August 27, 2014 - From the September, 2014 issue

LAPD / City Collective Bargaining: An Imbalance of Power

Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, delves into the political history of the City of Los Angeles Police Department and unions. With more than half a century of wage, work-week, and pension disputes as context, Kaye plots today's current collective bargaining standoff. He characterizes Chief of Police Charlie Beck, who was recently reappointed to a second term, in relation to his predecessors and asks Angelenos to appreciate the political power of law enforcement when negotiating contracts. This exclusive piece for TPR reflects Kaye’s own opinions and respected research.


Ron Kaye

"'Public Safety First'—that’s the union’s cry even when crime is at an historic low. Who would dare question it?…The PPL shamelessly exploits it."

"Back-to-basics won’t work. It’s a meaningless political slogan the mayor has embraced to distract us from the problem: his own and the Council’s inability to fix what they broke."

The cops are the story of LA—always have been and probably always will be.

From the Big Sleep through Dragnet to Chinatown, from the classic stories by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to James Ellroy, the LAPD with its long history of racism, brutality, and corruption is always at the heart of the matter in the city’s real-life history as much as in its myths.

Created in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War when grifters, gamblers, and hustlers established LA as the home of the absolutely free, the city where anything goes, where anybody can be anybody they want, the LAPD was pretty much a crew of paid goons serving the interests of the rich and powerful who hired them to enforce the thin line between those who mattered and those who didn’t.

That began to change with the appointment of William Parker in 1950, a drunk with a long list of hates—blacks, Jews, communists, liberals, gays—who still began the process of turning the LAPD into a professional police force, a small, disciplined, aggressive paramilitary department. He kept the rabble in line with whatever force necessary, kept secret dossiers on those with influence, and used them against judges, politicians, and big shots.

The wonder is that it took 60 years to purge the wretched excesses that led to so many crimes against humanity: the killing of Eula Love over an unpaid DWP bill, the brutal beating of Rodney King caught on video, corruption exposed in the Rampart scandal, and so many other violent incidents under the cover of authority.

Today, the LAPD is arguably City Hall’s one great achievement, its only proof of progress—even if it took the Justice Department and the federal courts to do what the city’s leadership had proven itself incapable of doing.

Given such weak leadership and all the controversies over the years, it shouldn’t be surprising that the vacuum of power was filled to a great degree by the unions.

When Ronald Reagan was walking out the door of the governor’s mansion in 1972, he signed legislation that allowed city and county employees to form unions in California.

A year later, an LAPD cop, Tom Bradley, became mayor. In the 40 years since then unions have become a dominant force, using their money and their members’ muscle to get what they want: higher wages, benefits and pensions, shortened work weeks, advantageous work rules.

Driving those advances were the two employee associations that date back decades before municipal unions—DWP workers who formed IBEW Local 18 that is known for its heavy-handed bullying tactics and strike threats; and the PPL, the Police Protective League, which has used more subtle means to get what it wants, the public’s crime paranoia.

………

 “PUBLIC SAFETY FIRST”

“The mission of the Los Angeles Police Protective League is to vigilantly protect, promote, and improve the working conditions, legal rights, compensation and benefits of Los Angeles Police Officers.”

A year ago I opened one of the frequent email missives from the PPL and saw a reprise of their mission statement, and it angered me. Nothing mattered except their narrow selfish interests, the public  be damned.

It was at a time when I was obsessed with how greed—the ultimate act of narcissism—had clearly come to be normal and acceptable behavior. Public service had become self-service. The long-term consequences mattered little and neither did the public.

So I reached out to Tyler Izen, president of the PPL. For an hour at breakfast we grappled with questions about 70 percent of the city budget that goes for payroll costs—the biggeste chunk to the LAPD—while city services have declined and streets, sidewalks, pipes, and power lines were aged and deteriorating from lack of maintenance.

“We’re all in this together, I know that,” Izen told me as he related his personal story of growing up in the Valley, working every part of the city as a cop, and still living in the Valley—unlike 80 percent of the 10,000 officers on the LAPD payroll.

“Our job is to ask the questions, ‘What’s a police officer working in Los Angeles worth today in salary, health care, pensions? What’s the value of the total package?’ We try to get that, but we also understand that there are times to back off and give ground to get the system through tough times.”

“I think we’d all be better off if we were all better connected.”

The economic crash in 2008 was one of those tough times. The PPL has given a lot of ground in the face of massive budget shortfalls, huge unfunded pension liabilities, and soaring health care costs.

The union lived with furlough days, some years without cost-of-living pay raises, and agreed to banked overtime maximums going from 100 to 400 to 800 hours with payment in time off, not cash. It sold out newly hired cops by agreeing to a contract that pays them 20 percent less and increases how long it takes for them to get full pensions.

It wasn’t nearly enough to break the cycle of budget deficits but city officials didn’t care. They were deferring costs far into the future, claiming long-term savings in the billions of dollars from modest union givebacks and increased contributions to health and pension benefits.

They eliminated less than 1 percent of the total city work force, transferring 1,500 workers to the DWP, where many got huge raises. They stopped recruiting new cops and firefighters, and pressured all the unions for more concessions but never offered a real solution.

The unions fought back, pouring money into politics in hopes of getting an advantage. The PPL and IBEW bet more than $3 million on Wendy Greuel’s 2013 mayoral campaign and $1 million more to try to stop Mike Feuer in the City Attorney race.

They lost both and have lost a fair number of other elections. But they usually win even when they lose. Who doesn’t support their local police?

In the amoral world of LA politics, there is no right or wrong. There is only getting what you want. Love them or hate them, fear them or honor them, cops hold a special place in society—guardians of the peace, the men and women who serve and protect us from the barbarians we imagine surround us. It’s almost medieval in its crudeness.

