Many people were surprised last week when the Fraternal Order of Police announced its endorsement of D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) over Mayor Marion Barry in the upcoming mayoral race. "Our city government desperately needs new and effective leadership," said FOP leader Gary Hankins, who charged Barry with "politicizing" the police department.
The day after Hankins came out with his endorsement of Schwartz, a group of black D.C. police officers denounced Hankins, claiming the union's backing of Schwartz was not valid and that Hankins' criticism of the mayor was racially motivated. According to Sgt. Lowell Duckett, a black FOP member, Hankins had not consulted the general membership before making his endorsement of Schwartz, who is white. "Most of the members of the FOP are black and they support Mayor Barry," said Duckett.
Indeed, not all the city's police officers, or all of the blacks, are members of the FOP. About 300 of them belong to the Afro-American Police Officers Association. That group's president, Ron Hampton, says, "I'm not a member of the FOP because they don't show concern about things such as dealing with the disproportionate impact of disciplinary action on black officers and better working conditions."
For her part, Schwartz applauded the endorsement, saying she was glad to have it. Barry brushed it aside, saying Hankins was "out of tune with the rank and file of the police department." Defending himself, Hankins, who is white, said the rank and file had been consulted, and he denied race was a factor in the endorsement of Schwartz.
Listening to this barrage of charge and countercharge three months before the election, the average citizen probably wonders what's going on. But a Sherlock Holmes is not needed to unravel this current political mystery.
Barry and Hankins have battled each other on a number of issues such as the city's limited residency requirement for police officers as well as salary increases for police. Earlier this year, Hankins took his fight against the residency rule to Capitol Hill.
Of course, Hankins is in a very precarious position, taking on Barry, to whom auguries have already given the November election. Moreover, the 3,300-member union that Hankins heads has nearly 65 percent black membership. At the same time, however, the FOP's powerful executive board is also predominantly white. So what we have here is a case of white leadership in a union that is mostly black, and for Hankins to make the charge that he did against Barry carries with it a risk.
One had to wonder exactly what Hankins meant when he said that Barry had used the police department for political purposes. Indeed, his charges are so serious that he should not have made them unless he had proof to present. Because he has offered no such revelations, he has left himself wide open to charges that his endorsement of Schwartz over Barry was racially motivated.
In trying to explain later what he meant when he accused Barry of using the police politically, Hankins said the mayor had used police to create the illusion in an election year that his administration is really cracking down on drugs. He said the police had used massive overtime to place extra police officers in drug corridors, rather than hire new police officers and purchase the resources to wage a long-term war on drugs.
"We're seeing our department being operated in response to the needs of the mayor for political purposes rather than professional managers with years of experience," Hankins said.
However sincere Hankins' views about Barry, it must be admitted that the example he cites is a feeble one. Real abuse might have entailed something like wiretapping a political enemy's phone lines or otherwise using the police against innocent citizens. But in an interview, Hankins didn't give any such examples. And his endorsement of Schwartz still remains unjustified for black officers such as Duckett who see Marion Barry as a progressive mayor.
"In his first term, he appointed a black chief who made the racial balance on the police force much more fair and revolutionized the composition of the upper ranks," said Duckett, adding that Chief Maurice Turner "has made tremendous inroads in the department's responsiveness to the community."
While the day of judgment for Barry will be Nov. 4, Hankins will have to face the judgment of his predominantly black union in three years. The results of both elections will be interesting.