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Philly’s police union spent decades amassing power. Reforms could cut its clout

FOP president John McNesby said he’s open to possible police reforms, but he won’t allow changes “to get shoved down our throat.”

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, said some of the union's longtime political supporters have gone silent as calls for police reforms have grown louder in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, said some of the union's longtime political supporters have gone silent as calls for police reforms have grown louder in the wake of George Floyd's murder.Read moreCharles Fox / File Photograph

Five years before any Philadelphian had heard of George Floyd, hundreds marched through the city, through snow and heat, chanting the name of another black man who was killed by a police officer: Brandon Tate-Brown.

Tate-Brown, 26, had been stopped by two rookie Philadelphia patrol officers as he drove through Frankford on a December night in 2014. The officers would claim they’d spotted the butt of a handgun jammed next to the driver’s seat, and tried to arrest Tate-Brown. A struggle ensued, and one officer, Nicholas Carrelli, shot Tate-Brown in the back of the head.

Protesters cried out for justice and demanded meaningful police reforms. Then-District Attorney Seth Williams declined to press charges against Carrelli and his partner, Heng Dang, arguing that evidence showed the officers hadn’t committed a crime, despite discrepancies in their statements.

Around that same time, a separate U.S. Department of Justice review of the Police Department’s use of force led to 91 recommended improvements. The most significant? Putting an independent agency in charge of investigating police shootings, instead of relying on Internal Affairs.

And that’s where the city’s police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, drew the line.

The union rejected the suggestion outright. In 2017, Police Commissioner Richard Ross seemed open to outside oversight, but couldn’t get past the union, which he called “the elephant in the room.”

This is the way it’s gone for a long time in big cities like Philadelphia: Outrage over episodes of police misconduct are met with promises from political leaders to achieve meaningful reform. Union officials puff out their chests and dig in their heels.

The merry-go-round spins again. Names and details change, but little else.

But the May 25 death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has led to a rare instance of broad political agreement: Something has to change this time.

Republican lawmakers — normally staunch defenders of law enforcement’s status quo — are now pushing legislation that could radically diminish the police union’s ability to have officers reinstated after they’ve been fired, or protect cops who have been habitually named in civilian complaints.

“There’s got to be a little better balancing of the scales,” said State Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon). He has sponsored a bill that would amend Act 111, the Pennsylvania law governing collective bargaining rights for police officers, to remove certain infractions from binding arbitration protections for officers who commit crimes, use excessive force, or violate someone’s constitutional rights.

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, which represents 6,500 active-duty officers, recognizes that the political winds have shifted.

“Law enforcement across the country is suffering because of those couple of a-holes in Minneapolis — and you can quote me on that — choking the life out of a guy,” he said. “Now the reform talk is kicked back up again. I have zero problem with sitting down and discussing anything with anybody.”

It’s a notable shift for McNesby, who just a year ago dismissed the idea of a state law enforcement licensing board being given more power to remove bad cops from circulation.

That’s not to say, though, that the FOP will roll over and allow reforms “to get shoved down on our throats,” he said.

Even in Philadelphia, where labor unions have shaped the political landscape, the FOP has long stood out for its ability to shrug off mayors and police commissioners who have accused the union of being a critical obstacle to weeding out corruption and regaining the public’s trust.

That clout wasn’t amassed overnight. And it’s unlikely to be surrendered easily.

» READ MORE: Defund the police: What does it mean, and what would it look like in Philly?

“The FOP personified”

The FOP’s roots can be traced back to the late stages of the Great Depression, when many city workers were desperately seeking an economic foothold.

Sanitation workers in Philadelphia went on a one-week strike in 1938, and subsequently unionized. Police officers took note, and formed their own union a year later.

But the FOP didn’t emerge as a force to be reckoned with until the 1960s, according to Francis Ryan, a labor historian who wrote a book about Philadelphia’s municipal unions.

During upheaval as the civil-rights and the anti-war movements surged, union officials discovered that they could attract public support — especially from white communities — by touting the importance of law and order.

“They got politicians on their side,” Ryan said. “They increased their economic standards. They were able to impose their will on public policy.”

