Elected officials count on police unions for financial support—can they still hold police accountable?

As protests over police brutality continue, the sizable campaign contributions made by police unions have come under scrutiny, with activists questioning whether elected officials can be trusted to hold police accountable and push reforms.

Police unions are powerful political players across the country and the state, and Long Beach is no exception. A review of hundreds of campaign finance records by the Long Beach Post shows that over the past five years the Long Beach Police Officers Association has spent more than $860,000 on local ballot measures, candidates and campaigns.

For a full view of the union’s contributions over the past five years, visit the Post’s custom-made, searchable database.

  • All nine of the sitting councilmembers in Long Beach have received at least some financial support from the POA over the past five years, with Councilman Al Austin—who is facing a tough reelection campaign this November—leading the pack at $38,889. The top three council recipients of POA support—Roberto Uranga in 2018 and Al Austin and Vice Mayor Dee Andrews this year—all recently faced or are facing challenging elections.
  • Cindy Allen, a former police officer who is vying for the 2nd District council seat in a heated race against Realtor Robert Fox, has received $47,463 in support from the union in just three months leading up to this year’s primary election in March.
  • The mayor has perhaps taken the most public criticism from protesters at local rallies for donations to his causes. The POA has given the mayor a relatively modest sum of $13,600 to directly support his election bids, but it has donated generously to ballot measures the mayor and city council support.

Rich Chambers, president of the union, said that engaging with candidates and campaigns and advocating for members’ interests are among the police union’s central tasks.

“Our mission is to support, protect and preserve the rights and working conditions of our police officers, and we have taken that role very seriously,” Chambers said in an emailed statement. “It is important that Long Beach Police Officers have a voice and remain engaged especially during this critical time.”

While tensions are high and the spotlight is on police, reformers acknowledge that unions have every right to participate in the political process and to advocate for their members. Their advocacy, however, must be examined carefully, said Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice.

“It is not that police associations shouldn’t have a voice, but it’s crucial that there be accountability and transparency about their involvement in promoting criminal justice policies and their underlying interests,” he said.

City Council donations

Donations to elected officials can help cover costs ranging from political mailers to the analysis of voter data.

Austin, a labor representative who as a councilman represents parts of North Long Beach and Bixby Knolls, has received the most money from the POA in recent years.

The councilman, who has worked for decades as a public and private sector employee advocate and currently represents public employees for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said his involvement with labor has brought him the support of several labor organizations.

“I’ve had the support of police officers, but I’ve also had the support of firefighters and of other service workers,” he said.

He has long been involved with issues of public safety, including serving in the early 2000s as a member of the Citizens Police Complaint Commission, which makes recommendations about officer training and discipline.

“We have work to do in law enforcement, I understand that mandate,” Austin said. “We’re working vigorously to improve and change Long Beach from that perspective.”

Austin is a member of the Public Safety Committee and was recently appointed chair of the powerful Budget Oversight Committee, which hashes out details of departmental budgets, including police, before they are voted on by the full council.

The bulk of his donations have come this year, as he is facing a tough re-election bid against Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, executive director of the Los Angeles Local Initiatives Support Corporation, who led the three-person race for the council seat in the March primary with 38% of the vote to Austin’s 32%. The POA also lent significant support to Austin’s 2016 campaign.

Councilman Dee Andrews, who represents Central Long Beach, and Councilman Roberto Uranga, who represents West Long Beach and other areas, come in second and third in terms of financial support from the police union, at $15,080 and $9,719, respectively. Andrews, like Austin, is currently running for re-election against an up-and coming challenger, Suely Saro. Uranga had a tough race in 2018.

Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce, who represents Downtown and Alamitos Beach and has been perhaps the most critical of police—she was the lone vote against a new police contract in September last year—received the smallest amount from the POA, at $1,550, over the past five years.

Pearce in an interview said her campaigning for police reform was likely the reason the union backed her opponent in the 2016 council race, spending $23,148 on his behalf.

