Police unions donate heavily to Sacramento politicians. Are our leaders ‘rolling over’?

Flojaune Cofer sat at the front of an empty Sacramento City Council chamber earlier this month. She was disgusted.

The City Council had passed a budget weeks earlier that included $157 million for the Sacramento Police Department – an all-time high, despite officials calling it a “status quo” pandemic spending plan.

A Black woman who lives in south Sacramento and is head of the Measure U Citizens Advisory Committee, she felt she had let her community down. She wanted to make sure new sales tax money from the Measure U ballot measure went toward uplifting disadvantaged neighborhoods as city politicians had promised it would.

During an impassioned 12-minute speech during a committee meeting broadcast online, she broached a topic rarely discussed by anyone sitting at the City Council dais: the power and influence of the Sacramento Police Officers Association (SPOA).

“I’m sorry that the people don’t have a well-paid union that’s contributing to people’s campaigns and making stuff happen,” Cofer told Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “I’m sorry about that. But that’s the reality and it’s our job to protect against that. What I see here is us rolling over and playing dead at a time when we should be fighting.”

Yet despite those pleas – and the growing calls from activists, community members and protesters to “defund the police” – the City Council has not removed a dollar from the police budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. In fact, the council voted this month to use $2.5 million in Measure U revenue on a gunshot detection system the police department often touts as a crime-fighting tool.

Cutting police funding would require elected officials to break ranks with law enforcement unions, an influential special interest group. And in Sacramento, those unions carry significant clout.

Law enforcement unions have given roughly $305,000 to City Council members, candidates and ballot measures over the last decade; that includes nearly $265,000 from the city police union, according to campaign finance records. Since 2016, the unions have donated $67,700 to Steinberg and the Measure U campaign committee he led. Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, the longest-tenured council member in Sacramento and a strong ally of public safety groups, has received $69,458 since her first election in 2010.

Since 2015, law enforcement unions have donated more than $196,000 to candidates running for the county Board of Supervisors and Sheriff, including current officials. The vast majority of those donations, more than $173,000, are from unions that represent Sacramento Sheriff’s deputies and managers. County campaign finance data is available online going back to 2015.

District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who is tasked with deciding whether law enforcement officers should face criminal charges when they use deadly force, has received at least $135,000 from law enforcement unions in her campaigns since 2016, including about $95,000 from unions representing Sacramento officers and deputies.

Now, amid national protests against police brutality, and as local elected officials have refused to take immediate steps to “defund the police,” those donations are the subject of increased scrutiny.

The pledge

A wave of Sacramento elected officials and candidates are doing something unusual: publicly shunning police unions.

On June 11, Councilwoman-Elect Katie Valenzuela, Sacramento City Unified School Board member Mai Vang, San Juan Unified School District member Zima Creason and American River Flood Control District member Tamika L’Ecluse started an online petition. They pledged not to accept campaign donations from law enforcement unions. So far, 12 elected officials and 10 candidates in the region have signed.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to show they’re open to change,” said Valenzuela, who will be sworn into the council seat representing midtown, downtown and Land Park in December. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to be open to talking to police or still meeting with officers and engaging in discussion. It’s just one small step to take to show independence.”

So far, no Sacramento City Council members or Sacramento County Board of Supervisors have signed on. But some told The Sacramento Bee they support the idea.

Councilman Allen Warren, who’s running for re-election in November, will not accept law enforcement donations in the future, he told The Bee. He has not accepted those donations since 2013, when the SPOA gave his campaign $5,000, campaign finance records show.

“I had no idea they gave money in 2013,” Warren said after learning of the donation from a reporter. “I would’ve given it back.”

Warren, a real estate developer who’s represented north Sacramento since 2012, said he mostly self funds his campaigns. He plans to donate the $5,000 to an African American organization.

Warren’s opponent, grocery store owner Sean Loloee, has not so far received police donations, campaign records show.

Gregg Fishman, the Democratic candidate for Susan Peters’ seat on the Board of Supervisors, has also pledged not to accept law enforcement money. When he learned from a reporter of a $250 donation from the county sheriff’s deputies association he received in 2017 while running for the SMUD board, Fishman said he would donate it to the local chapter of Black Women Organized for Political Action.

Rich Desmond, his opponent and a former California Highway Patrol chief, has been endorsed by all major law enforcement unions in Sacramento. He’s already received at least $16,000 in direct donations from law enforcement unions. In February, the county sheriff deputies association spent nearly $44,000 on mailers supporting Desmond’s election during the March primary. Desmond did not return requests for comment.

Why do police unions donate?

Unlike Warren, most candidates for local office are unable to fund their own campaigns and may be in greater need of donations where they can get them, including police unions, said Andrew Acosta, who has managed several local campaigns.

