Union attacks on Baltimore police commissioner damage department

The “open” letter recently sent to members of Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) by FOP president Mike Mancuso criticizing Baltimore police commissioner Michael Harrison was a bad idea. The last thing that Baltimore needs right now is the FOP leader picking a public fight with the police commissioner.

The letter castigated Mr. Harrison for the absence of a crime-reduction plan and for failing to recognize the gravity of the disturbance at the Inner Harbor over the Memorial Day weekend. It denounced him for the news conference announcing criminal charges against Sgt. Ethan Newberg.

But it is one sentence that tells us what the letter was really about. Addressing his membership, Mr. Mancuso stated that “to this day [Mr. Harrison] has said very little about what he plans to do for you.”

The FOP represents officers of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) in the ranks of lieutenant and below. The FOP has made positive contributions; some of the recommendations it made in 2016 for reform of the BPD were excellent. But too often it has fomented animosity between rank-and-file officers and police management, trying to intimidate commissioners by exploiting the “us vs. them” mentality that helped destroy the department.

The letter was not about a crime plan or a news conference. It was about power and the attitude of FOP leaders that public officials are either with them or against them. In their worldview, if the police commissioner doesn’t support the FOP unconditionally, he is against them.

You can date the end of the honeymoon between the FOP and Mr. Harrison to March 15, 2019, when Mr. Harrison went to Annapolis to dissuade the city delegation to the General Assembly from supporting House Bill 1251. According to Mr. Mancuso, Mr. Harrison’s testimony turned the tide against the bill, which never made it out of committee.

H.B. 1251 was introduced at the request of the FOP. The FOP was stung by what it saw as strong-arm tactics in November 2018 when members of the City Council threatened to pare down the scope of collective bargaining if the union refused to sign a new collective bargaining agreement containing changes to shift schedules. The threat worked, and the FOP approved the agreement.

As it happens, H.B. 1251 was a terrible bill. It would have superseded the authority of the City Council and allowed the union to take all disputed terms and conditions of employment to binding arbitration, removing considerable authority over departmental policies from the commissioner at the worst possible time.

The immediate object of Mr. Mancuso’s wrath after defeat of the bill was city solicitor Andre Davis, to whom he sent another “open” letter. Among other things Mr. Mancuso accused Mr. Davis of “blessing” Mr. Harrison’s testimony against the bill. If Mr. Mancuso’s letter about Mr. Harrison was petulant, his letter to Mr. Davis was vituperative.

The letter to Mr. Davis was written when Mr. Davis’ boss, former mayor Catherine Pugh, had one foot out the door because of the “Healthy Holly” scandal. Smelling blood, Mr. Mancuso seized the opportunity to go after the city solicitor. He is now signaling that he is willing to do the same to punish the police commissioner for defying the union.

Mr. Mancuso knows that this is a vulnerable time for Mr. Harrison, who is under increasing pressure to produce results. It was inevitable, given the carnage wrought by an unrelenting epidemic of violent crime, that city residents and officials would grow impatient with the time required to stand up an effective, law-abiding police force.

It also is a vulnerable time for the city, however, given that Mr. Harrison is the last best hope to save the BPD. Mr. Mancuso has a responsibility not to make his job even harder by whipping up personal animosity by his members toward the commissioner.

City and state leaders must make it clear that there will be consequences if Mr. Mancuso fails to live up to that responsibility. Those consequences include following through on the threat to impose reasonable limits on the scope of collective bargaining between the city and the police union which, by the way, would be an excellent idea.

Mr. Mancuso and other FOP leaders can advance the legitimate interests of their members without publicly criticizing the commissioner when they don’t get their way.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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