Even before the chilling murders of police officers in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Kansas City, most conservatives had been rallying around the “boys in blue,” defending law enforcement against allegations it is racially biased and abusive and fearing a new “war on cops.” It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the cause of “law and order,” as some anti-police activists spark riots and as the nation replays some of the worst moments from the 1960s.
Nevertheless, as someone who has reported extensively on police use-of-force issues throughout California, I believe the political right is acting out of emotion, rather than reason. It’s missing key points — and great political opportunities — in its rush to ridicule the grab-bag of malcontents, race-baiters, and socialists who have dominated the “police reform” discussion in recent months.
Perhaps it’s more obvious in California than elsewhere, but police agencies are desperately in need of reform. They are controlled by unions, whose priorities have little to do with public safety and everything to do with looting the treasury and protecting their “own” from meaningful oversight and accountability. Conservatives rightly are outraged at the banana-republic-style proceedings that cleared Hillary Clinton from her misdeeds. Yet somehow they can’t understand that an “official” internal-affairs clearance, in which police investigate themselves and find that no one did anything wrong, can at times give off the same stench.
On a broader level, these police unions flood the political process with donations — not just in state races, but in cities and counties. They tend to be the main political force in local governments, which grossly distorts the kind of policymaking and public spending that goes on there.
While California Republicans are among the most reliable pro-police votes in the Capitol, those same law-enforcement lobbying groups send the preponderance of their cash to the Democrats. There’s increasing recognition on the political left that police are the ones who will enforce the never-ending stream of picayune laws and regulations that liberal legislators spend their days passing. In some ways, police have become the Praetorian guard for the liberal order.
Democrats — despite the few remaining civil libertarians in their ranks — are eager to provide the most generous compensation imaginable. In Orange County, for instance, a deputy sheriff’s common compensation package has long been around $150,000 a year. In most of the state, law-enforcement officials receive the “3 percent at 50” retirement package that allows them to retire with 90 percent of their pay (before myriad pension-spiking gimmicks) at age 50.
Cities are slashing services, as investment income fails to keep pace with the ever-expanding promises. For instance, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System earned less than a 1 percent rate of return in its latest numbers. This drives cutbacks and tax hikes. In many cities, 70 percent or more of local budgets go to “public safety.” Because of police-union power, more and more government employers are being reclassified as “peace officers.” Not only do they get the lucrative pension deals, but they get extra powers to arrest and harass the public. Code enforcers have joined billboard inspectors and college security guards as cops.
Police agencies have an insatiable lust for money. As a result, abuse of the civil asset-forfeiture process has become absurd. Because California ostensibly has tougher restrictions on the ability of police agencies to take private property than other states, local agencies “partner” with the federal government and circumvent those laws. Then the locals and feds split the loot. The way agencies target property — and can take it simply by alleging it was involved in the commission of a crime — is a national scandal. No conviction is necessary. There’s no due process.
Once again, the law-enforcement lobby fights any effort simply to require California agencies to follow California law and get a conviction before taking property. Police chiefs, district attorneys, and others did some of the most astounding arm-twisting in the Capitol to stop it. Their main argument: They would lose lots of money. Well, indeed, they would. But once again, the Fourth Amendment didn’t stand a chance against their political muscle. This lust for money increases the number of negative interactions officers have with members of the public.
I’m no fan of the Obama administration’s Justice Department, but its post-Ferguson report on policing in that St. Louis suburb underscored a problem that’s rampant across the country. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” it reported. “This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.” I see that pattern in California.
Likewise, police unions and agencies have successfully thwarted bills that would have overturned portions of the Copley decision, which covered police disciplinary records in a veil of secrecy. Those of us on the right should know that sunshine is the best antidote to government misbehavior. California also has a Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, which makes it nearly impossible to get rid of abusive or misbehaving cops. Given the bureaucracy, lack of accountability, secrecy, and greed of police unions and bureaucracies, is it any wonder that scandals fester and undermine the public’s confidence in their police departments?
A blue-ribbon report this month found the San Francisco Police Department “for all practical purposes, is really run by the POA (Police Officers’ Association).… The POA leadership sets the tone for the Police Department, and historically, it’s been an ugly one.” Is this a surprise to conservatives, given what we know about the nature of unions? As a comparison, we all like teachers — but we know teachers’ unions and monopoly school systems hardly provide the best services.
Last month, the Oakland Police Department went through three chiefs in nine days. The department is in the midst of a sex scandal. In recent days, a federal judge tossed a plea agreement for former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, saying his prison sentence of up to six months was too lenient for his “role in obstructing an FBI investigation into the county jails,” the Los Angeles Times reported. It’s rare to see this kind of accountability. Maybe more of it is what’s needed in police and other government agencies.
Unfortunately, the current union-run system makes such oversight unlikely. It also makes it unlikely that policymakers will rethink the number of laws they keep passing — or the kind of enforcement actions (e.g., SWAT teams, DUI checkpoints, expenditures on military-style vehicles) that are increasingly common and should be problematic to those who believe in limited government. Union-backed officials rarely vote to limit police or any governmental powers.
Union control also makes it impossible to consider improvements in use-of-force policies. They oppose sunshine policies that would at least make it easier to examine those incidents after the fact. Just because Black Lives Matter is a troubling movement, doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for serious reform. We all understand policing is an oftentimes tough and thankless job, but that doesn’t excuse conservatives for sounding like union mouthpieces.