The Philadelphia FOP’s president, a motorcycle cop named John Harrington — whom Ryan called “the FOP personified” — waged a years-long battle against the Philadelphia Police Advisory board, a civilian commission created in response to concerns about oppressive policing raised by the NAACP in the 1950s.

In what would become a familiar rallying cry for union officials decades later, Harrington argued officers couldn’t do their jobs properly if they faced civilian oversight. Mayor James Tate caved in to pressure from Harrington, and shut down the board.

The FOP’s muscle continued to grow in the 1970s, when former Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo became mayor. Rizzo’s legacy — empowering police officers to use brute force, particularly on minority communities, with few consequences — continues to hinder the Police Department’s reputation even now.

“The police were bulletproof, especially under Rizzo,” said Tony Wigglesworth, a former city manager who started working for the city in the 1970s.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the Police Department in 1979 over heavy-handed practices that included shooting unarmed civilians and pressuring residents to withdraw complaints filed with Internal Affairs. (A judge tossed the lawsuit.)

Not only did the rank and file not have to worry about meaningful oversight, they also enjoyed the benefits of Act 111, which became law in 1968. It doesn’t allow police to go on strike, but in return ensures that disputes can be turned over to a binding panel of arbitrators if the city and the FOP can’t reach a deal within 30 days.

McNesby, who became the union’s president in 2007 and is paid $193,000 a year in total compensation, has often touted his team’s ability to consistently win sizable raises for cops when their contract is up for renewal, even at the height of a recession more than a decade ago.

(In 2018, the union took in $7.6 million in revenue, including $5.9 million from membership dues, according to its most recent federal nonprofit filing. That year, it spent $6.6 million, including $2.4 million on staff expenses and $1.7 million on benefits paid out to or on behalf of members.)

Earlier this year, the city reached one-year contract extensions with municipal unions amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic; the FOP negotiated a 2.5% raise, while most other unionized city workers received a 2% raise.

“They were always given favored status,” said Thomas Paine Cronin, the former president of AFSCME District Council 47, which represents white-collar city workers. “It’s just part of the tradition in Philadelphia.”

» READ MORE: How do fired police officers in Philly keep getting their jobs back? | Special Report

“Normal is part of the problem”

McNesby’s elevation to president coincided with the start of Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration in 2008, and the arrival of an outsider police commissioner — Charles H. Ramsey — who often seemed aghast at how few accountability measures were in place.

Ramsey updated a disciplinary code that had been unchanged since the 1960s; the FOP initially objected, but then agreed to many of the new rules. He also complained publicly that the union and the arbitration process hamstrung his ability to weed out bad cops at a time when the department was dogged by multiple corruption scandals.

“No one would wear this as a badge of honor, but in eight years, I think he fired more people than I think had been fired in the last 20,” Nutter said.

McNesby argued, as he often has, that Ramsey and other commissioners rushed to fire cops — especially those caught up in high-profile misconduct allegations — before Internal Affairs’ often-lengthy investigations were complete, leaving the union with strong grounds to take the cases to arbitration.

An Inquirer investigation last year, based on 170 previously confidential arbitration opinions between 2011 and 2019, found that the FOP successfully fought to have police discipline overturned or reduced about 70% of the time, even in some instances where Internal Affairs investigators determined that officers had committed crimes.

The union represents cops as well as high-ranking supervisors, which can seemingly lead to conflicts, such as when multiple female officers accused former Chief Inspector Carl Holmes of sexual assault between 2004 and 2007.

Ramsey demoted Holmes to captain in 2008, but the FOP successfully fought for his demotion to be reduced to a suspension. Holmes was arrested last year, and charged with aggravated indecent assault.

McNesby said the union won’t consider putting commanders into a separate bargaining unit. “We’re not even going to blink on that one,” he said. “That’s divide and conquer, and then you have everyone pointing fingers at each other.”

Ramsey isn’t surprised by the outcry over Floyd’s death, or the widespread interest in police reforms, which include calls to divert millions of dollars from police budgets to underfunded social service programs.

“People tend to relax when things get back to quote-unquote normal. But normal is part of the problem,” he said. “That’s why people are out there now. They’re demanding a new normal, and it’s important to not lose sight of that.”

