Police union lawyers navigate controversy

Will Aitchinson

In December, the nearly six-year legal saga of Portland Police officer Ronald Frashour, who fatally shot a mentally ill man named Aaron Campbell in the back, concluded when the Oregon Court of Appeals ordered the city to put him back to work.

For lawyers on the case, it was a familiar outcome.

Between them, Will Aitchison and Anil Karia had been involved with nearly every major controversy involving the Portland Police Bureau in the past 37 years. In most cases that go to arbitration, they win.

And now they are officially on the same team.

Aitchison, the former longtime lawyer for the union representing Portland police officers, has formally joined forces with his successor Karia, the lawyer who took over Portland Police Association representation in 2011.

“Will Aitchison is sort of a legend, and Anil Karia is an up-and-coming legend so that’s a natural partnership,” says Daryl Turner, president of the Portland officers’ union.

Already, Aitchison is credited with reshaping the way police officers are represented up and down the West Coast, starting in the 1980s. Now, he and Karia hope to use their new firm, Public Safety Labor Group, P.C., to offer their sophisticated blend of police advocacy nationwide. They’ll offer consulting on a national level to unions, supplementing the training Aitchison already offers to thousands of police every year.

City losing cases

Their new practice provides a window into the controversial area of police discipline. There, the city of Portland has had a string of highly public cases reversed, ranging from the unsuccessful termination of Frashour to the overturned discipline of Scott McCollister, the officer who killed Kendra James during a stop turned bad.

Aitchison says he still is passionate, even angry, when he considers the plight of police officers today. They pursue a complicated job where they are expected to make split-second decisions about the use of force that are subject to intense scrutiny and “instantaneous judgment” by the public, he says. “Heaven help us if any of us are put to that same test.”

Akin Blitz of Bullard Law frequently represents management against Aitchison and lawyers like him. He says Aitchison has helped Portland by protecting hard-working officers and enforcing a level of fairness that city officials have to meet.

“He’s smart, he’s professional, he’s ethical, he’s a diligent advocate and he engages in give and take,” Blitz says, calling Aitchison one of the best police labor lawyers in the country. Management lawyers who are fair, Blitz says, “should be able to deal with him. Otherwise you’re just going to lose for your client.”

Progressive background

The generally liberal or left-leaning critics of police are faced with an interesting quandary in going against Aitchison, who describes himself as a champion of basic civil and employment rights.

His early encounters with police were spent “running from them” during anti-war demonstrations at the University of Oregon, he says. He spent parts of 12 years litigating on behalf of the ACLU, suing to fight religious influence in the realm of government-funded health care. Even today, he uses his Facebook page to alert police to the leading Republican presidential candidates’ hostility toward unions.

“I think that it’s always a tough situation for people in the progressive community dealing with the police association,” says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, “because we think that every worker has the right to bargain for rights for their retirement and health and safety.”

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO - Will Aitchison, shown at his office, has pioneered police union representation on the West Coast.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO – Will Aitchison, shown at his office, has pioneered police union representation on the West Coast.

But he says with the help of people like Aitchison, police unions are having too much influence on public policy. “When they come up with all sorts of ways to keep someone who’s taken someone else’s life from being disciplined, that’s the problem,” Handelman says.

It’s public policy and politics where Aitchison and Karia hope to make their mark. In addition to representing unions on day-to-day matters, they hope to offer consulting on issues like negotiating contracts, developing relationships with community activists and elected officials, and coping with federal oversight such as that exerted by the U.S. Department of Justice over the Portland Police Bureau.

“Representing police unions involves this intersection of traditional labor law and politics,” Karia says.

Won possum case

Aitchison learned that lesson soon after gaining the union as a client at the tender age of 29.

In 1981, Portland officers dumped dead possums at the door of a black-owned business, Burger Barn. The owner called it an act of racism, and the community was outraged.

Aitchison’s partners weren’t happy, and urged him to dump his client.

Instead, Aitchison won the case, presenting evidence that the incident was a bit of nonracist humor gone awry.

Other police unions began to sign up with him. Meanwhile, he became known for mustering data-driven presentations and salary information from comparable cities to win over arbitrators in contract disputes.

“He pulls out a computer, and he can fill a room with graphics and anecdotal data like nobody I know,” says Blitz, the management lawyer.

Among other things, Blitz says, Aitchison honed an argument that became an industry standard: Police officers’ jobs are much harder than others, so they need a specialist to represent them — someone like Aitchison.

“The marketing was brilliant,” Blitz says.

Supplanting other unions

With Aitchison’s success came controversy.

Police employees up and down the West Coast disaffiliated from the Teamsters and AFL-CIO unions to set up independent associations like Portland’s — unions represented by Aitchison’s firm rather than their own permanent staff.

Larger unions suspected Aitchison was raiding their membership, recalls Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain, who formerly headed the Portland Firefighters Association.

Chamberlain says Aitchison is a “nice guy.” But the AFL-CIO leader says such independent unions run counter to the best interests of working people, who benefit from a united movement pushing for change. Firefighters have done just as well while remaining allied with large unions, he says.

Aitchison says the disaffiliation of police from larger unions is a national trend dating back to the 1919 Boston police strike.

He concedes his availability and growing reputation may have helped prompt some unions to become independent.

“It’s sometimes referred to as the attorney model” of police representation, he says. “It’s practiced all over the country; I didn’t invent it.”

Starting in 2010, he went into semi-retirement, handing off the PPA to Karia, who was just getting his start in labor law. Though the two didn’t share a firm, Aitchison mentored Karia, and the two have stayed in touch. They worked on the Frashour case together.

Aitchison, 65, and Karia, 37, come from different generations, with different communications styles. Karia is smart, ethical and hard working, says Blitz.

In addition to his success in disciplinary arbitrations and contract negotiations, Aitchison has helped propagate features of policing that are controversial, such as the 48-hour rule that prohibits officers from being interviewed in a police investigation until two days have passed.

Critics say that rule allows officers time to get their story straight with the help of their union. The U.S. Department of Justice blasted the provision in Portland’s labor contract.

Aitchison didn’t invent the 48-hour rule, he says. But he has spread the arguments in favor of it.

Handelman cites the rule as an example of his beef with police unions. He recalls Aitchison arguing that eliminating the 48-hour rule before interviewing officers would make it harder to prosecute officers criminally, since they would no longer be cooperating voluntarily.

“He was just trying to find a way to make it seem like (activists) are being unreasonable,” Handelman says, “when it’s actually the police association that’s being unreasonable, by bringing up ridiculous canards.”

While Aitchison and Karia have drawn attention over decisions overturning discipline, Hank Kaplan, a prominent Portland labor lawyer, says the attention paid to Portland’s record in arbitration is misplaced.

“When it comes to discipline cases, police unions aren’t that much different than other unions,” Kaplan says. “Frankly, it’s not unusual for the unions to win most of the arbitrations because the unions are very careful” and don’t challenge a lot of firings.

Aitchison is proudest of his work to simplify labor law to make it understandable for people on both sides of the labor-management table. He’s written nine textbooks on the subject, and continues to give seminars. He and Karia will speak in Las Vegas later this month.

“When I look out at a seminar and see a police chief sitting next to a police union president from the same city, hearing the same information, I am thrilled. I think that makes for a much better product in terms of what is delivered to the citizens of a city.”