Will Philly cops soon be swinging a big political stick?

    Any time now we should get a federal court ruling which could make or prevent the Philadelphia police officers’ union from becoming one of the most potent political players in the city.

    There were arguments in July over a lawsuit by the Fraternal Order of Police aimed at overturning a 60-year ban on political contributions by Philadelphia police. The union wants to be able to deduct contributions from its members’ paychecks to fund the union’s political committee.

    To get an idea how effective that can be, consider Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has about half as many members as the FOP but which spends a fortune on political contributions. I checked its reports for 2012, and the union’s political fund had spent more than $1.3 million in just the first three-quarters of the year.

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    The FOP endorsement is already much sought after by political candidates; who doesn’t love cops? If that’s combined with the ability to write hefty checks, the union could become the 500-pound gorilla of municipal elections.

    “It would instantly make them one of the most powerful unions in the city,” Democratic strategist Mark Nevins told me.

    An old tradition

    Back in 1951, the city charter banned Philadelphia cops and firefighters from making political contributions of any kind, a restriction crafted in response to rampant corruption in the mid-20th century. The Republicans ran the city back then, and there are tales of municipal workers picking up city paychecks at the GOP headquarters, and a regular fee schedule for cops who wanted to buy departmental promotions.

    That was a long time ago, of course, and most employees are now hired and promoted under the civil service system. The firefighters sued and won a 2003 ruling that overturned their ban on political donations. The FOP has filed a similar suit.

    The cops’ argument is pretty simple: that the city ban is an unconscionable and unconstitutional violation of their right of free expression. The city and ethics board oppose the suit, arguing that there’s plenty of case law supporting the government’s ability to restrict political activity by public employees, and that police officers have a unique job that requires special treatment.

    Police officers can exercise force and coercion, and they have a lot of discretion in what they do. We really don’t want them in bed with politicians who might meddle in promotions and deployment or get special treatment, the city argues.

    Both sides made their case in briefs and arguments to U.S. District Judge Juan Sanchez. They’ve been waiting for a decision since July.

    Like I said, any time now.


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