1. Governance
August 18, 2020updated 26 Apr 2022 8:35am

‘They rely on you being intimidated’: Local elected officials in the US describe how police unions bully them

Current and former elected officials say they've met a unique kind of resistance when negotiating with police unions.

By Jake Blumgart

Eight years ago, then-Costa Mesa City Council member Jim Righeimer had an unforgettable encounter with police after a visit to his local Irish pub.

Skosh Monahan’s was owned by a fellow local council member and it wasn’t unusual for Righeimer to hang out at the bar, trading gossip and sampling the menu. That summer, political conversation in the Orange County, California city was dominated by upcoming elections and a contentious debate over police union contract negotiations.

But what would make this August 2012 evening so memorable wasn’t any juicy political tidbit exchanged at the pub. It was the private investigator who followed Righeimer home.

The private eye was a former police officer, Chris Lanzillo, who’d been pushed out of a neighbouring city’s police department. His agency was hired by a law firm that catered to law enforcement unions across the region, including the Costa Mesa local. Lanzillo had been staking out Skosh Monahan’s with a couple of colleagues stationed inside the bar, court documents and local news coverage attest.

The detective no doubt saw Righeimer’s drive home as a potential coup. As he followed the councilman home, Lanzillo called the police.

Several minutes after Righeimer walked through his front door, he recalls, a police officer rang his doorbell and demanded he take a sobriety test. Righeimer passed – he’d only been drinking Diet Cokes that night.

“My mind’s going 90 miles an hour, and I just said ‘this is crazy, we’re in the middle of negotiations on a contract and I get a guy on a DUI at my front door,’” the former councilman recalls. Then his wife spotted the car that had followed the unsuspecting Righeimer home from the pub.

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They ran out to confront Lanzillo, who sped away. But they managed to confirm his identity, kicking off a years-long legal confrontation that would end with the detective being sentenced to a year in jail on three counts of conspiracy and one of false imprisonment. (Further details emerged too, including the discovery of a GPS tracker in another councilman’s car.)

The Costa Mesa police union denies any direct involvement in the operation, and broke its contract with the detectives’ law firm, which was subsequently shuttered, shortly after the incident at Righeimer’s home.

Despite his eventual legal victory, Righeimer says his experience is an extreme example of the power that police unions can wield over municipal politics in America, and the unique kinds of pressure the unions are capable of bringing to their confrontations with the local officials they are meant to answer to.

“It may sound like a pretty cheesy novel, but what happened to me was the very tip of the systematic structure of how it’s done,” says Righeimer, who is a conservative Republican with law enforcement officers in his family.

“Even in my case, we kind of won. But the lesson wasn’t lost on other elected officials,” Righeimer says. “They see all that and think, ‘Damn, I don’t want to go through this. I don’t need this shit.’”

CityMetric spoke with 10 former and current elected municipal officials across the United States, who testified to the unusual challenge of negotiating with police unions and the particular pressure campaigns they can bring to bear. The local leaders CityMetric interviewed described facing aggressive and confrontational tactics, which are strengthened by law enforcement unions’ ability to play on the public’s fear of crime. That combination poses a special challenge to the public officials who pursue policies that might meet resistance from law enforcement, including over issues of funding, oversight and contract negotiations.

‘The most aggressive at the negotiating table’

Police unions in America emerged in their current form in the 1960s, in the wake of successful organising campaigns by other government workers. But they behave quite differently from the rest of the US public sector labour movement, often championing conservative politicians and aggressive law enforcement policy even as violent crime in America fell to 50-year lows.

While they are distinct from the departments they negotiate with over wages and working conditions, the unions often serve as the id of the institution. They routinely stake out combative stances on criminal justice issues and fight for levels of protection for their members that seem to encourage the use of force.

“They’ve gone so far to the other extreme all across the country, talking about how elected leaders have blood on their hands and are making communities less safe,” says Greg Casar, a city council member in Austin, Texas. “I don’t think they always realise how that can make people scared, given the fact that they have been entrusted with the ability to use force in our society. It’s really irresponsible for people in their position to be acting the way that they do.”

