The Blog


11:00 PM, Oct 27, 1996 • By ERIC FELTEN
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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.