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Is Campaign Cash From Police Unions Watering Down Democrats’ Reform Efforts?

Police unions and lobbying organizations have spent millions to influence politicians since 2008, with much of that money going to Democrats.

Police unions and lobbying organizations have spent millions to influence politicians since 2008, with much of that money going to Democrats.

Part of the Series

At every turn, police unions and law enforcement lobbying groups have staunchly opposed measures aimed at police reform. They have been the first and loudest voices to defend the perpetrators of each new incident of police murder and brutality caught on camera — no matter how heinous.

Most recently, in California, unions called on Gov. Jerry Brown to veto a recently passed bill that aims to curb racial profiling by requiring police to report the race and other demographic features of any person stopped by an officer. Craig Lally, the president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, called the law “a joke,” while Lt. Steve James, who is president of the Long Beach Officers Association and the national trustee for the California Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), asserted that racial profiling does not exist, saying that police simply engage in “criminal profiling.”

But even as Democratic lawmakers introduce and pass bills seeking police reforms throughout the United States, national police unions and law enforcement lobbying groups like the FOP are contributing campaign cash to Democratic candidates this election cycle. Some of these candidates have embraced the mainstream rhetoric of “improving” and “rebuilding” police-community relations viewed as problematic by racial justice activists seeking a fundamentally different relation entirely.

It’s these liberal-leaning politicians, the beneficiaries of police union campaign contributions, who have supported the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, established with the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which funnels federal grant money to local police forces that then use the money to hire more cops and purchase more equipment, including military gear and surveillance technologies.

Rather than establishing trust in communities, this additional funding for local police has exacerbated tensions and violence, especially in urban, low-income communities of color.

“The Fraternal Order of Police have always been a force in supporting and lobbying against police reform.”

“[The FOP] have always been a force in supporting and lobbying against police reform and for those kind of draconian police engagements that were based in ‘law and order,'” said Ron Hampton, who is the former executive director of the National Black Police Association. Hampton was also formerly a police officer in Washington, D.C., from 1971 to 1994. “That has been their agenda, and they have invested money in those politicians that support that.”

Hampton told Truthout that the 1994 omnibus crime bill passed under former President Bill Clinton with wide support among Democrats, and that the Black Police Association withheld support for the law because of its role in expanding the federal death penalty and establishing an array of new crimes that would disproportionately impact communities of color, especially as it related to how the law affected immigration law statutes and gang-related crimes.

“Twenty years later … Bill Clinton and his wife should apologize for the mass incarceration that those laws created,” Hampton said. “But there were Democrats, a whole lot of Democrats, that supported that … because that was the theme of the day, and the unions had a lot to do with gathering up that support because that was what they wanted, … and they got it.”

Today, Democrats receiving campaign contributions from the national FOP still support the COPS program created by the 1994 crime bill, the largest such crime bill in U.S. history.

COPS’ Campaign Cash

According to data provided by the nonpartisan research organization MapLight, police unions and law enforcement lobbying groups have spent millions since 2008 to influence elected representatives and candidates, most of them Democrats.

According to MapLight data from April 1, 2009, to March 31, 2015, the top 10 Senate recipients of police and firefighter union and law enforcement lobbying contributions for the last six years are all Democrats. But while several of the top 10 Democrats on the list have introduced bills aimed at police reform, some have simultaneously supported the COPS hiring program or solicited funds for additional officers through other means.

For example, after the uprisings in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan), who has received more than $20,000 from police and firefighter interests since 2009, authored the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015, which would appoint 14 experts in law enforcement, civil liberties and human rights to review the criminal legal system and propose reforms.

But in September, Senator Peters showed his support for the COPS program when he announced more than $2 million in grants from the program to hire additional officers for Michigan police departments in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Additionally, Peters’s bill to establish the National Criminal Justice Commission does not take a hard line against police practices. According to MapLight, police union and law enforcement lobbying groups remain split regarding their position on the bill.

“[Police interests] spend the money so that they don’t have to be held accountable.”

Another Democrat on the list, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) has received at least $20,000 from national police and firefighter interests since 2012 (and at least $10,000 from the national FOP), and introduced a bill in 2014 proposing a $900 million extension of the COPS program that would have paid for 2,600 additional cops in cities across the United States, and kept the COPS program going for another six years. (The bill was not enacted.)

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) has received $18,500 from police and firefighter union interests during the last six years. While he has called for full funding of a US Department of Justice program that assists police departments in outfitting officers with body-worn cameras, he also announced in June that he secured more than $34.5 million in funding for counties throughout New Mexico through the payment in lieu of taxes program, which would, in part, provide additional funding for hiring police officers.

