough-and-tumble approach.

As detailed in a handy “playbook” on the firm’s former website, policeattorney.com (the site is now “under construction”), in order to be effective, a police union “should be like a quiet giant in the position of ‘do as I ask and don’t piss me off.’” Elsewhere, the firm advised clients encountering political opposition from elected officials or high-level bureaucrats to “focus on an individual . . . and keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim.”

recently wrote about an episode in Phoenix, similarly uncovered during discovery in a civil lawsuit against the police union there. Dismayed by a new uniform policy implemented by the police chief, union officials likewise plotted over e-mail to hire a private investigator to trail the chief and “break it off in his a**” if he were found to be meeting with rival unions.

Incidentally, the Phoenix police chief was fired by the city manager last week after he broke his silence and held a press conference in which he blasted the police union for its negative influence on city politics.

In both Costa Mesa and Phoenix, details of these sordid activities of police unions have come to light only because of the subpoena power afforded to parties in civil and criminal proceedings. Outside these rare contexts, police unions are able to operate with absolutely no transparency because they are classified as private entities not subject to public-records laws.

This is troubling when we consider that police unions are associations made up entirely of public employees for the express purpose of advocating on various employment matters. They command an outsize influence in the area of policymaking, sometimes even securing contract provisions in which they have veto power over changes in department policy. They win contracts in which union operations — including lobbying, electioneering, or soliciting grievances against public employers — are almost wholly subsidized by taxpayers. And in states such as California, where right-to-work laws don’t exist, police unions have an assured stream of revenue for budget items like “candidate research” by virtue of all officers’ compelled dues from their paychecks.

Even though their might is made possible only by the abundance of taxpayer coffers, these groups are not subject to any transparency requirements whatsoever, which is how we arrive at episodes like that of Costa Mesa.

Without demands for increased scrutiny of police unions, whether by mandating transparency in negotiations, requiring police officers to account for their union activity while on the taxpayer dime, or other related reforms, the ability for these groups to engage in unsavory activity — and get away with it — will only grow.

When, unbeknownst to us, the very groups we’ve entrusted to protect us from law-breakers become the law-breakers themselves, we’re in serious trouble.

Lucy Morrow Caldwell is vice president of client relations for High Road Stories, a holistic marketing campaign firm focused on free-market causes. She was formerly senior political advisor to the Goldwater Institute. This article originally appeared in National Review Online and is republished here with permission.

Does Police Union Power Erode Accountability?

The horrific Boston bombings already have led to calls for more security cameras and more police officers, with some Democrats absurdly using this tragedy as a reason to stop the slight sequester-mandated cuts in federal spending growth.

Never mind that police spending primarily is a local matter. The bigger questions that Americans have rarely asked, especially following the 9/11 attacks: Do we really want the government to hire new armies of police officers? Do we really want to pay the price for this?

Knowing my views on the growing public-pension crisis, most readers probably think the “price” I’m worried about the nation’s multi-trillion-dollar unfunded pension liabilities driven largely by the “3 percent at 50” pension deals that cost taxpayers millions of dollars for each “first responder” who retires at 50 after 30 years of service.

That’s a huge problem — the result in part of Americans’ irrational embrace of the “more police” logic after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. But that’s not the main source of my concern. My real concern involves our safety and civil liberties given that police officers, and other groups of public employees, have become a protected class that does not have to follow the same rules as the average citizen.

A few years ago the Orange County Register reported on California’s special-license plate program that puts the addresses and license information of many public employees and their family members in a special database that shields them from getting tickets when they drive on the toll roads without paying the toll. That’s somewhat infuriating.

But a series from the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida found that “professional courtesy” — i.e., the way police allow other police officers to speed, drive drunk, and violate every manner of traffic law provided they are members of the law-enforcement caste — also has dangerous consequences for the general public.

The newspaper series, announced as a winner of a Pulitzer Prize the same week as the Boston bombing, details the tragedies of essentially giving one group free rein to drive in any manner its members choose. In one incident documented by the newspaper, a 21-year-old girl was driving with her 14-year-old step sister and a deputy accelerated from 24 to 87 miles per hour in 24 seconds as he rushed to aid a fellow officer who had pulled over a driver with — get this — a broken tail light. He T-boned the car, injured the driver, and killed the passenger. The 14-year-old girl’s body was found 37 feet from the accident.

The newspaper found police speeding routinely in excess of 120 miles per hour — not on emergency calls, but simply to get to work or for the fun of it. We’ve all seen it on the highways and there are news stories of tragic accidents with police killing citizens throughout the nation. Many times, off-duty officers drive in the same dangerous manner knowing that fellow officers will give them a pass at the sight of a badge.

Here’s the Sun Sentinel, which reported that 21 Floridians have been killed or maimed by speeding cops since 2004: “Speeding cops are often spared severe punishment in the criminal justice system. Cops found at fault for fatal wrecks caused by speeding have faced consequences ranging from no criminal charges to a maximum of 60 days in jail. Inside many police agencies, speeding isn’t taken seriously until it results in tragedy. Even then, some cops are disciplined but stay on the job — and the road. The dead include seven police officers who crashed at speeds up to 61 mph over the legal limit.”

On the last point: Police unions often point to the dangers of their job. But about half of the police on-the-job fatalities are due to traffic accidents, and a large portion of them are no doubt the result of reckless driving by the officers themselves.

Recently, the Sacramento County sheriff was pulled over for a speeding ticket and he made a big deal of telling the public the police do get tickets. Maybe on occasion, but the “professional courtesy” problem is real and it applies not just to speeding but to every sort of police misbehavior.

Meanwhile, in California in particular, police unions have exempted police disciplinary records of misbehaving cops from the state’s public records law so the public never learns about the bad actors in police agencies — the ones who routinely abuse the public or who are involved in multiple car accidents due to their own speeding.

