Police complain directly to public Billboards, radio used to criticize chiefs, politicians

March 14, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The police have a new weapon -- speaking up.

Police unions from Baltimore to Prince George's County are letting the politicians and public know -- in billboards, radio commercials, bumper stickers and votes of no confidence -- exactly what's on their minds.

"The historic police model is the stoic person who's supposed to take the pain, swallow it and move on," said Gary Hankins, a consultant to the National Fraternal Order of Police. "That was real machismo, but it didn't help officers."

Instead, the once-illegal and secret FOP lodges have found a voice for their issues -- from pay to morale to unkept campaign promises -- by following the lead of other, traditionally more vocal labor organizations, such as teachers and Teamsters.

"Polls show public safety is the No. 1 concern of the public," explained Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Lodge 3 in Baltimore. "It used to be education was No. 1, and during those times, you heard from the teachers. We're seizing this opportunity to get our collective voices heard."

The activism is a far cry from the founding of the FOP in 1915, when many states prohibited off-duty officers from gathering as a way to prevent the spread of unions. Lodges had secret passwords, and officers feared firing and prosecution. Now, the lodges are making up for lost time.

In Prince George's County, FOP Lodge 89 recently spent about $7,000 to erect five billboards on major roads proclaiming: "We Tried, Curry Lied."

Lodge President John A. Bartlett Jr. said rank-and-file officers wanted taxpayers to know of their unhappiness with what they see as County Executive Wayne Curry's inaction on rising crime and an understaffed police department.

Curry, who was elected in 1994 with the strong backing of the 2,100-member police union, has fences to mend before next year's election, Bartlett said.

"Wayne Curry was the public safety candidate, but I'm anti-Curry right now," Bartlett said. "We've been political and we have the money to be political."

Baltimore officers, claiming department leadership was clinging to "tired, old ideas," turned their anger on Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, voting overwhelmingly last month for his ouster.

In January, Montgomery County police Chief Carol Mehrling felt the wrath of her officers, who took a no-confidence vote when they felt she had not defended them against charges of racism and shoddy practices.

Contract talks

And in Anne Arundel County, Lodge 70 took to the airwaves with a 60-second "civil defense message" when it became clear that contract talks last summer would leave police without a raise for a second straight year.

Lodge President Dennis Howell, who exchanged initial contract proposals with the county early last week, said the radio campaign helped focus the attention of the public and elected officials on questions of safety and wages and benefits.

The result, said Howell, is that he has "forged a new relationship with [County Executive] John Gary," that he hopes will lead to a new contract by April 1.

County officials share that optimism.

"I think John would say that the ads were a catalyst, that they demonstrated the frustration of the FOP," said Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman. "The ads helped both sides talk very openly and freely about the issues."

Ritter said the FOP leadership has "clearly taken a much more aggressive stance than they've had in the past."

"No politician worth his salt would ignore that message. It would be foolhardy," she said. "It also would be foolhardy to ignore the voters, who want us to hold the line."

The downside of tough talk, FOP leaders acknowledge, is the potential of being painted a bully or crybaby by the public and local officials.

"Baltimore City did billboards and radio ads several years ago and got some support," said McLhinney. "But we also got beat up some, too. People aren't interested in the internal workings of the police department until crime rises."

The tough-guy public stance of FOP lodges may be driven by other concerns, said William J. Johnson, general counsel for the National Association of Police Organizations.

"Most police unions aren't affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has a reputation for being aggressive in getting its point out," Johnson said. "Non-AFL-CIO unions are saying, 'We have to be more aggressive, too. We have to show our members we can be tough, too.' "

Indeed, Teamster organizers last summer made a pitch to Maryland state troopers, Anne Arundel police officers and Washington County sheriff deputies. Since 1990, 20,000 police officers have become Teamsters.


FOP leaders in Maryland, many of whom have worked together solving crime, say they are bringing the same teamwork to their union activities, becoming more sophisticated as they find the -- best strategies.

"We have no hidden agendas," said McLhinney. "We are going to target politicians for defeat. People who are against the police, .. we're against."

Johnson said it is important to take advantage of public sentiment and galvanize internal support, but police unions also must be mindful of creating the perception of a conspiracy.

"They're all firecrackers on the same string," Johnson said of the FOPs. "You have to remember who lit them."

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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