While Ramsey was commissioner, the union won the right for officers to be able to make political contributions.

Unlike the building trades unions, the FOP doesn’t heap cash on its favored candidates or deploy legions of its members to work the polls on Election Day. Instead, the union has exercised a kind of soft power, using its endorsement process to christen candidates as the choice for those who favor law-and-order politics.

In last year’s municipal election, the union’s political action committee doled out about $75,000 in mostly small donations to a variety of candidates and party organs, including Republican City Council hopefuls, Mayor Jim Kenney’s reelection bid, and the Democratic City Committee.

But many of its favored candidates flopped. Republicans Al Taubenberger and Dan Tinney, who each received $12,000 from the FOP, lost their bids for City Council. The union also gave $5,000 to former City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell, and $6,500 to former Sheriff Jewell Williams, who both lost their offices in shocking Democratic primary upsets.

Political consultant Neil Oxman said political candidates can no longer count on the union’s members to vote as a bloc, especially as police academy classes grow more racially diverse. “I doubt if you get 90% of them voting monolithically for any mayoral candidate or any City Council candidate. It just doesn’t happen.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who had to overcome opposition from the FOP during his races for mayor and governor, took it one step further, saying that he wouldn’t advise politicians to seek the union’s endorsement because its clout has eroded.

“If I were a candidate, I wouldn’t want it against me, but I wouldn’t want it for me,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my opponent to necessarily get it, but I wouldn’t necessarily seek it.”

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A narrative shifts

Few experts could have predicted just how radically Floyd’s death would impact political and public opinion about law enforcement.

“The death of George Floyd was so egregious and so clear-cut. It just shifted the narrative,” said State Rep. Jordan Harris, the House Democratic whip from Gray’s Ferry. “The eyes of the public are now open to what black folks have been talking about for years. Now our white allies are able to see the egregious nature of what happens in policing.”

Democrats introduced police accountability legislation to beef up police certification standards in June 2019 — marking the one-year anniversary of an East Pittsburgh police officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Antwon Rose II — but it was rejected by State Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin County), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“I actually believe our law enforcement in Pennsylvania do a good job in policing,” Kauffman said at the time, according to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

Earlier this week, Kauffman’s committee changed course, and unanimously advanced police oversight reforms. The legislation would require additional use-of-force and racial-awareness training, mental-health screenings, and create a database for tracking officers with a history of misconduct.

Democrats who have been fighting for police reform for years in Harrisburg say even law-and-order Republicans who control the House are starting to get the message.

“Unfortunately, it took the loss of another life and national attention to force our colleagues to say, ‘You know, maybe we should listen to or read those bills you mentioned a year or two or three years ago,’ ” said State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Phila.), who has been pushing for changes to Act 111.

McNesby expects to meet with state FOP officials next week, but hasn’t yet been presented with any of the legislative proposals being bandied about. There is room for some compromises, he said, but giving up the protections that are granted to officers through Act 111 isn’t one of them.

“That’s insane,” he said.

When protesters first took to the streets in Philadelphia several weekends ago, the FOP’s voice was included in the chorus of criticism that was leveled at the Police Department’s leaders, whose bungled planning was laid bare as looting and fires spread across the city for several days.

But the union was outraged when District Attorney Larry Krasner filed felony assault charges against Joe Bologna, a longtime police inspector, after he was filmed striking a young protester.

Bologna had been accused of misconduct before, when he worked on a narcotics squad that was the subject of both a federal corruption probe and a 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Daily News.

Less than two week ago, more than 100 officers gathered at the FOP’s headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia to cheer for Bologna before he turned himself in; the union announced it would raise money for him by selling shirts for $20 that read: Bologna Strong.

If Bologna beats his criminal case, the union will fight to have him reinstated. “You’ll see him back to work,” McNesby vowed.

It’s the kind of thing you expect an FOP leader to say, a boast that’s supported by a long history of seeing things usually fall the union’s way. But now there’s an undercurrent of uncertainty where there hasn’t been before.

McNesby concedes that even the FOP’s political allies might be taking a step back to consider if their response to George Floyd’s final, agonizing moments will show up on the right side of history.

“Some of the ones who were our friends,” he said, “now their phone is off the hook.”