The union has also flexed its muscle in the race to replace Pearce, who is not seeking reelection. Allen, the former LBPD officer running for Pearce’s seat, received just $400 to her personal campaign from the POA—but the union has made generous independent expenditures on her behalf, paying for a phone program, campaign consulting and a mailer.

Regarding the independent expenditures, Allen said in a text message, “I have no control over their spending on candidates.”

Allen said her experience as a former police officer makes her well equipped to enact reforms once elected, but she did not elaborate on any specific reforms she would like to see.

Mayor Robert Garcia, meanwhile, has faced scrutiny over the past few weeks about his donations from the police union, with a fledgling recall effort against him underway by activist Franklin Sims, who specifically calls out money the mayor has received.

The activists cite a figure of over $500,000, however most of that money went to ballot measures—such as two Measure A campaigns that would directly benefit police with additional staff and resources—that the city council, mayor and union mutually supported. In total, the union has spent $628,317 on city campaigns bearing the mayor’s name.

Garcia, who often sets the city’s political agenda through his advocacy and ballot measures, doesn’t rely on the union to support his personal campaigns, but, the union has lent significant financial support to the Mayor Robert Garcia Committee to Protect Police & Fire and Repair Infrastructure in Long Beach, which was set up to campaign for Measure A, a sales tax increase that would provide more funding for the city’s police and fire departments.

Leading up to the March 3 election, the committee set up to rally voter support for Measure A received $265,290 in contributions in the first two months of the calendar year. Of that sum, $65,000 came from the police union. Over the past five years, the union has contributed over half a million dollars to committees supporting Measure A.

“Those contributions are not contributions to me,” Garcia said in an interview. “Those ballot measures were put on by a unanimous vote by the city council and they’re city-sponsored measures on which my name has to legally appear. They’re not my committees.”

Responding to the protests overall, Garcia said he thought it was fair for advocates and protesters to question the role police unions play in politics.

“I think in this era, when we’re trying to break down racial injustice in all of our institutions, everything is fair,” Garcia said. “I respect what’s happening on the streets, I respect the protests and I think all of us should be listening.”

Should there be limitations?

Some activists have called for limitations on the amount of financial support law enforcement groups in particular can give to campaigns, an approach that POA President Chambers called “shortsighted.”

“Those same people are not suggesting that elected officials stop taking contributions from teachers, nurses, firefighters, criminal justice reform groups and private corporations,” Chambers said.

In Long Beach, a campaign to equip hotel workers with panic buttons and other protections, known as Measure WW, serves as an example of the power that unions wield. A committee set up to support the measure received at least $356,150 from the service workers union Unite Here Local 11.

Still, advocates for criminal justice reform say the political activity of police unions deserves special attention.

“Police officers and prison guards play a unique role in society that vests them with the power to take away a person’s liberty, and even life,” criminal justice advocate Jordan said.

Under the mounting pressure from criminal justice groups, political opponents and protests that have drawn support from a broad and diverse swath of the American public, some politicians are vowing to return or redirect contributions received from police unions.

Councilman Rex Richardson, whose committee advocating for the funding of affordable housing received $5,000 from the POA in 2019, said the committee has now contributed twice that amount to a campaign for bail reform.

Richardson, who has received $4,150 from the POA over the past five years, said until reforms have been achieved on a local level, he will not be taking any further contributions from the police union.

“People need to understand that their local officials are not bought and sold,” he said.

When asked whether he feared any backlash from the union for his decisions, Richardson said he didn’t and that his actions shouldn’t be perceived as a slight to police.

“These actions and statements are necessary to regain public trust,” he added.

Editor’s note: Cindy Allen owned the Long Beach Post until June 2018, when she sold the publication to Pacific Community Media. She has had no involvement in the Post since that time.

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Alena Maschke writes about all things business and beyond for the Long Beach Business Journal/Long Beach Post. Born and raised in Germany, she first fell in love with California during an exchange year at UCLA. After receiving her master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2017, she returned to the Golden State with an appetite for great stories, pupusas and the occasional Michelada.
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