Police union has stranglehold on some city politicians

A small but important drama escaped notice because of the hubbub surrounding Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” book deals. Two days after the deals first made the news, newly appointed Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison traveled to Annapolis in a last-ditch and ultimately successful effort to persuade members of the Baltimore’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly not to approve House Bill 1251.

HB 1251 was introduced at the request of the union that represents BPD officers in the ranks of lieutenant and below, Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police. The bill attracted little attention despite the fact that it would have hindered compliance with the consent decree between the BPD and the United States Department of Justice.

The most astonishing part of the bill was that it was co-sponsored by six members of the city delegation. It is beyond me why six delegates from the city believed that it was a good idea to make reform of the BPD harder than it already is.

In 2016, an Editorial Advisory Board opinion in this newspaper lamented that the BPD could not be reformed unless someone managed to “dismantle the police union’s grip on city government.” Extend that statement to include the union’s grip on members of the General Assembly from the city and that statement is as true now as it was then.

Law and the consent decree

Under current law, the only terms and conditions of employment that may be submitted to binding arbitration, if the city and FOP fail to agree on them, involve “direct compensation” (salaries, shift differential pay, etc.). Also, the Baltimore City Council may exclude from collective bargaining terms and conditions of employment, other than those involving direct compensation, that the council believes should be left to the sole discretion of the police commissioner.

HB 1251 would have given the FOP the right to submit all terms and conditions of employment to binding arbitration and stripped the city council of the power to limit the scope of collective bargaining. The terms and conditions subject to arbitration under the bill were those now expressly excluded from binding arbitration, including job security, disciplinary procedures, investigations, promotions, scheduling, and eligibility for and assignment to details and positions.

In other words, an extraordinary amount of control over the BPD would have been transferred from the police commissioner to a panel of three independent labor arbitrators with no particular expertise in running police departments. It also would have given BPD officers collective bargaining rights beyond the reach of the consent decree and the court.

The consent decree provides that it “does not alter or affect current CBAs [collective bargaining agreements] or collective bargaining rights, or state law.” In the event that a provision of a CBA impedes implementation of the decree, the decree states that the “city and BPD will use its best efforts to advocate to change the … collective bargaining provision.”

The decree provides, however, that “if the City and BPD are unable to eliminate conflicts between the provisions of this Agreement and law(s), ordinance(s), or collecting bargaining provision(s),” they need only comply with the provisions of the decree “to the extent permissible.” Consequently, labor arbitrators accountable to no one for their decisions would have been given the power to block reforms involving disciplinary procedures, investigations, promotions, assignments, etc.

Defeating the bill

Led by City Solicitor Andre Davis, the city waged an intense campaign against the bill. Harrison was dispatched to Annapolis on March 15 in one final effort to defeat the bill. The bill was never brought to a vote and died in committee, largely because of Harrison’s testimony.

Harrison’s testimony apparently marked the end of his brief honeymoon with the FOP, which tweeted: “PC Harrison chose to testify against our proposed legislation at a time that his support of our membership is greatly needed.” The FOP was unhappy with Harrison, but it was furious with Mr. Davis. On April 3, the FOP sent a blistering “open letter” to Davis.

The letter blamed Davis for sending Harrison to Annapolis to kill a bill that was before the General Assembly this year, HB 1251: “The Police Commissioner, with the blessing of both you and Mayor, testified in opposition to [HB 1251], causing the City Delegation to forego a vote which would have gone in favor of the FOP.”

And the worst part is that I believe the union is correct: But for Harrison’s pleas, the city delegation would have passed a bill intended, at least in part, to stymie reform of the BPD. HB 1251 was a testament to the continuing stranglehold that the FOP has on certain city politicians and how close the city can come to grief when the public is not paying attention.

[Published as guest commentary by the Daily Record on April 11, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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