11:00 PM, Oct 27, 1996 • By ERIC FELTEN
So questionable is the Clinton administration's record on fighting drugs that FBI director Louis Freeh pressed a scathing memo into the hands of the president last year denouncing the president's lack of leadership. The letter was brutal enough that the White House is keeping the text under wraps. Even so, Clinton's failure in the fight against drug-related crime didn't keep the president from being hailed last month as a "tough crime fighter" by the president of the nation's largest police union. Gil Gallegos and the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police delivered a remarkable endorsement of Clinton on Sept. 16 -- the first time the union has given the nod to a Democrat. The police endorsement effectively inoculates the president against the charge that he is soft on crime.
Gallegos made no bones about the FOP's real reason for endorsing Clinton: " Labor is our principal issue," he said. In other words, it's Clinton's stand on labor issues, not crime, that makes him the choice of the police union. The White House supports collective bargaining; the administration pushed through a hike in the minimum wage; and Clinton's plan to add 100,000 new cops to the streets is seen by the union as a promise of 100,000 new union members.
Public-sector unions have long been core Democratic constituencies; the one exception to this rule had been police unions, partly because rank-and-file officers are overwhelmingly conservative. But the idea that police unions are primarily devoted to reducing crime is a fundamental misconception. Think of it this way: Sanitation-workers' unions are not devoted to trucking away garbage; they are committed to getting their members the most money for the least amount of work, together with lifetime guarantees. Similarly, teachers' unions can hardly be said to be devoted to the education of children; they are committed to maximizing pay, perks, and job security. Not only are garbage removal and education secondary to the unions' bread and butter, they are at odds with union goals. The more cities have to pay to get rid of trash, the less often they can afford to have the garbage carted away; the more schools spend on teachers, the less they can spend on textbooks.
These same pay and perk priorities define police unions. And they have comparable results: The more a city spends on each patrolman, the fewer cops the community can afford. But pursuing extra pay isn't the only activity of police unions that is inconsistent with the broader goal of enforcing the law. When it comes to protecting the job security of bad cops -- those who are brutal, corrupt, or mentally unstable -- it might be said that police unions are actively opposed to fighting crime.
"Police unions represent the lowest common denominator in law enforcement," says James Fyfe, who teaches criminal justice at Temple University. For the most part, "unions provide legal defense to any member, whatever they are accused of doing. And in some cases, the unions hinder justice." Police unions are primarily concerned with protecting the interests of their members, not the broader issues of public safety and civil rights, says Fyfe, who was a New York City policeman for 16 years. "The constituency of a police union is police officers, not the public."
Consider the resistance mounted by the FOP when the FBI investigated possible police brutality in Prince George's County, Maryland. By the time Jeffrey Gilbert was dragged into jail, accused of murdering policeman John Novabilski, he had been severely beaten. His face was bloated and parti- colored, his eyes swollen shut from the pummeling. His chest bore distinct boot prints. (Fair enough, some may be tempted to say.) But later, the police admitted they had arrested the wrong man.
When the FBI began investigating whether the officers lawlessly visited street justice on their suspect, it could have served warrants at the cops' houses. But the FBI says that in an effort to gather evidence without needlessly embarrassing or intruding on the officers, it arranged a phony federa-local task force and called the policemen involved in Gilbert's arrest to meet FBI agents at a warehouse. When the officers arrived, FBI agents seized their uniforms, boots, and weapons and searched their patrol cars. The policemen were given sweatpants, T-shirts, and sandals to wear home.
The Fraternal Order of Police went ballistic. The local lodge was outraged that the chief of Prince George's County police had not blocked the FBI action. "Our members feel that the command staff could have worked this another way," said local FOP president John Bartlett. "They could have said to the FBI, 'Look, threaten me all you want, but I'm not going to let you do this to my men.'" Never mind that the FBI had told the department hierarchy that any intervention on its part would be an obstruction of justice; Lodge 89 of the FOP took a vote of "no confidence," denouncing the department's leadership. It didn't end there: Gallegos wrote a bitter letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, complaining that the FBI investigation was an effort to " humiliate and offend sworn police officers."
The state's attorney for Prince George's County, Jack Johnson, came under attack when he prosecuted several officers accused of beating a handcuffed prisoner outside a pizza parlor. When the officers were acquitted on appeal by a jury -- after first having been convicted by a district court judge -- local FOP chief Bartlett warned that if Johnson didn't stop prosecuting excessive-force cases, the union would muster all of its political power to defeat him when he comes up for election in 1998.
"I don't think the FOP is very serious about addressing the serious problems of law enforcement," Johnson told the Washington Post last May. " I hear more concern about protecting their pensions, about working fewer hours, about the officers" having second jobs. But in terms of focusing on discipline and making certain the officers are doing the kinds of things we expect of them, I don't think the FOP has been very helpful. In fact, I think, to a large extent, they've been less than helpful."
If the officers had indeed whaled on a suspect who had been subdued, then they committed a crime. But it is not the sort of crime the FOP seems particularly interested in getting tough on. Johnson says the police department in Prince George's County is "for the most part a good one" and that the vast majority of policemen are good officers who would like to get " the bad ones out of the department." But that doesn't happen because "the unions have not met their responsibility to help get the bad cops off the street."
