Politicians Protect and Serve the Police

Ed Salzman is consulting editor of Golden State Report magazine

Larry Bowler is a lieutenant in the Sacramento County sheriff's department and a Republican political activist. Last year, he decided to run for the state Assembly against a Democrat he perceived vulnerable on law-and-order issues, Phillip Isenberg of Sacramento.

Bowler expected moral, financial and manpower support from colleagues in the law-enforcement community; there probably isn't any occupational group more conservative--police officers are Republican almost by definition.

But when the campaign season arrived, Bowler discovered that organizations representing rank-and-file peace officers wouldn't support him; worse, they were giving aid and comfort to his political enemy. He learned that some law-enforcement organizations routinely endorse Democrats for reelection to the Legislature, including some of its most liberal members.

Bowler is so upset about what he calls the "ultraliberal" political bent of police associations that he's forming a new organization to provide "a counter group so that conservative cops can be heard." Republican candidates may be helped somewhat by the mere existence of the new organization, tentatively called the California Law Enforcement Alliance, but there won't be any rush by local police unions to get under Bowler's umbrella.

The main purpose of political organizations formed by rank-and-file cops isn't to fight for tougher drug laws, reform of the judicial system and longer prison terms for criminals. These organizations are no different from other unions in their approach to elected officials: Pocketbooks come before prisons.

Organizations representing district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs do most of the lobbying for tougher anti-crime laws, and Democrats don't get much political support from these associations.

But a symbiotic relationship exists between Democrats and organizations such as the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California (PORAC), the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs (COPS), and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. (CCPOA), perhaps the fastest-growing union in the state. PORAC is a federation of local police unions; COPS is a smaller organization with most of its membership in Southern California.

Democrats help these rank-and-file organizations get what they want on pocketbook issues. In return, Democrats are endorsed by these organizations at election time. In effect, these unions protect Democrats from opposition charges that they are soft on crime. It is not unusual to see a police union leader appear on television to support a Democratic candidate--an action that infuriates Republican candidates like Bowler.

Ray McNally, a Republican political consultant, claimed voters in Isenberg's district last year received campaign mailings "almost every day from some police labor union attacking Bowler. It was like an orgy." McNally is now helping Bowler produce promotional materials for the new conservative alliance.

Lobbyists for police unions say it would be self-defeating to become aligned solely with the Republican Party because GOP legislators often oppose their bills and because Democrats have controlled the Capital most of the last 30 years. In fact, they point out, the unions endorse candidates of both parties, primarily incumbents.

On the surface, it might seem that there isn't much the Legislature can give local police officers in pocketbook benefits. Cops negotiate salaries and fringe benefits with local city councils and boards of supervisors. But the Legislature establishes the rules for collective bargaining and passes pension laws especially dear to the hearts of peace officers. These unions for years have sought enactment of a system of binding arbitration to resolve local disputes. Although they have not succeeded, they have received more support on arbitration from Democrats than from Republicans.

Through the generosity of the Legislature, police now enjoy extraordinary pension benefits. Liberalization of rules covering disability retirement allow many officers to quit while relatively young, collect at least half pay free of income taxes--and then accept another job. Most major health problems are presumed to be service-connected and thus legal grounds for disability retirement.

The pension issue is far more important than how a politician stands on crime and punishment to most police officers.

Take the case of a former California GOP Assemblyman from San Diego, E. Richard Barnes. A retired Navy chaplain, Barnes was one of the most conservative members of the Legislature. He served as an official of the right-wing Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and was a statewide leader in the fight against pornography. He was as tough on crime as any politician in California.

Because of his prior knowledge of military pensions, Barnes was appointed to chair the Assembly committee that handles retirement legislation for state and local government. Barnes examined the situation and found himself opposed to many benefits sought by organizations representing local-government employees.

In the campaign of 1972, firefighters and police officers walked precincts on behalf of Barnes' Democratic opponent, Lawrence Kapiloff. Voters were told that Barnes was weak on issues of public safety, and Kapiloff, now a juvenile judge, was elected by a small margin. That seat, in a solidly Republican district, has remained in Democratic hands ever since, although its political complexion changed somewhat in 1982 through reapportionment.

The ouster of Barnes was an unusual event, but it sent a message to all legislators: Your career is at risk if you dare fiddle with police and fire retirement benefits. Most incumbents of both parties are routinely endorsed by the police unions, a point emphasized by PORAC President Larry Malmberg in defense of Bowler's charge that the organization is "ultraliberal."

In terms of campaign contributions, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. is now the most potent of the law-enforcement unions. According to Common Cause, CCPOA contributed $515,126 to campaigns last year, surpassed only by associations representing doctors, lawyers, realtors and teachers.

CCPOA lobbyist Jeff Thompson says his organization tries to base endorsements on both bread-and-butter and crime issues. "We play it down the middle and are definitely bipartisan. We've been good to incumbents," he reports. "We identify hot races and sit down with both candidates."

The CCPOA, he adds, is quite comfortable supporting Isenberg because "he grew up on the grounds of San Quentin and understands our problems." The assemblyman's father, Walter Isenberg, was a career civil servant in the state Department of Corrections.

Police-union backing has been a major defensive weapon for the Democrats in their successful campaign to retain control of the California Legislature. Polls show that crime is a major issue with voters; the GOP often tries to use votes on death-penalty and other public-safety bills as tools to oust incumbent Democrats. But these attacks don't carry much weight if Democrats can keep showing voters that the cops on the beat are on their side.

GOP strategist McNally claims "most rank-and-file cops are tough conservatives and vote Republican." He thinks the police unions are plain deceitful when they tell the public that they are supporting Democrats because they are tough on law and order. "They ought to tell the public what they are really about--salaries, pensions and binding arbitration," added McNally.

Assuming Bowler gets his organization off the ground, voters next year will face conflicting evidence from groups purporting to speak for the crime-fighter of California. To be effective, Bowler's alliance must discredit the established police unions--a monumental undertaking that must be accomplished on a community-by-community basis.

Until then, most Democratic legislators will continue to enjoy political police protection every time they are accused of being soft on crime.

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