This commentary, written by Right on Crime signatory Bernard Kerik, originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on Nov. 6, 2018.
It’s hard to find a more awkward relationship between a union and its members than the one in the case of a police union.
This was brilliantly on display recently in Arizona, where the Arizona State Troopers Association was forced by its members to withdraw an endorsement of the Democratic candidate for Senate. The union’s executive board had extended the endorsement without member consent. Upon polling the membership, the decision was made to retract the endorsement and remain neutral in the race.
Some might argue in defense of the union’s endorsement, that they simply represent union interests, not the political views of its membership. This is absolutely true. Police unions represent the interests of the unions first and foremost, which includes the maintenance and expansion of its membership.
Anything that could affect the membership will be reflexively opposed by the unions, and this is not unique to police unions. It is one reason the union would oppose efforts to reform policing. Reforms that could subject its membership to discipline or even termination would be against the interests of the union. It is a self-preservation philosophy.
However, there is a problem with the extent to which self-preservation dominates the governance of police unions. When a union or association representing law enforcement makes political endorsements or lobbies for policies, the general public and even many lawmakers tend to confuse the endorsement or policy preference with a representation of the police officers that the union represents. The unions have no desire to clarify the difference between their own agenda and that of their membership, as it is beneficial to them to be seen as “law enforcement” rather than for what they are.
Most of the time, this differentiation is unimportant. The unions represent their interests, and the byproduct of that is beneficial to the membership. But sometimes the philosophies clash in spectacular fashion, as they did in Arizona.
Take another example in Texas, where the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas made a humorous statement against an incumbent Republican state representative: “There’s 7 billion people on planet Earth, and any one of them would come ahead of Matt Rinaldi for a CLEAT endorsement.”
However, those with law enforcement experience disagree. Rinaldi received the full endorsement of two of his colleagues, both retired police officers. It is also interesting to note that according to the bio listed on its website, the executive director of CLEAT has no law enforcement background. He was never a cop like those he claims to represent. I can think of no police officer who would choose, let’s say, Russian President Vladimir Putin over Matt Rinaldi as a representative for their district, yet based on CLEAT’s broad claim they seem to differ.
Unions, even police unions and associations, are inherently left-of-center entities. Unions overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates where they feel union interests will be addressed. Police officers, on the other hand, tend to be right-of-center. This is not the only place where the political views of the membership are not in line with the union leadership, but the relationship still works for the most part. It is, however, one of the few areas where the union will choose to portray itself as something it is not. They do not necessarily represent the political views of their individual law enforcement members and have no right to pretend that they do.
An endorsement or denunciation of a candidate or a policy by a union does not necessarily reflect its members’ or law enforcement’s position at all. Unions and associations should be more transparent and not mislead or misrepresent their true agenda. Lawmakers and the public need to understand that union claims to speak for law enforcement may not always be accurate, and that rank-and-file police officers make their own decisions based on their own personal values and beliefs.