NEWS ANALYSIS : Angered L.A. Police Union Gets Tough


The Los Angeles police union, eager to reflect the anger and discontent of the officers it represents, revamped its contract negotiating team this week to include some of its most vocal hard-liners.

The chief negotiator will be an outspoken motorcycle officer whose nickname is "Get in Your Face." Also on the Police Protective League's side will be the man who posed as the ominous gunman in the union's controversial carjacking billboards.

"If we were in Vietnam, these are the kind of guys you'd send on search-and-destroy missions," union spokesman Geoffrey Garfield said. "They are tough and are prepared to represent the frustration of the members in no uncertain terms."

That frustration was made abundantly clear last week when officers voted by a 3-1 margin to reject the contract negotiated by the city and union leadership. Startled by the defeat, union leaders decided they had to assemble a tougher negotiating team to head off a rebellion within their ranks and to squeeze a better deal from the city.

In the last few days, the union has called on its 7,000 members to refuse to sign up for any voluntary overtime and has asked officers to wear their badges upside-down to protest what they consider to be City Hall's mixed-up priorities. Now the new leadership is talking about taking stronger action in the weeks ahead, including a sickout during the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament, or a work slowdown.

The union's tough stance may head off a recall campaign organized against league President Danny Staggs by disgruntled officers. But it carries the risk of alienating the city and the public.

City negotiators have said they will not be bullied into a deal and that they would immediately go to court to have any job action declared illegal. Most city officials took the change in negotiators in stride, saying they did not think it would significantly affect the dynamics at the bargaining table.

After a meeting with the union's negotiators Tuesday, City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie said: "They didn't draw their weapons or put their pieces on the table. They just argued their case."

The new union team was selected Monday during a strategy session convened by the league's nine-member board of directors. They emerged late in the day to announce they had adopted a new get-tough policy and had chosen four veteran patrol officers to carry it out--Bill (Get in Your Face) Harkness, Fred Tredy, Dave Zeigler and Sgt. Dennis Zine.

Harkness, head of the new team, is a gruff motorcycle officer known to speak his mind. He criticized Police Chief Willie L. Williams--whom he calls "Willie" rather than the customary "Chief"--in the union newsletter and exchanged stern words with Williams at a recent union meeting.

In an interview this week, Harkness lived up to his nickname.

He called Mayor Richard Riordan "a double-crosser" for courting the union's support during the mayor's race and now refusing to give officers a better contract.

He said Deputy Mayor Bill Violante "sold out" the union when he left his post as league president last summer to join Riordan's office.

He mocked Councilman Marvin Braude, who is pushing for further concessions from the union, because Braude sometimes wears shoes with Velcro closures instead of shoelaces.

"I have no political aspirations," said Harkness, who is close to retirement. "If I rub a few noses in the dirt, so be it. . . . I'm just going to get the best thing I can for this membership. We don't want the moon and the stars--just the moon."

Public reaction to the union's aggressive posture is difficult to gauge, but interviews with a variety of community leaders indicate that opinion ranges from support to condemnation.

Community activist Patsy Carter said she plans to bring dozens of cookies to Southwest Division officers today to lend support. "Before we can get on with some of the other issues between the community and police, we need to get a contract signed," she said.

"I find myself in complete sympathy with the Police Department," said Don Schultz, president of the Van Nuys Homeowners Assn.

But some people said the union is going too far with its threats of sickouts and slowdown.

"Normally, we file charge charges against people who threaten us," said Tammy Bruce, president of the National Organization for Women's local chapter. "When it's the LAPD that's doing it, where do you turn?"

Some fear the contract dispute could damage the goodwill among the public that the LAPD has built up in the last year. Confidence in the department plummeted after the Rodney G. King beating and the resulting riots.

But the union contends that police morale has not similarly rebounded, largely because officers have been working without a contract for two years. One reason they rejected the city's final offer--a $40-million package that included a 3% raise for each of the next two years--was that it did not provide retroactive pay.

Alienating some members of the public is inevitable and a risk the union is willing to take, one union official said.

"There are different publics out there," said Garfield, a political consultant who is helping to guide the union strategy. "There's a public out there that is very supportive of police and that is the public we're trying to activate. There is also another public that is anti-police and we couldn't get them on our side if we paid them money."

Already, the union has taken some controversial actions. It held a sickout in November that the city quickly stopped with a court order. Then in March, the union erected billboards throughout the city that showed a woman being carjacked by a masked man and urged residents to support the union's case.

One of the new members of the negotiating team posed as the gunman, though the union will not say which one.

After the fatal carjacking of two students in San Pedro, an angry Riordan briefly called off negotiations and union leaders ordered the billboards taken down. Some officers argued at the time that the union gave in too quickly to pressure from the mayor.

The new union negotiators say they do not intend to make that mistake. They say they will keep the pressure on the city until a contract is signed.

New Leaders Here is a look at the revamped negotiating team for the Los Angeles police union in its prolonged labor dispute with the city: Bill Harkness 50 Job: Motorcycle officer, 19-year veteran Union role: Chief negotiator. On league's Board of Directors since January. Background: Known as tough talker. Nicknamed "Get in Your Face." *Fred Tredy, 47 Job: Patrol officer, 17-year veteran. Union role: Member of Board of Directors. Background: Longest serving board member, in office since 1983. *Dave Zelgler, 49 Job: Patrol officer, 26-year veteran. Union role: Former union president, league director since 1991. Background: Was president during last fall's blue flu but was voted out of office shortly afterward. *Sgt. Dennis Zine, 46 Job: Motorcycle officer, 26-year veteran. Union role: League director since January. Background: Ran unsuccessfully for 3rd District City Council seat last year.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World