City officials across California typically spare police officers from even modest reductions in the pay and pension packages that are a leading cause of municipal budget problems, even when the alternatives are reduced public services or even municipal bankruptcy.

The common explanation is that politicians are afraid of the cop unions’ political muscle. That is true, but disturbing behavior by operatives associated with the Costa Mesa police union paints a much darker picture of the fear such unions instill in local officials.

Costa Mesa Councilman Jim Righeimer had finished speaking at a community meeting Aug. 22, and then headed to a pub owned by fellow Councilman Gary Monahan. Righeimer drank two diet sodas and drove home. Once in his house, a Costa Mesa cop showed up at his door and asked him to step outside and take a sobriety test, which he passed.

That a police officer can ask for a sobriety test after you have returned home is troubling enough, but the details of the case are even more astonishing.

A private investigator with connections to the law firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill of Upland, which represents the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association and many other police unions across the state, called 911 and reported Righeimer as a possible drunken driver, representing himself as a concerned citizen. The caller said Righeimer stumbled out of the bar, even though surveillance cameras show no such thing. “He’s just swerving all over the road,” the caller told the dispatcher.

The investigator, Chris Lanzillo, a fired Riverside police officer who showed up at Righeimer’s house driving a car without license plates, said he was not on orders to follow Righeimer. The law firm issued a similar denial and promptly removed Lanzillo’s name from its website.

The Costa Mesa police union fired the law firm, moments before a city news conference. But this backpedaling is not credible. The law firm brags publicly about its brass-knuckle tactics, and its website features testimonials from unions thrilled by how its legal work brings city managers to their knees. There’s no sense believing anything said by a man whose statements in the police report about the Righeimer incident are not even close to reality.

The whole situation screams “setup.”

“What you have here is police associations and their law firms hiring private detectives to dig up dirt on elected officials that they can then use to extort them, embarrass them, or worse, in order to get the elected official to vote against the best interests of the city to protect themselves,” Righeimer told me. “That’s the definition of extortion.”

The Costa Mesa City Council is gaining national attention for its willingness to challenge city employee unions. The council has passed pension reform and embraced job outsourcing. It recently approved the Civic Openness In Negotiations (COIN) ordinance, which subjects contract negotiations to a level of outside auditing and public disclosure that has infuriated unions.

It would have been an embarrassment had the union ensnared Righeimer, the ring leader of this reform movement, in a DUI. But this is the kind of behavior one expects from police states, or perhaps Mafia organizations.

It is not an isolated incident.

Recently, Register Watchdog reporter Tony Saavedra wrote about the “playbook” used by Lackie, Dammeier & McGill in its negotiations and, until recently, published on its website. These lawyers represent 120 police associations across California, and 19 of associations in Orange County, so these are typical tactics. The fake-DUI call occurred soon after Righeimer publicly criticized the law firm.

“Its primer for police negotiations is part swagger, part braggadocio and all insult in its portrayal of the public and the budget-conscious officials elected to represent them,” Saavedra reported. He gave this example from the playbook text: “The association should be like a quiet giant in the position of ‘do as I ask and don’t (expletive) me off.’”

The playback calls for work slowdowns, for mobbing council meetings with supporters of higher police funding, for scaring neighborhoods about crime problems by going to as many houses as possible, looking for suspects in minor crimes. It calls for putting the pressure on officials, gaining their loyalty and then moving on to the “next victim.” The treatment of Righeimer takes a page out of the book.

At a news conference by Righeimer to spotlight the behavior of unions associated with Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, Councilman Fred Smith of Buena Park, who also has taken a tough stance on unions, said a uniformed officer entered a restaurant in his city, approached waitresses and demanded to know why there was a “Smith for Council” sign in the window. This, as police squad cars blocked the restaurant parking lot entrance.

Also at the news conference, elected officials shared examples of threatening statements and text messages by police union operatives. Councilman Monahan in the past has said police have staked out his bar and pulled over patrons as they leave, to harm his business.

“It’s a pretty dark side of American policing, and I have personally been a victim of this twisted cop behavior when I was police chief,” Joseph McNamara told me, after I mentioned Costa Mesa. He is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former police chief in Kansas City and San Jose. This “gangster cop” mentality, he said, becomes more prevalent during salary negotiations.

