FOP Chairman Matthew Mahl
FOP Chairman Matthew Mahl Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Washington’s police union has been butting heads with the Metropolitan Police Department for years over everything from salary to discipline to controversial scheduling policies such as “All Hands On Deck.”

So Loose Lips was dismayed to learn that the 3,400-member Fraternal Order of Police is also at war with itself.

Less than a year into his first term, FOP Chairman Matthew Mahl has been served with notice that 850 of his members—or roughly a quarter of the entire membership—have signed a recall petition. To oust Mahl, the opposition would need the support of two-thirds of voting members. The petition is under legal review.

Experts say such coup attempts are rare, and the uprising in D.C. comes as the MPD is wrestling with persistent violent crime rates and alarming attrition—because of retirements, resignations, and recruitment struggles—that departments around the country are experiencing. The union fissure is also delaying contract negotiations left over from a decade of poor relations with former Chief Cathy Lanier in a department now led by her chief enforcer, interim Chief Peter Newsham, whose fate is uncertain.

D.C. residents may disagree about public safety or the state of the MPD in general, but they won’t be well served by hundreds of police officers patrolling with a chip on their shoulders and no unified representation. Certainly not as the department tries to recruit new talent in a competitive job market while resorting to luring veterans out of retirement to compensate for a personnel deficit. 

Outside observers are shaking their heads too. “I know how important the union is to cops—that bond, the psychology of it, knowing it’ll go to war for you if you’re facing discipline or fighting a grievance—but you gotta get to the bottom line, and that’s keeping the public safe,” says Tony Barksdale, retired deputy commissioner of operations for the Baltimore Police Department. “From a management perspective, the chief is nothing without his troops. And if they don’t believe in you, it can cripple the department and the city, and crime will go up.” 

Mahl was elected a year ago on the promise of transparency and accountability, and a stated intent to be more cooperative with the department in addressing member grievances. But he quickly established a reputation among old guard union leaders for being aloof with both members and the media—and too conciliatory with the department. 

“It’s about broken promises, trustworthiness, and absence from the members,” says a veteran detective who works violent crimes in Southeast. “We don’t see or hear from him.” 

Mahl, whose term is due to expire in April 2018,  sees the mutiny as an attempt by ousted former leaders to regain control over the union. “We are somewhat divided,” he says. “We need to band together. We’re losing more officers that we can hire. Morale is bad. Why? Working conditions are bad, officers have crappy days off.”

Mahl stumbled right out of the gate, his opponents say. One of his first acts was to suspend the filing of class grievances and to cease candidate endorsements—the latter many believe is a political necessity. Then he dropped a number of cases pending before the Public Employee Review Board based on “lack of merit” and threatened to back away from a court appeal over retroactive pay that was lost during a prolonged salary dispute. (The FOP’s executive council overruled him.) 

And while he raised eyebrows for striking up a chummy relationship with Lanier, his most embarrassing misstep was when he asked her for a fully equipped patrol car “for membership purposes,” even though the union had already purchased him an unmarked vehicle. Once confronted by members at a general membership meeting, Mahl agreed to return the car.

Things worsened for him when City Paper reported that he was facing discipline at the time of his election but failed to disclose it to union members. (Soon after the election, Lanier dismissed the matter.)

The last straw was when Mahl quietly settled a pending arbitration over the mandatory scheduling policy known as “All Hands on Deck,” an abrupt resolution of a longstanding battle that his opponents claim effectively forfeited millions of dollars for union members. But sources say his ultimate sin was telling members he had not yet signed the settlement when he and Newsham had done so the previous day. Mahl defended the settlement in memos to the membership, saying expectations were unreasonable.

Ron DeLord, one of the nation’s leading police union contract negotiators, says the FOP recall effort is rare (though it’s not unprecedented in D.C.)Mahl ran on a platform that was different from his predecessors, DeLord says, and now he’s being called out. “He sounds like he ran on cooperation, but there still are some hardliners who think he’s too soft. The question is, if he wins, what does he win? He’s still in a weakened position, and ego and pride can get in the way.” 

In some cases, executive boards simply strip a union chair of power, or the union as a whole simply waits out the chair’s term, says DeLord, who has written a forthcoming book on labor negotiations. The recall route sends a message to management that the union is fractured, but he says it can recover, even if the battle causes a setback in contract negotiations. “You just can’t be at war all the time, and if the city doesn’t change its positions, then the hug didn’t work,” DeLord says. “But what if negotiations are frozen and you play hardball, then all of sudden 100 officers quit and take jobs in the suburbs for higher pay and less crap? Do you wait until you reach a tipping point?”

DeLord’s advice seems to LL to be directed at both the union and department leadership, which surely must be assessing whether to exploit the FOP’s upheaval or steer negotiations to higher ground. Of Mahl, he says: “He had a good idea, but he wasn’t able to bring people along. If he wins, I hope he learns his lesson.” But if he loses and is ousted? “I hope the union takes a less hardline position because, if not, everyone loses.” So what about Newsham? “He may have more power today, but why try to crush the union? He might lose in the long haul. Police want to do the job, get paid, and work in a reasonable situation. I try to tell people to reach out, build a better department. It’ll improve morale.”

Barksdale, having seen it all, says whatever comes of the internal strife, “don’t make the public pay the price. When there are internal battles, the larger picture gets lost. And if they get too caught up with infighting, then they’re gonna lose focus. That’s the danger.”

Mahl acknowledges the challenges that have alienated his members. “If we don’t change, we’ll be a transitional force that continues to shrink,” he says.