Union rules in most any bureaucracy demand that a thoroughgoing process be followed before any worker can be disciplined, let alone fired. This may not be a particular hazard in a parks and recreation department, but even in benign government positions, overzealously defended job security has real risks -- full-blown civil service protection is one of the things that kept Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman on the job to provide a convenient racial excuse in the O. J. Simpson case. The Los Angeles Times found that of the 44 "problem officers" cited in the 1991 Christopher Commission, 31 were still on the job in 1995. Los Angeles police chief Willie Williams complained in a speech last year to the International Association of Chiefs of Police that his efforts to weed out the few bad cops in his force had been blocked by union-won rules. "There are very few government agencies where you can simply fire someone with racist tendencies," Williams said.
Brutality isn't the only criminal problem made more problematic by the police unions. Officers' unions are rarely aggressive about rooting out corruption in the ranks and have even been implicated in facilitating graft. When the Mollen Commission led to a crackdown on police corruption in New York last year, the city's police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, may have taken the concept of protecting its members too far: Police officials and the Mollen Commission accused the union of gathering information on corruption stings -- called "integrity tests" -- in order to warn the targeted officers. "Certain members of the PBA have been very aggressive in precincts where integrity tests have been conducted," said deputy police commissioner John Miller. The union had been "trying to educate officers about specifics about how tests are conducted and how to detect them, " like warning officers to look for the sort of surveillance vans used by sting teams. Prosecutors claimed the PBA had scotched investigations into more than 40 officers.
Such accusations "sound like an alibi from an inept prosecutor about not being able to make a case," PBA spokesman Joseph Mancini told the New York Times. Not exactly the tenor one expects to hear from a "tough on crime" organization.
The union may also have thwarted corruption investigations by enforcing the code of silence. According to one of the principals in the Mollen Commission, the union had a built-in conflict of interest. When a group of officers was accused of shaking down businesses, robbing from drug dealers, or some other form of corruption, the PBA would provide legal representation to all of the suspected officers. Since the same lawyers represented all the defendants, prosecutors were rarely able to get any of the officers to break ranks. The situation has improved, however, partly because of public outrage at what appeared to be corruption-coddling: When 33 NYPD officers were arrested in the 30th precinct this year, the PBA publicly announced that it would not provide lawyers for them.
The PBA, it should be noted, was one of the police unions that did not endorse Clinton. But as with the FOP support for the Democratic ticket, the PBA's support for Bob Dole is an extension of the union's politics, not a devotion to the candidate most likely to stop crime. Sen. Al D'Amato is one of the PBA's prime patrons, as well as a co-chairman of the Dole campaign.
Police unions regularly resist efforts to remove not only officers who are corrupt or brutal, but even those psychologically unfit for duty. Steve Stanard, a psychologist whose firm, Stanard and Associates, does mental- fitness tests for more than 300 police departments, tells of an officer who returned to work after part of his brain was removed in surgery: "He failed every psychological fitness test we gave him. But the union's doctors insisted he was fine. He's still on the job." Stanard insists that unions " want to have good people on the street," but he admits that "the police unions absolutely have to support their members, regardless of the psychologists' recommendations."
As much as one might be inclined to voice solidarity with policemen, it is frightening to imagine how difficult it is to remove officers suffering from depression or alcoholism or worse. Day in and day out, police have the power to deprive people of their liberty. Officers are armed and sanctioned to use lethal force if necessary. In many ways, the police are a sort of domestic military -- armed, uniformed, and governed by rank. But police departments have few of the powers that the military has to enforce command and control in the troops or to retire the mentally unfit. "In the military, it's a breeze to get rid of someone who is not psychologically fit for duty," says Stanard. But the military doesn't have to worry about getting sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, or local administrative law.
All of which brings us to the question whether police officers should be accorded the same sort of union-negotiated civil service protections enjoyed by bureaucrats and other municipal employees. Administrative due process can help protect cops from abusive or corrupt superiors; it can shield them from being sold out by opportunistic politicians; it can give them peace of mind to do their jobs with confidence. But the flip side of such a process is that the public is left at the mercy of a few rogues, brutes, bigots, crooks, and psychotics with badges and guns.
The police unions not only favor process, they are eagerly lobbying Capitol Hill for legislation called the "Policemen's Bill of Rights," a bill that would extend union-style protections to every cop in the country, union or no. If anything, we should be moving in the opposite direction, limiting officers' rights rather than expanding them. If police departments are quasi- military operations, perhaps policemen should be held to quasi-military standards of conduct, and their behavior judged by heightened quasi-military standards of justice.
For a paradigm, look to the uniformed division of the Secret Service. There was one sticking point that threatened to derail Clinton's endorsement by the the Fraternal Order of Police: For all his pro-union credentials, the president has resisted efforts by the FOP to unionize uniformed officers of the Secret Service. The reason offered by the administration for keeping the union out is simple and revealing -- FOP rules could compromise the president's security.
If unionization of the White House police force threatens the president's safety, might not the unionization of local police forces pose a threat to public safety? With the FOP's endorsement in his back pocket, don't expect Clinton to address that question anytime soon.
Eric Felten, a writer and jazz musician in Washington, D. C. last wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD about big-band music.