Police unions, power, and the people

June 21, 2020

Daniel Blackburn

OPINION By DANIEL BLACKBURN

Some years ago, I got a phone call at the beachside newspaper at which I was toiling from the city manager of Redondo Beach. He wanted to have lunch.

Bill Kirchhoff had only recently taken the top staff job at the city, and we had yet to meet in person. He wanted to link up at a little restaurant well removed from his office.

When I arrived, Kirchhoff was already at a booth; next to him perched a substantial pile of file folders.

He got right to the point: the folders contained a wide variety of citizen complaints against a number of members of the Redondo Beach Police Department. He used the phrase “egregious” to describe the local cops’ behavior. It seemed that more than a few liked to kick a little ass from time to time. Several of the officers had as many as 17 complaints featuring flagrant abuses of authority.

Shortly after he took office, Kirchhoff said, he learned two related things: first, he was expected to silently sign off on each of the complaints which awarded generally substantial settlements, and second, the police officers’ union in that city of 60,000 plus was not to be messed with, as it was not only powerful, but popular in the community.

Instead of rubber-stamping the settlements, which cumulatively totaled several million dollars, Kirchhoff decided to shine a little sunlight on the matter, and I returned to my little cubicle at Easy Reader with folders in hand.

Thereafter, all hell broke loose. But not in the way you might think.

I got to reminiscing about this as I recently watched police unions in city after city in this country blindly defending member cops who have proven to be trigger-happy, violence-prone, threats to society in myriad other ways… kind of a “if it’s blue, it’s true” attitude.

It was no secret locally that the Redondo Beach Police Department employed front-liners who were, in a word, aggressive. The opulent beach cities’ denizens were awash with cocaine at the time, and drug busts were frequent and often operationally questionable. And I knew personally two top cops who liked to cut out a little contraband coke for themselves en route to the evidence locker. (For reasons that now escape me, that wasn’t all that shocking at the time.)

As I hammered out a series of articles naming names and citing details of the complaints, an outraged police force searched for my source.

They may have suspected Kirchhoff, but the cops had no way of knowing for sure because there were two or three others who were in a position to provide the same information.

Kirchhoff once told me that he was the only barrier between the people’s money and a horde of special interests. And the cops’ union usually led the horde.

The city manager managed to get under the skin of the local union in other ways, particularly when it came to budget time.

So it came to be that it wasn’t long before the union and its members had a gut full of Kirchhoff’s stubborn guardianship of the city’s tax coffers.

Now then… you need the big picture here.

City managers work at will as employees of a city council. Managers negotiate with police unions. Managers then take the proposed contract and annual city budget proposals to their council. The councils are made up of folks who won’t hold office in a few years, but will live in the community forevermore. They okay outrageous municipal pensions and always, as in always, back the cops’ funding.

In Kirchhoff’s case, the cops’ union members, wives, children, and friends lined up to dominate public comment with criticism at consecutive council meetings while the manager sat stoically.

Short story, goodbye, Bill Kirchhoff, who eventually departed with three years salary in his pocket and who now lives a relatively stressless life somewhere south of San Diego.

Anyway, the moral of this story is not “don’t f**k with police unions.” It’s more like, reasonable people need to start electing folks to local office who have a measure of common sense.

If not now, when? Do we not reap what we sow?

Daniel Blackburn is a co-founder of CalCoastNews and can be threatened at blackburn.danielj@gmail.com.


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Jorge Estrada

I generally support those who have the job of law enforcement, they do not intimidate me and they are just like you and I when it is not about their job. That said, there are some who should hand over their badge and find a different line of work. There are dirty cops but that is an exception most never know. Currently they are getting a bad review by the media for the actions that may or may not be necessary. Just sayin. It would be easier to say that doctors are not your health advocates and health insurance companies practice medicine.


mtasseff

Thank you Jorge Estrada it’s nice to see someone who appreciates what these officers do everyday. It’s sad that some people have to spend some much time criticizing others because that’s the only way they can feel good about themselves. It’s sad that’s what this country has become. Thanks again!


fortyonethirty

Government should not negotiate with public sector unions. If police or teachers want to have a union, great, it’s a free country. But, we the people and our government do not NEED to negotiate with them. There’s no reason that each employee can’t negotiate their own employment.


This recent covid quarantine is proof that we do not need teachers as much as we thought, and the threat of a strike has lost a lot of clout. Unions are all about maintaining a balance, between labor and management. That balance is way out right now.


