Historically, law enforcement unions have been a powerful lobbying force for certain political candidates and criminal justice bill proposals that support their ideals. They donate millions to campaign coffers and pay for advertising praising their candidates and criticizing the opposition.
Opponents to this practice contend that it gives police unions too much influence with public officials. It gives incentive to ignore possible abuses by police, not to mention these funds could better serve communities if spent on more quality training or supporting services guiding law enforcement in more acceptable performance practices.
California law enforcement agencies invested over $87 million in local and state elections over the past two decades, $65 million in the Los Angeles metro area alone. As a result of this spending, Republican Jackey Lacey has held the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for the past eight years.
During Lacey’s tenure, no fewer than 250 fatal shootings by on-duty law enforcement personnel have come across her desk for review. Of those 250 shootings, Lacey saw sufficient evidence to charge only a single individual. Even the direct request of Los Angeles Police Department chief Charlie Beck for charges against policeman Clifford Proctor for the 2015 shooting of unarmed, homeless Black man Brendon Glenn was not enough to move Lacey to prosecute.
Research has shown that on-the-job police shootings have increased with the rise of police unions. Opponents say prosecutors are reluctant to press charges against those that add so much to their campaign budgets. But now a movement has started that is calling for a state bar ethics rule that prohibits candidates from using police union money in their campaigns. A Los Angeles Times editorial stated: “An elected official considering whether to prosecute officers should not be, in essence, on the political payroll of the agency defending the very same people.”
California reform advocates say George Floyd’s killing has brought public awareness to this condition as can be seen from the 2020 elections. George Gascon (a proponent for banning police union campaign contributions) ousted Lacey for Los Angeles County District Attorney. Proposition 20, which law enforcement lobbied for to reclassify certain misdemeanor theft offenses to felonies and reduce the availability of parole, was rejected. And San Francisco’s Propositions E and J passed, eliminating the minimum police staffing requirements and reallocating hundreds of millions of dollars for non-police community investments, respectively.
These propositions were important to law enforcement agencies to help solidify their appearance of authority and increase their power base. Reform advocates say this sends a message to police unions that financing public officials so they might turn a blind eye to their failures will no longer be acceptable.
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