In what critics describe as a case of the foxes organizing the henhouse, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has gained a small but apparently solid foothold in the nation's law enforcement community.

Despite their less than saintly reputation, the Teamsters are continuing to organize police, sheriffs' deputies, prison guards and even the staffs of prosecuting attorneys in at least 15 states from Maine to California.

Even critics agree that police are turning to the Teamsters because the nation's biggest, richest union offers them bargaining muscle -- with vast resources for grievance handling --that traditional fraternal orders and other unions find it hard to match, although they are trying harder and harder to compete.

"It's purely bread and butter, and they don't really care where they get it," said Walter Oliver, director of the American Federation of State, county and Municipal Employees in Michigan, where the Teamsters have been most active and successful in organizing.

why do the Teamsters want the police?

National Teamster leaders say they are only responding to popular demand. Critics say the Teamsters are trying to buy prosecution insurance. Still others note that the Teamsters --with truck drivers constituting only about one-quarter of the union's 2.2 million members -- have organized al most anything that walks: from nurses to gravediggers, interior decorators to tugboat captains, airline pilots to bookmobile operators.

At the direction of its then-president, James R. Hoffa, the union began organizing police and other public employees about 10 years ago and now represents about 20,000 law enforcement officials, according to the union's chief police organizer, Joe Valenti, who heads Teamsters' Local 214 in Detroit and has helped organize police units in many other states.

This represents only a tiny fraction of the nation's more than 500,000 police, but each new organizing drive --mostly in small towns and suburban counties -- raisess howls of protest because of the Teamsters' reputation as the bad guys of organized labor.

Thus far, however, repeated inquiries into the conduct of Teamster-organized police forces have failed to turn up evidence of conflicts of interest attributable to Teamster membership, such as efforts to influence police action in cases involving the Teamsters, their officers or other unions.

"I've heard of no allegations, no problems at all," said Robert Pisarski, director of the State Employment Relations Commission of Michigan, where Valenti's Teamsters have organized command officers (sergeants and above) of the state police, 25 sheriffs' departments and the Flint Police Department -- about 3,000 in all.

There were misgivings, Pisarski noted, when the state police command officers announced their decision to retain the Teamsters for bargaining purposes just as police were beginning their investigation of Hoffa's disappearance and apparent murder in July, 1975. But there have been no suggestions of improper conduct in the subsequent investigation, he said.

What worries many local officials is not the past conduct of the Teamsters in their relations with police but the potential for abuse in the future from what Glen D. King, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, describes as an "inherent conflict."

"I think there is a greater concern about the Teamsters than there is about organizations that represent only police or only public employees," said King. Teamster-represented police "may find themselves in the position of enforcing the law against a member of their own organization. That's the kind of concern that I've heard expressed and that I have felt."

"You don't have to corrupt a police department to reduce its effectiveness," said John O'Brien, sheriff of Genesse County, (Flint), Mich., where the Teamsters were recently ousted by deputies after four years of affiliation but will probably try for a comeback.

O'Brien said county residents, mostly United Auto Workers members and their families, were suspicious of the Teamster-police ties. Also, he said, he fears that federal and other law enforcement agencies may be reluctant to share information in some cases with police who are Teamsters members.

Valenti -- a voluble, cigar-chomping, pistol-packing union organizer with a good bargaining-table reputation --scoffs at such talk.

"I faced the image problem when I started, but no more," said Valenti when asked in a telephone interview about the impact on organizing of repeated allegations of corruption, mobster ties and pension fraud on the part of some Teamster leaders.

Drawing a distinction between his 10,000-member public employees' local and Teamsters who have run afoul of the law, he said. "They [the police] know me and what I'm doing is honest."

He also said, in effect, that the Teamsters because they [the police] Teamsters are no more prone to violating the law than the police themselves.

"Do you know how many police are indicted every day? It's like saying you shouldn't let the police in the Teamsters because they (the police) get indicted every day," said Valenti.

Valenti, who has hired policemen to do his organizing with police, said he "can't defend an officer who doesn't put his job first" above his union membership. Police, he said, "know their job comes first."

Edward J. Kiernan, president of the rival International Conference of Police Associations, representing benevolent associations with 200,000 members, agrees with Valenti on that point.

"The cop is basically dedicated to his job, come hell or high water," said Kiernan. "If you're a cop [who is a Teamster] and you're forced to take action against a Teamster member, you're not going to be the most popular guy at the next union meeting, but you're going to do it."

Kiernan's main objection to Teamsters organizing the police? "Cops should organize cops," said Kiernan. He also believes some of the steam has gone out of the Teamster' organizing drive because the union has promised more than it delivered.

The Teamsters have had some setbacks in organizing police, and Valentin concedes that police membership gains -- once about 1,000 a year -- have tapered off. That is basically because police associations have been forced by the Teamsters to act like unions and are insisting on multi-year contracts to keep the Teamsters at bay, said Valenti.

But, although reliable statistics are not available, the gains appear to out-number the losses, according to most observers.

Police in Flint recently reaffirmed their Teamster affiliation, and San Diego, Calif., police have a bargaining contract with the union. But generally the Teamsters have more luck outside the large cities, which have well-established police associations and fraternal orders. A drive in Chicago fizzled. The union recently targeted Pennsylvania, but its drive in the Philadelphia area concentrates on suburban communities rather than the city itself, which Valenti says may come later.

The Teamsters had a big foothold among Washington area police until the Virginia Supreme Court earlier this year invalidated bargaining agreements between local governments and unions, thus running the Teamsters out of Arlington and Fairfax counties, where police had approved the union as bargaining agent.

According to Kenneth Wilson, deputy police chief in Fairfax, the only problem the county had with the Teamsters was a "deplorable" ticket-writing spree last year to force the county to approve higher wages and benefits. Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Herrity still fumes at the Teamsters, however, saying everything about the police has improved since they left.

Detective Peter Vonavita, the former union steward in Fairfax, disagrees. He says a recent unilateral decision by the county supervisors to drop a 5 per cent pay differential for investigate work (which has since been modified) would not have been possible if the Teamsters still represebted the police.

In the Washington area, the Teamsters now represent the National Airport police and Metro subway police.