The older I get, the more I am convinced that police do not prevent much crime. And it’s high time we reevaluate, just what the job of police is. Maybe the job has changed, maybe the police have changed, probably a bit of both. We need to remake the tool to fit the job.


mtasseff

Then please do not call them. Your entitled to your opinion but not to your version of the facts.


mtasseff

Studies show that police officers presence in a neighbor does reduce the crime rate. Just look at the studies in New York City.


IronHub

Dave Congalton says Blackburn will be on his Hometown Radio show today at 4:05 p.m. KVEC 920 to discuss this commentary.


aye-caramba

You are entirely correct, that has also been the experience here in SLO County with the POA’s and DSA. But that also is the case with labor unions in general when they exceed the scope of their original intent. Teachers Unions protect HORRIBLE teachers, and the list goes on. I’m trying to understand- are you saying that police are bad because their labor unions protect and provide them cover? Are you calling for labor union reform?


mazin

Good article


mercut1469

Guessing that some of your readers are anti-union, especially when it comes to county employees or teachers, but not sure that same sentiment is alive when it comes to law enforcement. In most cases I definitely see a need for unions and wish that more workers had access to them. I dealt with the UFW for 40 years and always respected their leadership even when we disagreed, which was often. But I always thought the union was essential in negotiating contracts and wages.


Police, and, for that matter, teachers, seem to be a different kettle of fish, because these unions have grown so powerful that they protect individuals who are detrimental to society. With cops, it is obvious that some should not be on the streets (like those that kneel on a person’s neck for eight minutes or those that shoot dogs on private property). These individuals have a lasting, negative impact on society. Likewise, bad teachers who have tenure also have a long-term negative impact.


At any rate, I really have no answers, other than a suspicion that we still need police and teacher’s unions, but maybe with not quite as much power. I fear, however, that in such a charged political environment we won’t give the problem the methodical analysis that it requires.


Kudos to Mr. Blackburn for noticing the elephant in the room.


r0y

In the private sector, the union negotiates against the owner(s) of a company (or their reps…), so literally they are taking money from the owner(s) pockets to put into the workers they represent, as well as setting up protections, etc.


This is all fine and dandy provided the symbiotic relationship does not become parasitic (e.g. Hostess, GM, et. al.). In the private sector, when the unions leech too much, the host (company) dies (or can, or bailout, etc).


In the public sector, there is no one arguing against giving more money, as it’s not from their pocket (the ‘management’ such as it is in the public sector); the protection is there, but always (e.g. ALWAYS) the relationship is parasitic, but the host is not allowed to die. You think too big to fail sucked for big finance? Well guess what? Too public to fail has been going on for about as long as there have been public unions. It is not a two-sided deal, where whatever one side “wins” from the other, the other “loses.” No, in the public sector, they all look at it as win/win, as the taxpayer who is NOT represented is the one footing the bill. Period.


John Stossel recently had a piece on this very thing, regarding Police Unions. I highly recommend viewing it (it’s short and to the point, as he often is).


mtasseff

No Roy there is someone arguing against giving more money they are called the City Manager our the County Administrator. It would be helpful if people would actually learn about their local governments before they attack. But the truth doesn’t look as appealing does it.


commonsenseguy

So what your saying is they’re just as corrupt as most public unions when it comes to protecting their member’s along with all of these other unfunded mandates and their financial well being. Their all just as corrupt and self-serving, but in a much more deceitful way. Just look no further than our education unions.


mtasseff

I agree. At least police officer are putting their lives at risk when they are working.


George Garrigues

Another moral is, “Support your local news source.”


shelworth

Unless it’s the Trib! Phew!


obispan

The Tribune is irrelevant. KSBY is a financially viable breaking news source with the New Times and CCN providing real in-depth, not cocktail party censored, journalism.


mtasseff

All of them are in the business of promoting their own agenda and generating revenue. Like Ted Koppel said, “there is no such thing as a journalist anymore.” Although I have seen a lot of hope in a wonderful journalist named Jonah Goldberg. Intelligent, honest and does great research.


mtasseff

All cut from the same cloth! Motivated by $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$


mtasseff

You mean the support the “root of all evil.” No thanks!


Liberty1948

Great article. My proposed solution is to not allow public employees to unionize. Federal government employees already have civil service protection. State and local public employees can vote for, donate to, and campaign for state legislatures, and local election officials, just like the rest of us.


mtasseff

That protection is only provided for federal employees. Not every public sector employee is a federal employee. You want to take away public sector unions but keep your own? So you one of those people who believe that fair means what benefits you? Doesn’t sound like liberty sounds more like socialism or communism.