According to the MapLight data, from April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2015, the top 10 House recipients of police and firefighter union and law enforcement lobbying contributions for the previous two years were also all Democrats.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has received more than $20,000 from police and firefighter interests since 2013, with at least $10,000 from the FOP in 2014. He called for increased investment in the COPS hiring recovery program when he announced the release of $11,782,760 in COPS grants for the hiring of 55 officers in Prince George’s County in 2009.

Rep. Julia Brownley (D-California), who has received $16,200 from police and firefighter interests in the last two years, has advocated for the House Appropriations Committee to increase funding of the COPS program.

Law Enforcement’s Lobbying Agenda

According to MapLight’s data, the national FOP has spent nearly $1.6 million since 2008 to lobby U.S. lawmakers. Each year, the organization has spent about $220,000 on lobbying.

2015 1014chart1Data provided with courtesy from MapLight.

The National Association of Police Organizations has spent at least $1.16 million since 2008 to lobby U.S. lawmakers, according to MapLight.

2015 1014chart2Data provided with courtesy from MapLight.

Among other police unions and groups that are top lobbying spenders are the Bossier Parish Police Jury, spending $835,000; the International Association of Chiefs of Police, spending $760,000; and the International Union of Police Associations, spending $580,000.

The Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund is among the top spenders, spending $280,000 on lobbying since 2011. According to the Black Police Association’s Hampton, Ohio has always been a stronghold for police unions, especially the FOP, where one of its national offices is located in Columbus. Former FOP President Dewey R. Stokes, who headed the organization from 1987 to 1995, came out of the Columbus Police Department. Again, another president, Steve Young, who led the FOP from 2001 to 2003, came from Marion’s department.

Recently, two investigations in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland concluded that the officer who shot the boy last year, Timothy Loehmann, acted “reasonably” after he confronted Rice, who was carrying a toy gun. The Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association has been criticized for encouraging Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, to maintain silence about the incident before investigators.

Two Texas-based groups — the Dallas Police & Fire Pension System, spending $265,000, and the Texas Municipal Police Association, spending $205,000 — also neared the top of the national list. Dallas resident Collette Flanagan, who lost her son Clinton Allen, a 25-year-old who was unarmed, to a Dallas officer, Clark Staller, in March 2013, isn’t surprised that these Texas associations were among the top lobbying spenders.

“[Police interests] spend the money so that they don’t have to be held accountable,” Flanagan told Truthout. “They enjoy their immunity and impunity, and in their mind, because of the corrupt way of policing that has become the norm in the culture, they don’t want to change.”

Flanagan founded Mothers Against Police Brutality to be a voice for the families of police-perpetrated shooting victims who have been isolated by the criminal legal system. She described her recent experience testifying in Austin for changes to a Texas Senate bill authorizing grants for body-worn cameras to certain law enforcement agencies. She testified in support of requirements for how the cameras can be used.

Flanagan told Truthout, however, that the Capitol was packed with police union representatives from nearly every major city in the state who “got exactly what they wanted.” The bill has since languished in the House.

Exactly how much money law enforcement agencies spend on lobbying — largely to resist all manner of police reforms — remains difficult to surmise because of state-to-state differences in the types of reporting requirements for lobbyists working for public-sector unions compared to other kinds of lobbying groups.

The actual totals are likely much higher than they seem on paper. According to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics census data, there are more than 12,501 local police departments, 3,063 sheriffs’ offices, 50 primary state police agencies and 1,733 special jurisdiction law enforcement agencies, among other agencies — some of which lobby or hire lobbyists operating under different standards than public-sector unions.

“Most traditional unions have always been pro-people and pro-human rights and pro-civil rights, except for police unions.”

The law enforcement lobby worked hard in 2014 to kill a bill that would roll back tough mandatory sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses. This year, the lobby may have partially succeeded in influencing the recently unveiled Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. Although the bill has been widely celebrated as a bipartisan achievement, many activists say it does not go far enough to reform existing mandatory minimum sentences and also creates new mandatory minimums.

In California and Minnesota, law enforcement lobbying has worked to pressure lawmakers to once again prohibit medical marijuana and water down other kinds of medical marijuana legislation. The lobby is widely pushing back against the scaling back of drug war policies that have proved to be a cash cow for local police departments.

