In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Police unions negotiations can get down, dirty

Imagine if it had been, say, a mob of angry janitors, packing heat, who had besieged City Hall last month, shouting, banging on glass partitions, disrupting the city commission meeting, sending commissioners fleeing from the dais, scaring the hell out of staffers.

You know what would have happened. Police would have been summoned. The janitors would have been tasered, arrested, cuffed, hauled to jail. Because, as Police Chief Manuel Orosa has noted, “disruption of a governmental official meeting is a prosecutable crime.”

Except these weren’t janitors flouting the law, but an unruly mob of cops, come to harass city officials who’ve resisted union’s contract demands. Also, for good measure, they want Orosa fired. Javier Ortiz of the president of the Fraternal Order of Police called the disorderly demonstration, an “exercise our First Amendment rights.”

It looked more like intimidation.

Ortiz said the FOP gang will be back at City Hall for Thursday’s commission meeting to raise more hell. Which is hardly surprising. South Florida’s cop unions aren’t known for subtlety.

Earlier this month, the Police Benevolent Association’s Hollywood lodge demonstrated that the union was so intent getting rid of Hollywood Police Chief Frank Fernandez and his unwanted reforms that it was willing to sully the entire police department. “City of Hollywood high crime area,” proclaimed a banner the union hired to fly over the St. Patrick’s Day crowds gathered in downtown Hollywood. “Thanks Chief Fernandez!”

Airplane banners have long been a favorite cop union attention-grabbing tactic. Miami Beach cops have sent banner planes flying over the crowded boat show. In 2004, the Fort Lauderdale FOP, the midst of contract negotiations, hired banner planes to besmirch then Mayor Jim Naugle. “Mayor Naugle is destroying Ft. Laud,” proclaimed one banner. The message trailing behind another airplane said, “Mayor Naugle is destroying public safety.”

The decade before, during an earlier round of contract negotiations, the Lauderdale union had picketed city events, erected billboards and handed out leaflets to tourists arriving at the airport proclaiming that they were visiting a dangerous, high crime city.

It looked like extortion.

Back in 1998, the Hollywood union hired planes to buzz the packed city beach over the long Labor Day weekend, pulling the message, “Fire Chief Stone.” It was part of the police union’s loathsome campaign to rid itself of another police chief bent on reforming a notoriously corrupt police department.

The FOP lodge had already driven out Rick Stone’s predecessor, Chief Richard Witt, who had attempted to end nepotism-based hiring practices which overlooked psychological problems, criminal records and troubled pasts that should have excluded so many friends and relatives from police work.

To get rid of Stone, FOP operatives tried to dig through the chief's psychological test results, his phone messages, his daily calendar, his computer email messages, looking for any excuse to sully his reputation. In the midst of the malicious campaign to oust him, an anonymous message was sent to the police department in Wichita, Kansas, where Stone had served as chief for six years, saying that his wife had died of cancer. She was still living. Terribly ill, but alive. The effect of the depraved prank was that in the final, painful stages of her disease, Stone and his children received scores of premature letters of condolences from well-meaning friends back in Wichita.

But the campaign worked. By 1998, Stone had been fired.

Ten years later, the union cooked up fallacious charges trying to get City Commission Beam Furr fired from his school district job. Furr’s real transgression was that he had warned voters that the city’s overly generous police pensions were not sustainable.

In 2004, the Miami Herald published an editorial that nicely described our local police union tactics. “Let's call Wednesday's courthouse demonstration by Broward County police officers that masqueraded as a protest by its proper name: intimidation. It's a tactic favored by bullies, or, in this case, the union known as the Broward Police Benevolent Association.”

That day, the cops were going after Broward State Attorney Mike Satz for prosecuting Broward deputies who had falsified their crime clearance records, making it appear that serious crimes had been solved. They wore red T-shirts emblazoned with a message demanding that Satz “stop attacking our deputies.”

So Thursday, the police union will be back at Miami City Hall with another version of the same old show. This time, however, the police chief has issued an order prohibiting off-duty police officers from carrying firearms into City Hall during a public meeting.

The chief also warned that if the officers disrupt another commission meeting, they can expect, “punitive legal action, up to and including prosecution.”

But if the cops turned unruly again, I’m not sure who city officials can call to restore order. The janitors?

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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