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Insight: Battle over police pensions in U.S. cities takes ugly turn

A police officer stands guard in Times Square, New York December 29, 2013. The area is under increased security as the New Year's Eve celebr
A police officer stands guard in Times Square, New York December 29, 2013. The area is under increased security as the New Year's Eve celebr

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) - A drive by some American cities to cut costly police retirement benefits has led to an extraordinary face-off between local politicians and the law enforcement officers who work for them.

In Costa Mesa, California, lawmaker Jim Righeimer says he was a target of intimidation because he sought to curb police pensions. In a lawsuit in November, Righeimer accused the Costa Mesa police union and a law firm that once represented them, of forcing him to undergo a sobriety test (he passed) after driving home from a bar in August 2012.

That followed a call to 911 by private detective Chris Lanzillo, who worked for the police union and the law firm that represented it, according to the suit. Lanzillo is also named as a defendant, accused of following Righeimer home from the bar.

Disputes such as these have intensified as Detroit and two California cities, Stockton and San Bernardino, have gone bankrupt in the past two years. Police pension costs were a major factor in the financial troubles facing all three. Now large cities, including San Jose and San Diego, say they have no choice but to alter pension agreements lest they end up in bankruptcy too.

The suit by lawmaker Righeimer also said that an FBI raid of the law firm last October uncovered evidence that an electronic tracking device had been attached to the underside of the car driven by another lawmaker, Steve Mensinger, one of Righeimer's allies in the pension fight.

"What we are alleging is a conspiracy to gather information against political opponents", said John Manly, a lawyer representing Righeimer and Mensinger.

Calls to Lanzillo's lawyers went unanswered. Lanzillo is not listed in any public directory.

The FBI confirmed that some of its agents were present at the raid, but referred all other questions to the Orange County district attorney, which applied for the search warrant. Robert Mestman, senior deputy district attorney, said: "I cannot comment. It is a pending investigation."

The police union, the Costa Mesa Police Association, denies any knowledge of the purported tactics. It fired the law firm, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, after allegations of the harassment first surfaced. Several calls to the lawyer representing the firm, which is in the process of being wound down, went unanswered.

'IN A DIFFERENT AGE'

For many city and county governments, police are by far their largest single cost. For example, in the California city of Desert Hot Springs, which is teetering on bankruptcy, 70 percent of the budget is spent on police salaries and pensions.

"There was a time when no politician would dare to cut back on public safety, let alone their pensions," said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a specialist in police and police behavior. "Now we are in a different age."

Police union officials claim there is a push by conservative political operatives to take away promised pensions from public servants who do a physically demanding and dangerous jobs, and that police officers are being forced to pay for officials' incompetent management of city finances.

In Stockton, when then city manager Bob Deis warned in 2011 that police layoffs might be necessary, the police union bought the house next to his and immediately began noisy renovations.

"It's like being a party in a law case and the other side buys the house next to yours," said Deis, who retired late last year. He and his wife sued with allegations of intimidation, in a case that has since been settled. The noise has stopped and the police union has agreed to sell the house within two years.

The police union had also erected a giant billboard welcoming visitors to the "2nd most dangerous city in California" with Deis's phone number on it. The billboard has been taken down.

Kathryn Nance, president of the Stockton Police Officers' Association, denied that the union ever tried to intimidate Deis. "Obviously that is his opinion," Nance said. "His allegation is ridiculous, at best."

FLURRY OF PARKING TICKETS

There also have been allegations of intimidation by police in Cranston, Rhode Island.

On January 9, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung announced that state police will take over an investigation into a flurry of parking tickets issued in the wards of two council members. The pair claim the tickets were issued as retribution after they voted against a new contract for police that would have given them a pay raise.

Fung announced that Police Chief Marco Palombo Jr. had been placed on administrative leave while the Rhode Island state police investigate the parking ticket allegations.

Fung said "new allegations" had emerged about the conduct of police that was troubling, and that a number of police officers are under suspicion of misconduct.

"The Cranston police were definitely sending us a message," said Paul H. Archetto, one of the councilmen. "It's intimidation and an abuse of power."

Major Robert Ryan, a spokesman for the Cranston Police Department, said: "The matter is under investigation, and pursuant to law enforcement's bill of rights, no-one is going to comment on this."

Ryan said the police chief was unavailable for comment.

'GET DIRTY'

Police union leaders say their members are being victimized by some local politicians.

"They are using scare tactics by telling the public that cities are going broke because of public pensions," said Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents more than 325,000 officers.

"Most police officers contributed every month to their pensions. The cities in trouble did not do the same," Canterbury said. "When the economy got bad and the investment returns did not live up to the standard, all of a sudden they say it was the unions that got greedy."

Ron DeLord, a former Texas policeman and consultant to police unions in the United States and abroad said the view of many rank-and-file officers is that they are up against forces who do not wish to negotiate.

In 2008 DeLord told officers in American Police Beat Magazine to "get dirty and fight to win," by getting personal with reformist council members and to "bloody their noses."

DeLord told Reuters last month that he had learnt to be more collaborative since 2008, but said of the "get dirty" message: "I wrote it. I believe it."

(Editing by Jonathan Weber, Martin Howell and Grant McCool)

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