Those of us in leadership roles in law enforcement unions often face the difficult task of interacting in the political process with our corresponding bodies of government. Whether we like it or not, as public employees, we must deal with the government and the politicians who control it. Unfortunately, we do not get to control who is elected to manage the government that employs us, but we can have input in the process. The level and type of input law enforcement unions have with local and state governments are as diverse as the strategies and opinions we have about the political process.
If I were to ask the membership of PORAC or the membership of my local union in Sacramento how to best interact with elected politicians, I would get a diverse chorus of opinions. There are those who think politicians are evil and that we should never talk to them. There are those who see their political party as good and the others as evil, and they wonder why we don’t just pick their party and refuse to meet with the other. There are those who think we should take strict positions and refuse to negotiate, and there are those who think we should cave in at every opportunity.
Selecting a political strategy when representing such a diverse group of members, all with very different political ideologies, can be difficult. At local association board meetings and in our various chapters, our members share their wide range of opinions on how we can best engage politically. Even among the members of the PORAC Board of Directors, we hear very divergent ideas for weathering the political storm we encounter at the State Capitol. These heartfelt and often emotional discussions are good for our organizations and help us carve the best path forward.
We, through our local associations, chapters and PORAC, must engage in the political process or lose our ability to influence policies that directly affect us. Despite the ugliness of politics and the nature of some of the politicians we are forced to deal with, we must participate in the process. Even if our only hope is to mitigate the harm that certain proposed legislation aims to cause, we must still try. This means interacting with politicians from both parties; it means interacting with both the friends of law enforcement and those who stand in opposition to our mission and purposes.
Politics is about relationships. We must establish relationships with those in political power regardless of how we feel about them or how they feel about us. We cannot wait until there is a critical topic up for discussion before we show up in their offices. Relationships must be established before they are needed. Recurring meetings, perhaps quarterly or monthly, allow union leaders and elected officials to keep in touch, establish rapport and discuss what issues are most important. These meetings should not focus solely on topics that are important to the union; they must also include discussions on topics important to the politician representing them. Listening to a politician’s wants and needs will help you to find the intersection between their vision and your goals. Focus on the common ground. With some creativity, you may be able to get them to champion legislation that will benefit you.
As we plan our political strategies, it is important to remember what the missions of our organizations are and to focus on those topics that further the association’s core goals. We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn off topic. Our members joined our associations because they agree with the association’s mission. Taking positions on political issues outside our core mission will both alienate our membership and dilute the strength of the positions we take that are in actual furtherance of our mission. Sometimes we can endorse legislation or ideas outside our core mission that helps us to build beneficial relationships with politicians or other community organizations, but this should only be done when we can do so without conflicting with our own mission and without alienating our membership or relationships with other important political stakeholders.
Managing our political message can be difficult. We must present a message that is free of confusion and conflict. When possible, law enforcement should present a united message with well-thought-out talking points. Presenting conflicting messaging should be avoided. An example of a conflict in messaging is advocating for both higher pay and increased staffing. A city council presented with both requests and limited funds will resolve the conflict in their own favor, often by declining salary increases in favor of ensuring needed staffing. The conflict in messaging can be avoided by focusing on one message at a time. Simplifying our messaging and focusing only on our most important requests can help us achieve better results.
The political process is difficult to navigate, but our involvement is critical to the success of law enforcement. We must engage in the process or get left behind. Our detractors are very active in politics; that means our involvement is crucial to counterbalance their anti-police advocacy. PORAC is active in the process at the state level and is here to support you in your local efforts.