The solution? “Strong leadership, where the chief, the district attorney and even the feds if necessary treat this as a very serious crime against democracy itself,” McNamara said.

In addition to the “gangsters,” their consiglieres, such as Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, should be investigated as well.

It’s one thing for elected officials to be “taken out” at the ballot box. But quite another thing for them to be harassed, intimidated and set up on false charges by union operatives, sometimes acting under the color of authority, trying to silence them.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento.

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    4 Responses to How Union Power Corrupts Police Departments

    1. Guy Fawkes says:

      Steve,

      Thank you for your article, as always.

      Unions are particularly successful in encouraging this kind of behavior from members because they protect them. Reformers: nobody stands behind us and protects us from THEM.

      The classic union playbook, “Roots To Power” describes the how activists should research an opponent to identify the most effective points of leverage (extortion). Trumped-up charges are unusual compared to old-fashioned intimidation, harassment, and economic pressure.

      With the amount of information available on the internet today, it is quite easy for them to track down our friends, family members, and business associates — and then to intimidate and harass them systematically. How many part-time school board members, middle-income officials, and paycheck-to-paycheck concerned citizens are willing to jeopardize the economic or psychological well-being of their families or friends?

      Despite the unions activists bluster about our “billionaires” they know that we are no more resourceful than they would be alone. To be powerful, they compel every member of the group to pay dues into a huge slush fund. They also practice demonstrating and acting together, which they call “solidarity.” Solidarity builds confidence and spreads knowledge. Dues pay for training activists and also for lawyers and lobbyists.

      Where is our solidarity? Where are our lawyers and lobbyists?

      In addition to more public denunciation of union tactics, we need a defense team for reformers. To whom do we turn when unions or vigilante activists come after us? We don’t have a team of dues-funded lawyers to defend us. We don’t have a database of harassment events that can be leveraged to challenge their moral authority.

      When they came after my family there were no deep pockets to defend me. I was alone.

      This has been happening in America for decades. If there are so many “billionaires” fighting for better government, let one step forward and setup an organization to which good government reformers may turn when they have been targeted.

      Sincerely,

      A silenced reformer.

    2. Gary Mullennix says:

      I don’t see strong leadership being the solution. As Lord Acton remarked several centuries ago, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Men being men and not angels, the dark side of greed empowers them to do all they can in their own self interest without a care regarding the public good.

      Unless the electorate gets a chance to vote fairly on issues, the paradigm currently in place won’t change. The shift in that has to come about by something like Prop 32 in which the fuel for the power, money, is shut off.

      When push comes to shove, you’ve got people in uniform, with weapons and back up from their own particular collective who want what they want when they want it. It’s ‘High Noon’ and the sheriff is no longer looking out for the town. We the voters are the bad guys on the train and maybe, just maybe we can get to the polling booth before being gunned down.

    3. Chris buckley says:

      I was a member of the IBEW for 13 years. I withdrew several months ago. I’ve always been conservative in my political views. I devoutly believe in the Constitution and The Bill of Rights. I’ve watched over the last four years The IBEW become extremely corrupt. I’ve experienced and watched others experience harassment for speaking out against being told who to vote for, or for the fact that we refuse to give 2% of our gross each WEEK! to the “Political Action Committee.” ( that’s roughly $100.00 bucks a week per union member)
      I finally withdrew after I was told they were trying to set up an “accident” for me by a long time friend. Now the IBEW California locals are telling hands from other states to change their address to California so they can vote against prop 32. Beware good people of California.

    4. Fred H. Nesbitt Jr says:

      chris buckley…you are a lying…phony POS.

      You have NEVER been in a UNION, no UNION Brother or Sister would ever jeapardise their livelyhood by causing “an accident”…and NO UNION needs to tell ‘Travelers’ to “change addresses”.

      The simple fact remains that we in the BLUE Counties out number ya’ll red county RIGHT=TRASH by 3 to 1.

      Try to dust off yer thinkin’ cap…AMERICA IS A UNION

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