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.


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




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, (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.

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.