What’s in Store for Philly’s Police Union in 2017

We talk with FOP head John McNesby about looming contract talks, the union's growing political clout, and what President Trump might mean for policing in Philly.
Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby looks ahead to a busy 2017.

Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby (left) looks ahead to a busy 2017 that will include supporting a candidate to unseat District Attorney Seth Williams (center), working with state Rep. Martina White (top, right) on a bill that addresses police shootings, and dealing with the uncertain fallout of president-elect Donald Trump’s administration.

John McNesby sounds like he’s in a good mood when he picks up the phone a few days before Christmas. The president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 is tending to some odds and ends around the office, putting the finishing touches on what has proven to be an interesting year for the union and the 6,100 or so members who make up Philadelphia’s police force.

The Democratic National Convention was a high point. The whole country watched, fully expecting the poisonous presidential race to lead to chaos on the streets outside of the Wells Fargo Center. But cops and demonstrators found a way to peacefully coexist, even as they marched up and down Broad Street in a punishing heat wave.

There were low points — like the ambush attacks on Officer Jesse Hartnett and Sgt. Sylvia Young, who both survived getting shot by deranged gunmen at point-blank range — and other moments that were harder to characterize. The union followed the direction of the national FOP and endorsed Donald Trump’s tough-talking “I am the law-and-order candidate” platform, but Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton wasn’t universally celebrated by FOP members; some minority officers, in particular, were outraged that Trump had the union’s support.

Next year is shaping up to be an even busier one. The union will continue to leverage its growing political clout, starting with the looming race for district attorney. McNesby told me months ago that the union wouldn’t back Seth Williams in his bid for a third term. “Who’s Seth?” he asks now, letting the sarcastic jab hang in the air for a few seconds.

McNesby, you might remember, accused Williams of “going south” on an investigation into former Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who’d been accused of assaulting a couple of off-duty cops during a brawl in an Old City nightclub. The union boss and the D.A. had other dustups here and there, and McNesby has been critical of the multiple controversies that have bogged down Williams’s tenure.

The field of Democratic candidates is already crowded; former city managing director Rich Negrin, former federal prosecutor Joe Khan, and former Municipal Court judge Teresa Carr Deni have already thrown their hats into the ring. “Whoever we decide to stand behind, we’ll make sure we do everything we can to make sure that candidate is successful,” McNesby says.

Since suing the city in 2011 for the right to make campaign donations, the FOP has made shrewd forays into the political world. The union endorsed Jim Kenney during the 2015 Democratic mayoral primary race while also making it clear to the then-candidate that its leaders preferred he choose a police commissioner from inside the department, like Richard Ross, instead of launching a national search.

The union was also the driving force behind state Rep. Martina White’s winning a special election in 2015 for a seat in Northeast Philly’s 170th District. One of her first actions was to introduce a bill that would prohibit anyone from releasing the name of any police officer involved in a shooting for at least 30 days, overriding a 72-hour policy implemented by former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill, which was roundly criticized by reform-minded activists and Ross alike as a step backward for transparency. But it had already passed through the House and the Senate with veto-proof majorities; expect it to be revived in 2017. “We’ll get it through,” McNesby says breezily. “If [Wolf] vetoes it again, we’ll override it.” White was re-elected in November, attracting 54 percent of the vote over Democrat Matthew Darragh, who was endorsed by President Barack Obama, Kenney, and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“We had a lot of major people against us in that race, and we won in a landslide,” McNesby says. The union also supported Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, and incoming state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat. “We’ve been really successful, very quietly, in our races,” he says. “We’re not flying around flags and doing all kinds of [attention-getting] stuff like Local 98. We like to sit back quietly and do it right.”

The union’s current three-year contract runs out on June 30th. McNesby has previously said that since he became president in 2007, Lodge 5 has landed better wage and benefit deals than any other police union in the country. The expiring deal called for annual 3.25 percent raises; McNesby expects his cops to fare well under the next contract as well: “We’ve made everybody look like rock stars with the DNC and the papal visit both coming without any incidents.”

Ross and McNesby were in the same police academy class together 27 years ago. I asked Ross earlier this month if that long-standing relationship would enable him to successfully pursue work-rule changes in the contract that past commissioners like Ramsey sought to no avail.

“Absolutely not,” Ross says, chuckling. “Because he’s going to get what he needs to get for his membership. So my relationship has no bearing on any modicum of success we may have, which is very minimal with binding arbitration.” (Police and fire contracts are sorted out by a three-member arbitration panel.)

But Ross says he and McNesby are in regular contact, calling or texting almost every week, and deal directly with one another to work out other labor issues that might otherwise end up becoming grievances. “We always joke that we have a give-and-take [relationship]: I give, and he takes. But at the end of the day, it’s not as contentious as people think, and some of that probably is because we’ve known each other for so long, and there’s a mutual respect as being classmates. But don’t get it wrong — if he has to run me over, he’s gonna do it.”

Ramsey — and other commissioners before him, like the late John Timoney — often complained about the power the FOP wields in Philadelphia. They felt the union stifled their ability to discipline or transfer officers, or make other wholesale changes that were needed. Ross says Ramsey once told him it might have been better for him to become a police chief in another city, just to experience the freedom of operating without the union’s heavy constraints.

“Am I happy that they have so much control? No,” Ross says. “But I sing their praises for this reason: They were able to do things [financially] in a recession where most unions were asking for layoffs. I’m not endorsing [McNesby] for that reason. I’m just being honest about the fact that he’s an extremely effective FOP president. Is John sometimes ready, fire, aim? Yeah. Sometimes does his rhetoric match what we need? No.”

And speaking of rhetoric, we’re back to the issue of Trump. The president-elect has said that the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 45 years, a fact that’s, well, not a fact. Trump has expressed support for the long-derided practice of stop-and-frisk, which Ross and Kenney have vowed to ensure is handled more carefully given the city’s high rate of problematic pedestrian stops. Trump’s also vowed to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities like Philadelphia.

So does the FOP think a Trump presidency will be good for their members, or cause unanticipated headaches? “We have to wait and see. He’s a big right-to-work guy, and Philadelphia is a big union town,” McNesby says. He has to attend a meeting next month with national FOP leaders, where they’ll likely hash out how some of Trump’s policy ideas will affect local law enforcement. “Those guys are from all around the country. Some of them are living in double-wide trailers,” McNesby says. “We’re here in a Democratic city led by a Democratic mayor.  Some of the ideas that they think are great aren’t going to be great for us.”

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