Law enforcement unions wield impressive influence in the US, in part because they aren’t prohibited from getting involved in political campaigns or supporting candidates, unlike their counterparts in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Researchers from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley have found that when police unions are politically engaged in elections, they reap even greater wage and benefit increases than those that only engage in collective bargaining.

Furthermore, in many local elections in less populous areas of the US, organised interest groups are thin on the ground – especially as much of the rest of the US labour movement has withered – giving police unions organisational heft that may otherwise be lacking. They have also benefitted greatly from having allies in both the Republican and Democratic parties. In Texas, police and firefighters are the only public workers who can collectively bargain, and when then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker sought to crush his state’s public unions, he exempted police and firefighters from his crackdown. 

The kinds of pressure that police unions can wield is distinct from other interest groups, even other municipal unions. Their tactics trade on the police department’s duty to protect citizens, but the unions have the latitude to go above and beyond what police department leadership, with its direct ties to the mayor, would be willing or capable of doing. Local leaders told CityMetric about facing a kind of militancy from police unions that they don’t see in negotiations with other interest groups.

“The police union has always been the most aggressive at the negotiating table, pushing back on any efforts to instill discipline,” says Sam Adams, the former mayor of Portland, Oregon. “You go into dealing with a police union knowing that it was almost always going to be conflict oriented.”

The police playbook for negotiating with city hall

Neither the Fraternal Order of Police nor the National Association of Police Organizations responded to interview requests for this story. But John Burpo, a retired consultant who worked as a negotiator for law enforcement unions, says that sometimes extreme tactics are required. Policing is relatively dangerous and emotionally strenuous work. Before they had unions, officers were poorly paid and had skimpy health care plans. Sometimes, Burpo says, they have to butt heads with the powerful to get benefits commensurate with the stresses of the job.

“I was known as a bomb thrower. I followed the principles of Saul Alinsky, and his thing was if you don’t have as much power as the people you are confronting, you have to do things that make people uncomfortable,” Burpo says.

But Burpo emphasises that, in his experience, clashes with local officials are actually rare. (In regards to Righeimer’s case, Burpo says, “That’s extremely extreme, I wouldn’t recommend that, I wouldn’t do it, that’s total bullshit.”) He has used hard-nosed tactics, including digging up embarrassing details from a public records request on an official’s out-of-town expenses, but he emphasises that such cases are tough on everyone involved and should be avoided if possible.

“Normally most negotiations are settled, 95% of them, but there are just times when you have to go that extra mile,” says Burpo, who co-wrote a widely shared book on successful negotiation tactics for police unions. “I prefer not to use those tactics because it’s hard on everybody: the city council, the membership, our leadership. But sometimes you have to do that little extra thing.”

A favourite move is to warn that local politicians are courting danger by not giving police departments the funds they say are needed to keep residents safe. During New York’s fiscal crisis in 1975, the police union printed pamphlets in reaction to proposed budget cuts, headlined with a hooded skeleton and the words “Welcome to Fear City.”

“Under those circumstances, the best advice we can give you is this: Until things change, stay away from New York City if you possibly can,” the union warned tourists.

More recently, billboards have been employed for similar purposes. In 2010, the Stockton, California, police union rented huge signs reading “Welcome to the 2nd most dangerous city in California – Stop laying off cops.” (They also bought the house next door to the city manager’s home, the Los Angeles Times reported, and operated a backhoe in the yard during his child’s birthday party.) In 2013, the Memphis police union rented billboards on the way into town that read, “Danger: enter at your own risk, this city does not support public safety.” This summer the Baton Rouge Union of Police posted billboards that read “Enter At Your Own Risk” and “5th Deadliest City in America.”

This tactic was even recommended in a police union playbook posted on the website of the now-defunct law firm that hired the detectives who shadowed Righeimer and his allies. “Nothing seems to get more attention than a billboard entering the city limits which reads that crime is up and the City could care less about your safety,” reads a sentence from the document, which was posted on local blogs in 2012. It also advises police unions to heavily play up the danger of crime during contract negotiations.