“It’s unsavory but sometimes politics is unsavory,” Acosta said. “If you’re not a billionaire or a millionaire and you can’t write a check, and if your neighbors aren’t going to write a check, you could get a check from a labor union and it could be $1,000.”

The Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Association endorses and donates to candidates who ask for it and also “have a broad enough experience base to understand how detrimental it is to the safety of our residents to underfund our deputies,” union president Sgt. Kevin Mickelson said in a statement.

“We will proudly continue to donate to the candidates who will prioritize the safety of our members and residents and will not pander to those who erode our quality of life,” Mickelson wrote.

SPOA president Officer Timothy Davis agreed.

“The first amendment protects the right of all people to join together and express their ideas, advocate for causes they espouse, and support candidates who best represent their ideals,” Davis wrote in a statement. “The SPOA supports the right of all organizations to be active in the political process. It is the diversity of thoughts and ideas that can best heal our communities and advance the freedoms of our nation.”

Many of the people who have signed the pledge against donations would not have received law enforcement union money anyway “due to conflicting ideals,” Mickelson wrote.

“It’s easy to take a pledge to say you’ll go without something that was never yours to begin with,” Mickelson wrote.

Vang said she turned down a police endorsement ahead of the March City Council primary.

“I wasn’t going to take their money,” Vang said. “It’s important for me to maintain independence when I’m talking about re-imagining a world not dependent on law enforcement.”

Davis said Vang in fact did seek the union’s endorsement and donations.

“She received the SPOA endorsement,” Davis said in a statement. “She then requested, but we declined, to give her any donations.”

Vang said she never asked for SPOA money.

Voter views on police unions vary

Traditionally, Sacramento voters have viewed police union endorsements as desirable and influential in City Council races, said Steve Cohn, a former councilman. That’s also true in more conservative areas of Sacramento County.

“(Voters) thought, ‘OK you’re for public safety,’” Cohn said.

Even in District 8, which includes south Sacramento neighborhoods where some residents are critical of “over policing,” Councilman Larry Carr accepted $9,500 in police union money in 2016 and 2018. His predecessor Bonnie Pannell also accepted it.

But that’s about to change. Carr is not seeking re-election. Both candidates vying for his seat in the November election, Vang and Pastor Les Simmons, a longtime Black community activist, have signed the pledge.

The district includes Meadowview, where police killed Stephon Clark in 2018 and where local Black Lives Matter founder Tanya Faison said residents are harassed by officers. Faison said the culture of over policing also exists in Del Paso Heights, a neighborhood represented by Warren.

In those neighborhoods, residents are more likely to have had negative interactions with police, Cohn said. But in other districts, voters may be more likely to view police support as a positive.

According to a recent city survey, 83 percent of residents said uninterrupted police, fire and emergency medical services were extremely or very important.

“Saying they have police at their back is similar to saying firefighters are supporting you,” said Sacramento County Young Democrats’ communication director Ryan Brown, who also works as Vang’s campaign manager. “It’s a good way to encourage voters, which tend to trend older or conservative.”

An influence on the ‘defund’ debate?

In the weeks following the national protests against police brutality sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, one call for change has emerged as the loudest in Sacramento and across the country: defund the police.

In Sacramento, the debate takes on additional weight, as it could mean restoring some of the Measure U sales tax revenue originally promised to uplift the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Activists here are not calling for officials to completely eliminate the police department or Sheriff’s Office. Instead, they want elected officials to remove a portion of those budgets and reallocate money toward services for youth, mental health or inclusive economic development.

Nearly 400 people wrote to the city’s Measure U Committee earlier this month asking for officials to defund the police.

Cofer, the committee chair, is calling on the council to remove $45.7 million in 2012 and 2018 Measure U money that’s budgeted for the police in the fiscal year that starts July 1. That plea is supported by the Build.Black. Coalition, a group of prominent Black community leaders. Valenzuela led a charge for the council to start with slashing at least $10 million before July 1.

The police department’s $157.5 million budget has increased from $131.6 million since the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

So far, no council members have publicly stated they want to defund the police. Steinberg has proposed a 911 system overhaul that would result in at least $10 million being removed from the police budget within two years. The council plans to discuss that proposal, along with Steinberg’s desire to hire a city inspector general, on July 1, the first day of the new budget year.

“I was not, and expect I never will be, a favored candidate of the police union,” Steinberg said in a statement. “The substantive policing reforms I’ve proposed are just the beginning of my effort to make sure we provide not just equity in policing but equity and opportunity for everyone – in every aspect of life. As a city, we need to start viewing all our major decisions through a racial and gender equity lens, and I will embrace and drive this transformation during the remaining years of my term.”

Davis, the SPOA president, raised concerns with the mayor’s 911 proposal, saying it “clearly reflects a lack of understanding about the underlying issues.”

“Those in crisis need more services, not less,” Davis said in a statement. “Taking the responsibility away from police officers and giving it to social workers will not solve anything. We need a partnership between law enforcement and social workers, as well as triage centers and long-term services to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.”