Police unions continue to push for special privileges — not just higher benefit levels, expanded disability pay, and other such benefits, but exemptions from every manner of oversight. Given the power of the police unions among union-friendly Democrats and law-and-order-supporting Republicans, there is no powerful civil-liberties lobby to stand up against this endless drive for more “protections” for those who patrol our communities.

The nation’s crime rates are at 40-year lows. Many studies have been done on the link between more police officers and crime rates and there’s little if any connection between the two. We cannot create a society that is entirely safe — especially from attacks on “soft” targets such as marathons and other such public events.

And we should not blindly embrace the call for more police without first reading the Sun Sentinel series about the potential downside.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity; write to him at steven.greenhut@franklincenterhq.org.

Fullerton Police Union Intimidates Reform Candidates

Many people were outraged this summer after a private investigator, with ties to a law firm that represents 120 police unions in California, made an apparently false police report that a Costa Mesa councilman stumbled out of a bar, appearing drunk, and was weaving all over the road as he drove home.

When police showed up at his door, Councilman Jim Righeimer was found stone cold sober. The clear goal of the phony call was to embarrass a lawmaker who had been leading the charge in his city for public employee pension reform, outsourcing services and other cost-saving measures. [Editor’s note: Here is a link to a recent Costa Mesa City Employee Compensation Analysis].

Subsequently, officials in other cities revealed similarly disturbing tactics from their police unions.

And, despite the revelations, police unions continue to behave as before, trying to intimidate council members who refuse to go along with their demands for ever-higher pay and benefits, and protections for their members from oversight and accountability.

Two councilmen in Fullerton, Bruce Whitaker and Travis Kiger, are experiencing treatment similar to the Righeimer episode in Costa Mesa. The Fullerton police union is angry at the role those men played in demanding reform in the wake of the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man fatally beaten by Fullerton officers in July 2011. [Editor’s note: Here is a link to video of the Kelly Thomas tragedy].

The unions also dislike Whitaker and Kiger’s call for pension reform, their consideration of a plan – common in Orange County and elsewhere – to shift police services from the city’s Police Department to the more cost-efficient Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The private eye mentioned above had ties to the Upland law firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill. The Register had reported on the negotiating “playbook” the lawyers had published on their website until the bad publicity resulting from the Righeimer episode. The playbook detailed how police unions should bully elected officials into submitting to their demands.

Although the Fullerton police union employs a different law firm for contract talks, it is following a similar blueprint.

As the Lackie firm website explained, a union “should be like a quiet giant in the position of, ‘do as I ask, and don’t piss me off.'” It detailed the “various tools available to an association to put political pressure on the decision makers.” The firm advises police to “storm city council” and have union members and supporters chastise targeted council members “for their lack of concern for public safety,” even though negotiations are over pay rather than safety.

The playbook even calls for the police to engage in dubious behavior – calling in sick (blue flu) even when not sick, and using the color of authority to scare residents (i.e., calling for unnecessary backup units) into thinking there is a crime problem in their neighborhood. The frightened residents will then, presumably, support giving the police more money.

In Fullerton, union members have repeatedly stormed City Council meetings.

The union has handed out free T-shirts and free hamburgers to residents who voice support for the union in council chambers.

Supporters have yelled at council members and leveled unsubstantiated charges designed to scare Fullerton residents into electing pro-union candidates.

They have sent out one campaign hit mailer after another. For instance, the union claims that the council’s failed vote to seek a bid from the Sheriff’s Department to take over policing the city amounted to “putting our families at risk,” a statement that would come as news to the sheriff and her deputies.

Reminiscent of those “reefer madness” efforts from the 1950s, the union has transformed the council members’ irrelevant support for a statewide marijuana initiative into something ominously portrayed in mailers that proclaim, “Our neighborhoods could be full of marijuana dispensaries.” Even if the initiative passes statewide, Fullerton ordinances ban medical marijuana dispensaries. And there is no evidence dispensaries “jeopardize our families’ safety,” although I understand that police agencies in general are addicted to the federal cash that helps fund the drug war.

Kiger and Whitaker are freedom-oriented conservatives who oppose on constitutional grounds Fullerton’s DUI checkpoints, which has led the union to claim yet another assault of Fullerton’s tranquility.

I’ve driven through Fullerton during those infuriating checkpoints, forced to wait in lines on public streets as cops randomly poke around in everyone’s cars, so I am glad some council members question this intrusion.

These are typical campaign tactics, perhaps, but Kiger also talks about a police officer who makes a “repeated false assertion to the public that I smoke marijuana.” He also says an officer followed him in a patrol car around town in what the councilman considered a clear act of intimidation.

The officers claim the Fullerton City Council race is all about “public safety,” but the police union is backing a liberal candidate with no obvious commitment to actual safety issues, but who seems willing to support the pay and pension packages the union demands, and who was mostly silent during the Thomas incident.

“If I wasn’t able to contribute money, these councilmen wouldn’t be able to defend themselves against these union attacks,” said Tony Bushala, a local businessman and blogger who was the main supporter for a recall election in June against three union-allied council members. “The unions put out a hit mailer every day, which explains the importance of Proposition 32.” That is the statewide paycheck-protection initiative that would stop unions from using automatic payroll deductions to fund political campaigns.

Last week, I wrote about a new study revealing that, from 2005-10, pension costs to the state government have soared by 94 percent for “public safety” officials. People often ask me why the state is in such a fiscal mess, why city councils don’t implement reasonable reforms and why so many localities are considering bankruptcy.

One answer can be found in Costa Mesa, Fullerton and elsewhere. Most council members don’t have the courage or resources to stand up to their employee unions. Until the public clearly rejects such campaigns, neither public services nor public finances will improve.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.