Threatening work slowdowns

More extreme, politicians say, are the instances when police officers and their unions have slowed down their work or selectively conducted their duties to turn up the pressure.

“This is the challenging thing about having a group of employees who are authorised to use force, and who we rely on in very vulnerable situations,” says Minneapolis city council member Steve Fletcher. “There’s that kind of implied reminder that officers can use independent judgement to use force on you or not, create consequences for you or not, protect you or not. That does create leverage, and that leverage can be exploited.”

Fletcher believes he first won the ire of local law enforcement when he co-authored a budget amendment in 2018 that took $1.1 million from a proposed budget increase for the police department and redirected it toward non-police community safety strategies.

The police union began attacking Fletcher politically, but more troublingly he started to get complaints from business owners and constituents who said that officers were delaying response times in his district. The officers claimed the department couldn’t possibly spare the resources after Fletcher’s amendment.

“They’d show up 45 minutes later and say, ‘Well, we would have loved to come, but talk to your councilmember about why we can’t,’” Fletcher says. “Many of my constituents were given the very strong impression by MPD that we had somehow just created a situation where they couldn’t respond to 911 calls.”

John Elder, director of the MPD’s Office of Public Information, says that a greater volume of emergency calls can create delays.

“I am unaware of any officer saying that however I am not with them 24/7 either,” Elder wrote in an emailed response to queries about Fletcher’s statement. “I will tell you that we have seen an uptick in calls for service and this will certainly delay response times. Officers are well aware of their responsibility to respond to 911 calls and address them appropriately.”

Municipal politicians in other cities attest to seeing similar tactics.

In Syracuse, in upstate New York, council member Tim Rudd reports similar statements from police officers during recent contract negotiations. At a community meeting in his district, as the Syracuse Common Council debated a pay increase for law enforcement, police representatives claimed that the current conditions made it hard for them to get their jobs done.

“[They are at this meeting saying] our guys don’t feel supported, it’s really rough, they’re so down, so it’s hard to respond the way we should,” Rudd says. “They’re basically telling people that we didn’t get our pay raise, so we can’t do that. They rely on you being intimidated and shutting down and letting them do whatever they want.”

Wading into local elections

In Seattle last year, the police union ran a campaign encouraging voters to vote out the city council. (Still, the police budget had been increased by over $100 million over the previous four years, and a generous new contract was approved.) It didn’t work – the most targeted politicians won re-election – but the tactics used to supplement the campaign should sound familiar to Steve Fletcher and Tim Rudd.

“Most disturbing to me was a near constant refrain that I heard from constituents calling SPD for help that they were told by officers that ‘the council has tied their hands,’” says Lisa Herbold, a member of the Seattle City Council and chair of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee. “Of course individual council members don’t decide what laws SPD enforces or doesn’t enforce. We aren’t in the chain of command.”

Similar dynamics have played out in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected on a platform of police reform and ending stop-and-frisk. Several early confrontations with the city’s many police unions resulted in a work slowdown – colloquially known as the “blue flu” – as officers protested what they saw as the mayor’s anti-law enforcement bias. (Police officers are generally not allowed to strike, so sick-outs and other kinds of informal actions are occasionally pursued instead.) Mayor de Blasio backed off his police reform priorities in the face of union protests, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death received considerable criticism for his deferential attitude toward the police during the protests and unrest that followed.

Local elected officials like de Blasio have often been loath to go against police departments or their unions because they do not want to be tarred as anti-law enforcement or soft on crime.

“The endorsements of police unions are often valued by mayors and city council folks in elections because there’s a law-and-order constituency of people who care about crime,” says Daniel Disalvo, professor of political science at the City University of New York. “The image of being with police and other [law enforcement unions] can be important [in an election].”

But University of Michigan Ann Arbor professor of history Heather Ann Thompson argues that this power is less about the police unions, per se, than the pervasive law-and-order ideology that lived on long after crime began dropping sharply in the mid-1990s.