Black leaders have said Steinberg’s proposals are a good start, but do not go far enough because they do not remove enough from the police budget and won’t happen quickly enough.

Cofer said the campaign support could be “creating a hesitation” among council members to move money away from the police, even amid national and local outcry.

“I think the influence that comes along is a hesitance to act when one could,” Cofer said. “I think this is an example of our elected leaders being in a moment and hesitating.”

The Board of Supervisors has approved a placeholder budget and the county’s updated spending plan won’t be released until August.

At a recent board meeting, county staff read more than two hours of public comment, with most calling on supervisors to direct Sheriff’s Office funding toward affordable housing, community programs or mental health services. The previous day, protesters rallied outside the county administration building for hours, urging the same message.

The Sheriff’s Office takes up the largest portion of the county budget, with county officials allocating more than $276 million toward the department last year. That’s a decrease from a decade high of more than $465 million in 2017, but still more funding than what it received prior to the Great Recession, when budgets were slashed across departments.

Board chairman Phil Serna said what the county chooses to fund is the clearest expression of its priorities.

Past actions by Sheriff Jones — locking out a former Inspector General tasked with investigating police shootings, prioritizing the concealed gun permits program, the lack of body cameras for deputies — led Sena to vote no last year on the Sheriff’s Office budget, he said. He again voted no this month on the budget extension.

Unlike a police chief in a city, Sheriff Jones is an elected official, Serna pointed out.

“It changes the political dynamic and administrative dynamic, and it’s the only point in time on a regular basis the five of us (on the board) can exert influence on his office and on him,” Serna said.

A slippery slope?

Acosta raised questions about the need to remove police union money from City Council and Board of Supervisors campaigns.

“I think with politics and money, it really becomes a slippery slope,” Acosta said. “Are they going to tell school board members they can’t take money from teachers’ unions?”

Vang said some people have been telling her the pledge to decline police union money is anti-union or anti-labor. Valenzuela, who’s heard the same, said the pledge’s purpose is strictly for police union money.

Valenzuela and Vang received donations from SEIU 1021, a union that represents employees in local governments, nonprofits, health care programs and schools throughout Northern California. Vang also received $5,580 from the city’s firefighter union.

Council members who have received support from the police unions said there is no quid pro quo attached to the donations.

Ashby said she never lets her campaign account drop so low that she is unable to refund a donation if someone asks for something in return.

“If somebody calls me and tells me they expect me to vote a certain way because of a campaign contribution, I will gladly write them their check back,” Ashby said. “There’s no amount of money that can be given to me that will make me vote outside my moral conscience.”

Ashby and Carr are proposing a set of police reforms Tuesday, including requiring the police department to update its threshold for deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary” to align with a new state law ahead of the Jan. 1 deadline.

That new state law, Assembly Bill 392, touted as the strongest standard for police use of force, was co-sponsored by former City Council member Kevin McCarty, now a state assemblyman. McCarty received police union money while on the council.

This session, he’s introduced a bill that would allow local law enforcement agencies and district attorneys to more regularly request the attorney general to launch a formal review of situations when an officer used force that resulted in death or harm.

Police donations to district attorneys

Warren said police should not be allowed to donate to district attorneys, and wants the council to pass a resolution to support that change statewide.

Dave Gilliard, District Attorney Schubert’s campaign manager, said the criticism that the donations create a conflict of interest is “very unfair.”

“She is sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of California and she’s got a very good reputation for doing that,” Gilliard said. “She doesn’t consider donations at all or support when making these decisions and she’s got a very good track record of clamping down on law enforcement officials or officers when they do commit crimes.”

From January 2015 through March 2019, Schubert’s office reviewed 33 police shootings and only filed charges in one. Among the officers she cleared were Jared Robinet and Terrence Mercadal, the officers who fatally shot Clark, and the deputies who fatally shot unarmed Black man Mikel McIntyre on Highway 50 while he was having a mental health crisis.

However, she has in the past prosecuted officers for filing false reports, excessive force and attempting rape, Gilliard said. He also noted Schubert prosecuted Golden State Killer suspect Joseph James DeAngelo, a former Auburn police officer.

In addition to the Sacramento donations, Schubert in 2017 and 2018 received $20,000 from the Los Angeles Police Protective League, $5,000 from the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs State PAC, $3,000 from the San Francisco Police Officers Association and $2,000 from the Placer County Deputy Sheriffs Association.

“It would be disingenuous to say that a large campaign contribution has zero affect on a candidate,” said Cohn. “Obviously they’re at least going to return a phone call from someone that makes a large campaign contribution.”

Cofer said she expects the vast majority of council members will continue to accept police union donations because they have aspirations for higher political offices.

“The ghost of elections future is haunting us,” Cofer said.

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