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, policeattorney.com (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.”
I 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.