In November 2012, the head of America's largest law enforcement union declared his police officers were "universally consistent in their opposition" to liberalizing marijuana laws. On Thursday, the D.C. branch of that very same union—the Fraternal Order of Police—endorsed D.C. City Council Member Tommy Wells—the sponsor of one of the country's most progressive marijuana decriminalization laws—for mayor.
When I spoke to Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority about the union's decision, he argued that the endorsement shows "working to change failed marijuana laws is a political benefit—and not a political danger—for candidates," and pointed to the union's demand for "better resource allocation," a common argument for drug decriminalization. Angell is right that Wells's push to change the District's pot laws haven't hurt him with cops, and also right that the endorsement is worth noting at a time when police unions elsewhere are fighting marijuana reform tooth and nail. But the endorsement is also a great reminder that policing is a very political business.
For one thing, the District's Democratic primary is chock full of people who have no problem with Wells's stance on pot (though fellow council-member and Democratic mayoral candidate Vincent Orange did vote "present" on the decriminalization legislation Wells championed). The Executive Council of the D.C. Police Union wants to bet on a winner, and that means making peace with progressive causes like marijuana reform.
There's also the fact that notorious fundraiser Jeffery Thompson's recent plea deal essentially makes it impossible for any law enforcement body to endorse D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, for whom Thompson financed an illegal shadow campaign in 2010. Wells is for all intents and purposes the only mainstream D.C. mayoral candidate to have never done business with Thompson, and that's supposedly a big part of why the Executive Council of the D.C. Police Union voted unanimously to endorse him. "He is the only politician not accepting corporate or bundled money and has consistently demanded and voted for tougher ethics laws and rules,” the endorsement says.
But I think what really drove this decision is what often drives the decision of police unions in big cities: The police wants a better contract, and they believe Wells is the most likely candidate to give it to them.
Whenever we discuss law enforcement policy, ranging from on-body cameras to stop-and-frisk, we should keep in mind that police officers are as self-interested as anyone else. Yes, they've signed up for a job with more risk than a lot of other jobs, but they aren't doing it for free. They want good benefits, good hours, good pay, and to be legally protected against lawsuits. They achieve those goals through their unions. Occasionally, this leads to a distorted sense of what police actually need to do their jobs. For instance, New York's fight over stop-and-frisk has long been framed as a battle between civil liberties and public safety. Then several of the NYPD's unions said they'd make concessions on stop-and-frisk if Mayor Bill de Blasio made good during contract negotiations. So either the NYPD is willing to sacrifice public safety for money, or the fight over stop-and-frisk is about a very different set of tradeoffs than we've been led to believe. I'm going to give the fine men and women of the NYPD the benefit of a doubt, and say it's the latter.
Would it surprise you to know D.C. police also care about these things? Back in 2010, when then-D.C. Mayor Adrien Fenty was battling for re-election, the police and fire unions endorsed Gray, saying "He understands there are a million moving parts to the District of Columbia, and, if you go in and solely focus on one part, and ignore the other parts, it's going to fall apart. And once it falls apart, we are all going to fall apart." The "parts" being ignored were the MPD rank-and-file's desire for a new, better contract. Yes, the MPD was unhappy with some of Fenty's programs (like the resource-straining All Hands on Deck initiative), but they were really unhappy that Fenty wouldn't play ball with pay and benefits. So the public safety unions threw their weight behind Gray, who'd been a public safety union ally while on the city council. (Private labor unions did the same.)
Four years later, history is repeating itself. Contract negotiations between the police union and the city have once again stalled, reports the Washington Post's Mike DeBonis. And so the police endorses Wells, a council member who said last year, "Every day there’s not a new contract with police officers, I think it’s a day we’re less safe.”
Top image: D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)