Infighting and fragmentation among the state's police associations have helped erode the quality of professional life for peace officers, say Salt Lake Valley police union officials.
A new coalition of police associations hopes to prove that trend isn't destiny. Unions are setting aside their differences while they search the Legislature for sponsors for a package of new bills designed to enhance line officers' rights and protection.And while they claim the associations aren't necessarily seeking political power, the coalition's leaders say working together on the legislation can only help them win support for their proposals.
Two unions - the Salt Lake Police Association and the Sandy Police Alliance - recently affiliated with the International Police Unions Association, an AFL-CIO union. Other local police associations are members of the Utah State Fraternal Order of Police. Some have no affiliation to larger organizations.
The IPUA and the FOP, two very different unions, both want non-affiliated Utah police associations to join with them. "We're kind of in competition," said West Valley Police Detective Bill Salmon, state FOP president.
But they are setting aside that competition for the sake of political action, he said.
Dave Greer, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, and Al Avila, Sandy Police Alliance spokesman, both said they look to firefighters - other public protectors who work under extraordinarily hazardous conditions - as their example as they work to build their coalition.
With their long history of international union affiliation, "firefighters seem to have achieved their successes because of their unity and purpose," Greer said. "Police officers in this state have always been very fragmented."
However, he said, "I hate to look at (the coalition's goal) as power. I prefer to look at it as working for the common good. Where a union has introduced something that only benefits one union, it has not been successful."
Of the bills the coalition is drafting, only one - a reinstatement of disability retirement for peace officers injured on the job - would have a fiscal impact on the state, Avila said.
As recently as 1986, police officers could retire before they put in 20 years if they had job-related medical disabilities. That changed in 1987, when the Legislature amended the Public Employee Disability Act.
Union officials didn't know peace officers had lost this benefit until recently, Avila said.
"Every year, it seems like we lose something," he said. "They (legislators) talk a lot about crime and doing something about it. Now we want them to show some support for the people who are doing something about it."
The other bills the coalition is proposing would:
- Increase the penalties for assault on a police officer. Avila said the coalition would like to see the offense changed from a misdemeanor to a felony.
- Strengthen the statute making it illegal to impersonate a police officer. Avila said officers stopping suspects frequently find fake badges, so-called "Kojak" lights that simulate police lights and other phony police paraphernalia in their possession. Enhancing this statute would protect primarily the potential victims of police impersonators, Avila said.
- Establish a Police Officers' Bill of Rights.
- Set up a series of steps for disciplinary actions similar to those other public employees go through. For example, Avila said, though a public employer normally must show cause for discipline or firing of a worker, police departments can suspend an officer for any reason, and the officer has no right of appeal. Nor is there a counterpart to the Miranda warning - an explanation of constitutional rights routinely read to criminal suspects - for police officers under investigation, he said.
"There are no parameters, no guidelines now," Avila said. "This (bill) isn't to protect officers who screw up. All we're saying is give us respect during the investigatory phase by giving us the same basic rights a criminal would have."
- Establish collective bargaining for police associations. Under Utah law, collective bargaining exists only if the public employer allows it. Salt Lake City has the only police department in the state with the right to bargain collectively. Other cities have unions, but they don't have negotiation rights.
Avila said this bill could include a provision forbidding police to go on strike. Greer added that the bargaining unit would not necessarily need a union affiliation.