“The bullying works not because they are unionised, but because in the public’s racial imagination if we don’t have police, we’re going to descend into chaos,” Thompson says. “They can play that card, which makes mayors shake in their boots and the media pay attention. That gives them enormous power, because we’ve already drunk the Kool Aid that we need a massive militarised police force in this country or we’re going to fall apart at the seams.”

For Thompson, the conversations about changing how police departments behave and what their duties are, which she sees occuring after George Floyd’s death, can shake this power.

“If we re-examine why we need police in the first place, then that bullying would be a hell of a lot less effective,” Thompson says.

She also argues that the work slowdown in New York City undermined the union’s point, as crime did not skyrocket in response to the dramatic decline in arrests. In other cities with low crime rates and more progressive politics, police union tactics and the ideology that empowers them have been similarly undermined.

In San Francisco, the extreme rhetoric of the police union has rendered it all but ineffectual as a political actor. In the recent district attorney’s race, law enforcement unions from across the state pooled resources to defeat progressive candidate Chesa Boudin, who won despite the unions spending over $650,000 to campaign against him.

“No one at this point who runs for office in San Francisco and is a serious candidate seeks their support,” says Matt Haney, a member of the Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s equivalent of a city council). “They don’t have a whole lot of leverage over elected officials here because they’ve worked themselves into irrelevance. Now they just throw bombs from the outside.”

But San Francisco and New York are among America’s safest and wealthiest cities. There are counterexamples where police departments seem to have slowed down – although they deny these are organised efforts – and crime rates did spike, such as in cities like Baltimore and now, it appears, Minneapolis.

Signs of change

The real test of the continued strength of aggressive police union strategies will be in cities that aren’t so unusually blessed. Like, for example, Santa Ana, California.

In 2018, Celia Iglesias decided to run for an open city council seat. The longtime school board member is a Republican, and she ran on an anti-tax platform. In particular, an increase to the city’s sales tax – already one of the highest in Orange County – captured her attention and her ire.

The majority Latino Santa Ana is also one of the poorest municipalities in the region, and sales taxes fall especially hard on lower-income and working-class people.

Iglesias won a seat by running against the tax and with promises of spending on basic services like street maintenance and after-school programs.

But she didn’t hold on to it for long. After voting against a wage increase for police officers, and to retain the services of a city manager who clashed with the union, the Officers Association waged a recall campaign against her, spending over $300,000 to oust her in 2019 alone.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, but just before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the effort succeeded. Less than two years after she took office, Iglesias lost her job.

“He [Union president Gerry Serrano] wants to use me as an example to say, ‘This is what’s going to happen if you cross me,’” Iglesias says.

Serrano denied that Iglesias’s vote against additional police spending spurred the recall. In a letter sent to the Orange County Register, he said that “her illicit behavior” was the cause of the recall effort. In the missive he accused Iglesias of undermining other city services and opposing affordable housing.

But Righeimer, of neighbouring Costa Mesa, agrees with Iglesias’s analysis of what happened. Although he doesn’t know of any illegal bullying tactics used against her, he sees a connective thread between their cases. In both, the police union responded to criticism – even from a conservative Republican – with an overwhelming display of political force.

“Her vote didn’t affect the end result. The new police contract had a majority of votes, but the police union head just was having none of it and needed to explain to everybody in politics how it’s done,” Righeimer says. “Part of that process is you have to have some scalps. They have to show everybody what they can do to you.”

Iglesias says that her experience has only inspired her to keep fighting, especially in the wake of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and calls to “defund the police.” Despite her loss, she believes things have changed so much in just the past few months that the police union’s endorsement would today be a kiss of death in Santa Ana.

Iglesias plans to test that hypothesis by running for mayor this fall.

“A lot of voters in Santa Ana are waking up and saying, ‘No more police union stronghold in city hall,’” Iglesias says. “Right now, I feel like the recall and everything is working against them. Any candidate who gets supported by the police union now is going to be a no-go for a lot of voters. We all want public safety, but at what cost?”

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric. Alexandra Kanik contributed to this report.

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