The Blog


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