The law enforcement lobby has also been pushing back against increased transparency measures like reporting and notice requirements as well as legal protections regarding the police’s use of location-tracking technologies, civilian drones, automatic license plate readers and access to electronic communications.

Hampton witnessed several police unions testify in Washington, D.C., in front of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, telling Truthout that several union representatives, including those of the national FOP and the National Sheriffs’ Association, testified that Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other victims of police-perpetrated killings essentially brought their deaths upon themselves. They even went so far as to claim their representatives should have a position on the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, he said.

Hampton watched the national FOP and other police unions lobby strongly against affirmative action policies throughout the 1980s and challenge the Black Police Association as it brought affirmative action challenges on behalf of Black police officers. “They put their money where their mouth was,” he said. “They invested in a great deal of litigation and legislation that opposed affirmative action.”

Flint Taylor, a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, has litigated many police brutality cases over the years as a civil rights defense attorney, including representing victims who were tortured under the watch of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. In an In These Times article earlier this year, Taylor outlined a history of police unions’ role in thwarting and watering down efforts at police reform over the years.

He traced draconian criminal legal laws, including mandatory minimum drug sentencing, that were passed under Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs to the rise of the law enforcement lobby’s power nationally. “That lobby hasn’t gone away, and we see it as a counterforce now with ‘Blue Lives Matter,'” Taylor told Truthout. “The cops are seizing on a counterattack politically.”

That reactionary counterattack has involved entrenched opposition and resistance to almost every kind of police reform effort that grassroots activists involved in the movement for Black lives have brought to the fore in the past year.

This law enforcement lobbying agenda has even caused tension within the labor movement over the role police unions play in the larger struggle for workers’ rights. Graduate student employees in the University of California system and union members of the United Auto Workers Local 2865 formed the Black Interests Coordinating Committee in an effort to pressure the AFL-CIO to end its the relationship with the International Union of Police Associations.

“I have never ever in my career seen a police union in a traditional union light. Most traditional unions have always been pro-people and pro-human rights and pro-civil rights, except for police unions,” Hampton says. He never joined a police union during his time as an officer in Washington, D.C., because of his views about what the police unions represent.

In fact, he even sued the Washington, D.C., FOP over a dispute relating to his testimony opposing the death penalty for a Texas death row prisoner who had killed a police officer. Hampton says his refusal to join the union created tension with some of the other officers he worked with. “They wanted everybody to be ‘blue,’ but I’m not ‘blue’ — I’m Black,” he said.

In Taylor’s view, the unions’ efforts to thwart reforms and influence politicians would be stronger if not for the sustained pressure on elected representatives from a powerful grassroots movement. “It’s very important and crucial that movements continue the pressure and the demands that they’ve been making, and that they don’t let the Democratic or Republican or progressive politicians off the hook on this,” Taylor said.

Local Impacts of the Law Enforcement Lobby

Taylor said that police unions like the FOP can have an even stronger impact at the local level, citing Chicago Judge Nicholas Ford’s strong ties to the FOP, which contributed to his campaign. In dealing with a case involving a Burge torture victim, Taylor argued that a judge be recused from a case because of the judge’s background in law enforcement and ties to the FOP.

“There are too many judges who were former cops or state’s attorneys who had a law enforcement background, and once you have that law enforcement background, you normally also have either a direct or indirect connection to the union, the FOP,” Taylor told Truthout. “The FOP has a real impact on politics at the local level in Chicago, which is Democratic politics.”

Taylor believes the influence of police unions during Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s campaign against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel partially led to Garcia’s hesitancy in speaking out against the Homan Square black site that was revealed by the Guardian this spring. “The feeling was that Garcia had to pay some kind of deference to the FOP,” Taylor said. “I think Chuy was trying to keep the FOP at bay.”

Flanagan cited similar problems in Dallas at the local level: Police unions often contribute to district attorney and judges’ campaigns.

She said that with police interests financing these local campaigns, the cops basically “own their seats.” Flanagan went on to call for a federal mandate that would prohibit district attorneys and judges from accepting money from any police unions.

“You can’t get [cops] indicted because the district attorneys and the judges are in bed with the police,” Flanagan said.

Hampton says the power that police unions have on the local level is why activists and advocates for police reform must support alternative, community-controlled oversight board structures for police agencies that would decrease the unions’ local influence.

“[The unions] go straight for the jugular, in other words, they go straight for the politicians,” Hampton said. “They’ve got the money to invest. They’ve got the money to spend hours and days and weeks up on Capitol Hill, whether it’s national or locally, because they also have a hand in the local legislation in this country.”

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