Politics & Policy

Obama’s Blind Spot on Police Unions and Police Abuse

Former President Barack Obama speaks during an Obama Foundation event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 13, 2019. (Lim Huey Teng/Reuters)
The former president ignores one of the fundamental sources of officer misconduct.

Seeing President Trump’s ham-fisted response to protests and riots this week, some Americans might reasonably feel nostalgia for Barack Obama’s oratorical skill and cool presentation. But Mr. Obama’s call on Monday for police reform should bring them back harshly to the fact of the former president’s lack of substance.

Writing on Medium, Mr. Obama urged voters to get involved in local politics because, he said, “It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions.”

What Mr. Obama did not point out is that most local government campaigns are dominated by government unions, including police associations. Here in Southern California — 1,924 miles from the place where a Minneapolis policeman killed George Floyd — police unions finance the campaigns for the state and local politicians who, if elected, will be called upon to supervise police. That’s a conflict of interest with sometimes fatal consequences.

This is not a convenient issue of Left versus right. Political candidates of all kinds run the gauntlet of government-union power — teachers, firefighters and, yes, police — in order to win election and stay in office. Mr. Obama’s call to reform your local police department conveniently ignores the fact that reformers will inevitably run up against police-union power.

Take the case of Cecilia Iglesias. As I write this, she’s still a city councilmember in Santa Ana, California, a mostly Latino city of 333,000 in the heart of Orange County. (Full disclosure: Iglesias and I work together at California Policy Center.)

By the time you read this, Iglesias will officially be removed from office, a victim of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association’s $500,000 recall campaign against her.

Iglesias’s crime: She tried to reform her city’s police department.

In February 2019, Iglesias, a self-declared conservative, voted against the police union’s demand for a pay hike. “My reason was simple: we can’t pay what we don’t have,” she recently wrote. “Looking at the city’s already high taxes and massive public debt (what the watchdog group Truth in Accounting called ‘a sinkhole’ and among the worst in California), I could do nothing else.” Echoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, she has openly wondered how much longer the city could underfund essential services in order to pay its government employees — how long before it destroyed from within the public safety it was paying for with higher police salaries. She was outvoted, and the police got their raise.

A few months later, in October 2019, Iglesias called for the creation of a police-oversight commission. Santa Ana’s police have a difficult job, operating as they do in a dense, relatively poor city. But even grading for that challenge, the police have failed too often. Iglesias figured civilian oversight might eliminate bad cops and offer good ones the hope of reform.

She recommended the commission weeks after a federal grand jury indicted police officer Brian Patric Booker for beating a suspect who “was not resisting arrest.” Back at the station, the U.S. attorney alleged, Booker filed phony reports to cover up the assault.

If you’re not moved to anger by that story — or by appalling video of the incident — consider that Santa Ana police in 2016 cost their city $6.8 million to settle two wrongful death suits. Or that in the same year, Santa Ana police raided a legal-marijuana dispensary, and smashed surveillance cameras — except for the few they missed, cameras that captured them ransacking the store, ridiculing the store’s disabled owner, and then, remarkably, eating marijuana edibles and playing darts. Or that in 2016, the Costa Mesa police union and others settled (without admitting guilt) a $600,000 case in which they were sued for their role in an attempt to blackmail two police reformers: Mayor Jim Righeimer and his council colleague Steve Mensinger. Or the 2012 case in nearby Fullerton, where a group of cops beat and killed an unarmed 37-year-old homeless man whose last, chilling words have become common in these situations: “I can’t breathe.”

Surveying the lawlessness of some lawmen, Councilmember Iglesias spoke up. The union declared her call for reform an “attack on public safety.” Her council colleagues, Democrats backed by the police union, ran to the union’s defense and voted against the measure, killing it.

The union had won its demand for a pay increase and had killed a reform effort. But that wasn’t enough. Union president Gerry Serrano announced the union’s recall campaign immediately. The union directed a mail and media campaign at a pandemic-quarantined electorate, detailing Iglesias’s “anti-police” politics. Turnout was low, at just 19 percent of voters, but Santa Ana voters threw Iglesias out of office.

Like most states, California’s police unions have won special protections, usually called a “law enforcement bill of rights.” The “sole purpose” of such laws, writes Mike Riggs, their best historian, “is to shield cops from the laws they’re paid to enforce,” and they explain how bad cops stay on the job.

“Here’s how a typical police misconduct investigation works in states that have a law enforcement bill of rights in place,” Riggs wrote in 2012. “A complaint is filed against an officer by a member of the public or a fellow officer. Police department leadership reviews the complaint and decides whether to investigate. If the department decides to pursue the complaint, it must inform the officer and his union. That’s where the special treatment begins, but it doesn’t end there.”

What follows is an obstacle course of special protections that would never be deployed on behalf of a civilian. One such special privilege is called a “cooling-off period.” That denies police chiefs or other government officials immediate access to an officer suspected of abuse. One critic of police unions summed up the effect of the cooling-off period this way: “an officer involved in a shooting often cannot be interviewed at the scene; internal affairs investigators have to wait days to get a statement.”

There are other perks, including the suspect officer’s immediate access to the names of witnesses against him (including fellow officers) and the suspension of any civilian review. “Because of these special due process privileges,” Riggs concludes, “there’s little incentive for police departments to discipline officers.”

That’s the system Cecilia Iglesias, Jim Righeimer, and other public officials have tried to reform.

But Mr. Obama mentions none of this in his anodyne call for greater public involvement in local elections. That’s because calling out the corrupt system that keeps bad cops on the job would call into question another system: the conveyor belt that moves police-union money into the campaigns of politicians who, once elected, agree to bow to police-union bosses.

If you really want to reform your local police, you don’t have to run for office. You have to vote against candidates — Republican, Democrat or other — who accept campaign cash or endorsements from the people they’re supposed to supervise, such as the men and women who run police unions.

Will Swaim is the president of California Policy Center and a co-host with David Bahnsen of National Review’s Radio Free California Podcast.

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