“Public Safety First”—that’s the union’s cry even when crime is at an historic low. Who would dare question it? Isn’t security the number-one issue for most Americans, with cameras on every house and business; cameras on the cops; big data collection of all our phone calls, snail mail, email, and contacts with the world outside?

The PPL shamelessly exploits it.

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When Daryl Gates was nowhere to be found during the riots after the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted in Simi Valley, home of so many LAPD cops, the cops were standing by their man even as the rabble was calling for his head.

PPL board member Dennis Zine—a motorcycle traffic officer—built a new career weeping before the TV cameras as the noose tightened around the neck of Gates.

The appointment of an unqualified Philadelphia cop, Willie Williams, to replace him was a bad joke. He couldn’t even pass the physical test to be a cop. He didn’t know anything about the city or how to manage a department so stuck in the past.

He never stood a chance. He wasn’t LAPD blue. He was an outsider, the first one and a bumbling one at that. The PPL undermined Williams at every turn, whined about not being treated right, building a case that morale was terrible and they needed a payday fix.

The game was on. Dick Riordan and the powers that be decided they had to get the union off their backs: more money, more perks, a chief in Bernard Parks who was one of them. Pragmatism, they called it.

By 1999, with the reforms proposed by the Christopher Commission existing largely on paper and not visible on the streets, the Republican mayor who had promised to turn LA around found himself backing poorly conceived charter reforms as a way to stop the Valley secession movement. So he signed onto a ballot measure to raise police and fire pension accruals from 2 to 3 percent a year with maximum pensions boosted from 70 to 90 percent.

The voting sheep went along. It was the beginning of the end of fiscal responsibility.

For the PPL, it was an opportunity. If City Hall was going to secure their futures with free lifetime health care and six-figure pensions, shouldn’t cops lives be better in the here and now with a four-day work week?

So for the 2001 election of a new mayor, the PPL demanded that every candidate sign a pledge that committed them to deliver the shortened, flexible work week—a pledge required to even get a chance to appear before the PPL board and get the union’s endorsement and money. They signed, one and all.

The PPL chose James Hahn, the loyal and obedient servant of the political system—even though he had pushed successfully for the city to surrender to the Justice Department, turning over control of the LAPD to a federal judge and a court-appointed monitor with close ties to America’s top cop, William Bratton. He didn’t just deliver the four-day work week. He gave thousands of cops the three-day work week.

So Hahn wasn’t the union’s enemy. The Chief of Police was. Parks opposed the consent decree and shortened work week. He put the senior lead officers back on the streets to beef up patrol. He was a tough disciplinarian. He was “Bitter Bernie,” the old LAPD.

The union organized incessant attacks on him from every direction, called in its chips with Hahn and other city officials. Parks was dumped after one term.

Enter America’s top cop, the celebrated Bill Bratton. LA was a softball, no match for a guy honed in the rough-and-tumble of Boston and New York.

He dismissed all that had happened before him as irrelevant, plunged into meeting the demands of the consent decree that he had so much to do with defining, played with crime statistics and reporting to make sure every quarter was better than the last. He wasn’t chief as much as CEO of the LAPD, happily leaving town to pursue his other interests as much as 70 percent of the time.

Never in the last 30 years was a political figure in LA so untouchable—not by the press, the politicians, or the PPL. He was the cock who ruled the roost until he decided to make a fortune in the private global security sector while finagling his way back in New York into the job he always wanted, police commissioner.

In came his antithesis: Charlie Beck, son of a cop, father of two cops, a down-to-earth street cop. He proved himself to be a quick study, able to recite the handbook on modern policing and police public relations to the satisfaction of politicians and Connie Rice, the brilliant civil rights attorney who has gone from being the number-one LAPD critic to its leading mouthpiece.

In recent weeks, you have seen how Beck—an obedient mediocrity who deserved tougher criticism and factual analysis of his performance and the state of the department than what he got—has faced an onslaught of charges. These include nepotism, favoritism in promotion and discipline, and more importantly, that the books on crime statistics have been cooked.

But Charlie is a good old boy—a servant of the political system whose greatest achievement is keeping blame from falling on that system when things have gone wrong, of always saying the right thing regardless of what he does.

When the union last month presented their members with a new contract that would pay overtime with cash and undo the two-tiered system for new hires and the mythical savings, the rank-and-file were not happy.

You’ve moved us up and down, they said, and left and right. We’ve gone along for the ride and now you’re saying you can’t give us a 2 percent inflation raise when we’ve been taking nothing. We want to be paid just as well as the cops in the suburbs, where we live.

The rank-and-file overwhelmingly rejected the contract, not because they were against the two-tiered system or didn’t want cash for overtime. They wanted a pay raise now. They are doing the job, they believe—keeping crime down despite the upward surge so far this year, and helping change the culture of the LAPD.  

The problem is the politicians, not them. Six years after the economy crashed, their half measures have left all the unions howling, suing in court, ready to follow the PPL in demanding unaffordable pay increases.  Shared sacrifice is over.

Back-to-basics won’t work. It’s a meaningless political slogan the mayor has embraced to distract us from the problem: his own and the Council’s inability to fix what they broke.

It’s the basics that are broken—the material basics of the infrastructure, the inability to provide a decent education to the children (90 percent with great needs of language and specialized attention), and the 40 percent of the population living in misery with few job opportunities. The basics of the social and political contract were betrayed long ago.

The cops have opened the door to an important public conversation: How do we as a city of neighborhoods, a city of people from all over the world with different values and needs, find our common ground? How do we come together and pursue our best self-interest—our enlightened self-interest?

It’s a dirty job. But if we can’t live up to our higher ideals, live up to the basic tenets of a free and democratic society, then the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.