Lawsuit could make police union a powerhouse

    A largely-unnoticed legal fight is underway in Philadelphia that could make the police officers’ union the most powerful political player in the state.

    The Fraternal Order of Police already has influence, borne of our respect for the service officers provide and the risks they take.


    But in politics money is power, and since 1951 the city charter has forbid police officers from making political contributions to anyone.

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    A federal court ruling lifted that restriction from firefighters, and the cops now want the same right.

    In 2006, City Council enacted bills giving both police officers and firefighters the right to have payroll deductions to support their union political committees. The city refused to implement the program for cops because of the charter restriction, and earlier this year the FOP went to federal court to get the prohibition overturned.

    The FOP suit says the city and the Ethics Board, which incorporated the restriction into its own regs, are denying police officers their rights to political expression and freedom of association.

    The Ethics Board filed a response on behalf of the city, saying essentially that the charter’s language is clear and remains in effect.

    The 1951 charter restriction grew out of the squalid climate of corruption the city was mired in at the time, and the perceived need to keep public safety departments free of political influence.

    Many of the charter’s restrictions on political activity have since been criticized as out of date, and in some cases unconstitutional.

    The FOP suit is in the early stages. Discovery is underway through December, though it’s hard to see what there is to discover – this is about fairness and law, not facts.

    It’s interesting to note that the biggest spending political committee in Pennsylvania is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, funded by payroll deductions from the union’s 4,000 members.

    Lodge 5 of the FOP, which represents Philadelphia police, has more than 6,000 uniformed officers.

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