In politics, there’s a maxim that says you keep your friends close but your enemies closer. But what if it becomes easier to simply turn a potential enemy into a friend?
That was the most pressing among many questions the Fraternal Order of Police wrestled with at a recent membership meeting, where much of the discussion revolved around whether their recently-elected chairman should be driving a fully equipped police car, compliments of the chief of police.
FOP Chairman Matthew Mahl was elected earlier this year on a promise to change the union’s approach to labor-management negotiations. With 3,500 members still smarting from a protracted salary dispute and various entrenched battles, Mahl convinced a majority that an acrimonious relationship between previous leadership and Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier had run its course. Once elected, he announced that the FOP would not be fighting tooth and nail over every grievance and unfair labor practice allegation, and would not be endorsing political candidates or engaging in political activity such as distributing campaign fliers, mailers, or television advertisements.
Certainly Mahl faced skeptics if not detractors from the start, but a red flag went up on May 10, when he sent out a tweet with a photograph of MPD Scout Car #852, a fully equipped 2016 Ford Taurus estimated at $40,000, with a caption that read: “MPD has given the Union a scout car to use for membership purposes. Symbolic of a new era between MPD and the Union.” Word of the gifted vehicle spread quickly throughout the department, according to numerous sworn members, causing ripples of dissent.
In an interview with City Paper for a May 26 cover story about increased attrition of the police force, Mahl said he asked Lanier for the car, and she delivered it. “I’m still a policeman,” said Mahl, whose salary is paid by the department. “There are rumors about me giving up something, but that’s not the case.”
Mahl’s stance was complicated by the fact that the union had already purchased for his use a brand new Dodge Charger, fully equipped for police emergencies, at a cost of roughly $40,000. Matters got even worse for Mahl when members learned that FOP Secretary James White was taking the marked car home at night.
The issue came to a head at the FOP’s first quadrennial meeting on June 14, attended by about 100 sworn members. Numerous sources who attended the meeting say members peppered Mahl with questions about the car, among other things. Mahl explained White’s use of the car by saying that the law requires it to be parked overnight in the District. (Mahl lives in Virginia.) “That excuse didn’t fly with me,” a veteran sergeant tells City Paper. “Why does he even need a marked car when we just bought him a new [unmarked] one?”
The meeting culminated with a near-unanimous vote of the members present that Mahl return the scout car, according to numerous attendees. (White abstained.) Members derided him and White for appearing at a union meeting in uniform as if “they’re one with management,” and shouted their disapproval. Mahl reportedly returned the car, though neither he nor Lanier would confirm it or respond to questions about the procurement process or legal or financial implications of the gift.
Take-home cars have been a bone of contention in the past. In her “Chief Concerns” column in the MPD newsletter The Dispatch, Lanier denied rumors in 2008 that she had sold two Dodge Chargers with light bars and radios to the FOP, stating: “First of all let me clarify that as the Chief of Police, I have no authority to sell any property belonging to the Metropolitan Police Department or the District of Columbia government. Also, I have no authority or influence over what the FOP Labor Committee purchases…Again, these purchases were not made through any MPD procurement process.”
Ron DeLord, a former law enforcer and a nationally recognized police union consultant, says that Mahl is swimming in rough waters. He cites examples of union heads getting too close to management, whether it be a cushy job, an office next to the chief, trips, or gifts. He recommends that unions buy their own cars. “The line is very fine,” DeLord says. “Membership is evolving. They see society as being against them. Someone has to speak out for them, but if their leaders get too cozy with the chief it can damage relations. I tell ‘em, ‘Just remember, there are officers out there on the midnight shift, and if they think you’re too comfortable, you could be gone.’”
The scout car is but one issue that has alienated his members. Previous leaders doggedly defended members’ rights to a fault. For years, the union persistently filed grievances about violations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, challenges to major policies such as the mandatory detail known as “All Hands on Deck,” Freedom of Information appeals and lawsuits, and appeals of officer discipline. When Mahl took over, he announced he would suspend class grievances and dial back on formal protests.
One of the first things he did was to reach a “joint decision” with Lanier to relent on six of the 25 cases pending before the Public Employee Review Board based on “lack of merit,” which raised questions about what the FOP got in return. “He’s supposed to be taking care of those cases,” the veteran sergeant says. “One of ‘em was ready to go to a judge. He makes the excuse of ‘no meri’t? Then why is it there in the first place?”
A reason many cite to explain a wave of early retirements and resignations is a bitter salary fight that left members without a raise for seven years. When the FOP finally negotiated a raise, it claimed the raise should be retroactive. Litigation over the dispute is before the D.C. Court of Appeals. Yet Mahl decided it was time to drop the appeal. The FOP’s Executive Council overruled Mahl’s decision in a 16-3 vote.
Mahl’s public stance with Lanier has been troubling to officers who attended the June 14 meeting. Early on, the two exchanged compliments and hailed a newfound spirit of cooperation. Mahl spoke candidly if not critically about Lanier in an interview with City Paper in May, going so far as to opine about the chief’s future at the helm of the MPD. Days after the story ran, Lanier went on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU to discuss a column in Washingtonian about the racial makeup of the police force. When the subject of attrition came up, Mahl called in, claimed his comments were taken out of context, and echoed Lanier’s responses to questions about the issue. “Why is our union head sucking up to the chief?” asks one veteran patrol officer. (Neither Mahl nor Lanier contacted City Paper to claim any inaccuracies or mischaracterizations in the May 26 story.)
And even as Mahl has become more vocal in the media, some members question whose interests he is serving. On a number of occasions he has been quoted speaking on department-wide issues such as the readiness to thwart an Orlando-like attack, almost as if he was speaking for the department. Last weekend he was quoted in a Washington Post editorial criticizing several District agencies for their failure to monitor violent offenders who are under court-ordered supervision. “GPS mishaps or ‘soft target’ strategies should be the least of his concerns when we’ve lost 1,000 cops in less than three years,” a veteran union representative says.
While Mahl has struggled, Lanier has grown more comfortable. She recently began to issue Executive Orders without going through the bargaining process, which union sources say is a violation of the CBA. The perception is that she is testing Mahl and his leadership skills to see how far she can marginalize the FOP. “She broke the backs of the members and Mahl happened to be there at the right place at the right time,” one shop steward told City Paper.
DeLord says everyone runs on change, but then experiences a learning curve. “What can he get done that the other guy couldn’t?” he says. “Major city chiefs are political animals, and the best ones can be tough. He needs to tell her, ‘You can do this tomorrow and they’ll be happy.’”
Clarification: The story misidentified an FOP member who, after voicing his displeasure, stormed out to applause at the June meeting of the FOP members. It was not Mahl or FOP Secretary James White.