By BEN SCHRECKINGER POLITICO Magazine 5/9/15 Amid unprecedented criticism, a union chief has a plan to redeem law enforcement's image.
American law enforcement, long accustomed to deference from Washington, faces a mounting onslaught. Its public image is in the tank, the Justice Department is fielding calls to investigate departments across the country, and lawmakers from both parties are pushing to pass reform right now. It’s a perilous time for police, but the cops have a secret weapon: Jim Pasco. And Jim Pasco has a plan.
Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest law enforcement union, has consistently defended officers, even rebuking President Barack Obama as unrest flared in Ferguson, Missouri. “I would contend that discussing police tactics from Martha’s Vineyard is not helpful to ultimately calming the situation,” he said in August. But the steady series of controversial deaths of black men — in New York, South Carolina and Baltimore — has spurred Pasco to action. His strategy for the present crisis: Slow down the pace of reform with a congressional commission to study the issues and come back with recommendations.
Pasco is betting he can leverage his carefully built relationships — which extend to both sides of the aisle and into the top reaches of the White House and the Justice Department — to take the most drastic remedies, like opening a string of “pattern and practices” investigations, off the table.
It’s an approach reminiscent of the NRA’s response to urgent calls for new gun control measures after the mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. The group commissioned a private task force led by Asa Hutchinson, now the governor of Arkansas, which came back four months after the shooting with a recommendation that schools arm staff members.
Pasco said he’s not aware of the NRA precedent and that he doesn’t want to stand in the way of good ideas that are ready to go but that the task at hand needs time. “As much as we’d like to see a result tomorrow,” he says, “every law enforcement problem does not require a solution tomorrow that’s going to have ramifications for 20 or 30 years.”
But reformers in Congress, led by the Congressional Black Caucus and libertarian Republicans, want results now.
“There are many throughout the country who’ve run out of patience with conversations and commissions,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a CBC member. “The Congressional Black Caucus is committed in my view to get something done with the fierce urgency of now.” The caucus rejects Pasco’s suggestion that much of the reform should be referred to a congressional commission like one proposed by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
Along with trying to discourage Department of Justice investigations such as the one underway in Baltimore, Pasco is battling a bill that would restrict the flow of excess military supplies to police departments. He wants any plan for gathering data on deaths at the hands of police to be tied to one for gathering data on attacks on police officers, and he wants Congress to deal with policing reforms through a successor to the Kerner Commission, the body established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to address the causes of race riots in Detroit, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and other major cities.
He has two advantages: a rare depth of connection to both parties and the job of representing a group that has both labor and law-and-order appeal. “Jim Pasco’s name is on the wall of the National Democratic Club, and he was one of the closest advisers that Karl Rove had,” noted Kevin O’Connor, a lobbyist for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “There’s not a lot of people in this town anymore who really practice bipartisanship.”
And Pasco, 68, has weathered crisis before — most memorably as congressional and media liaison for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the wake of its botched 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. He said he took an important lesson from the disaster. “You can never be too careful or pay too much attention to detail when planning for an operation, whether it’s a political operation, a law enforcement operation or anything in between.”
Pasco came to the ATF in 1970 by the way of short stints in the Army and the U.S. Customs Service, and he jumped to the Fraternal Order of Police in 1995. He served as an adviser to George W. Bush’s White House transition. He has also built strong relationships with Democrats, especially Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who amid the national backlash against police scored a legislative victory for them on Wednesday with Senate passage of a bill that reauthorized an expired grant program that buys bulletproof vests for state and local law enforcement agencies.
Pasco’s knack for playing on all sides has also landed him in hot water. In 2010, The Washington Post reported on the tangled web of interests caught up in Pasco’s FOP work, his side practice lobbying for private clients and his wife’s lobbying business. The Post cited several instances in which positions taken by the FOP aligned with the interests of the couple’s clients. In one, the FOP signed on to an amicus brief backing the music industry in a lawsuit against a file-sharing service lawsuit at the same time that Sony was paying Pasco $200,000 to lobby on Internet intellectual property theft. Pasco said his bosses at the FOP have signed off on all of his private lobbying clients.
That same year, Pasco spoke forcefully against the use of civilian video of police activity, asserting that amateur video is less trustworthy than patrol cars’ dash cameras because it is not preserved in a chain of custody. In April, a bystander’s cellphone video was instrumental in determining a South Carolina officer had shot a man fatally in the back as he ran away.
The controversy over Pasco’s lobbying obligations did little to diminish the sway of the FOP — which spent $220,000 on lobbying last year — as was evidenced in January 2014, when the group flexed its muscle on the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be the next assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. The group’s president, Chuck Canterbury, wrote an open letter to Obama to express the group’s “extreme disappointment, displeasure and vehement opposition to the nomination” because of Adegbile’s work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to reverse the death sentence of a man convicted of killing a police officer.
When Robert Driscoll, a former deputy assistant attorney general in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, saw the letter, he says he knew immediately: “This guy’s not getting confirmed. And even when it looked like he was going to get confirmed, I still said I didn’t think he’d get confirmed.”
Pasco said he’s not surprised by Driscoll’s reaction. “Bob knew we would fight this guy until the last dog died,” he said. “He understood that. And he knew there were levers we could push in the Senate that would cause us to prevail, but that’s not true on every issue.”
Adegbile withdrew his nomination in September and entered private practice. Pasco maintains good relations with the Obama administration. “He’s a straight shooter,” said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston of the FOP lobbyist. “We don’t always agree on everything, but he’s a guy I can trust.”
Pasco said he’s in regular contact with the administration’s new choice for the civil rights role, acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta. He’s been discouraging “patterns and practices” investigations like the one the Justice Department opened Thursday into Baltimore’s police department at the request of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. (The Baltimore FOP has asked that the mayor’s role in policing also be subject to the investigation.) Instead, Pasco is pushing Justice to opt for “collaborative reviews” like the one it opened with Baltimore police in October, which he views as less adversarial toward police officers. Pasco describes his communications with Gupta as “very positive” and said that the FOP’s position on her nomination will depend on the department’s handling of calls for these investigations.
“I understand what the fraternal order are saying, but I would encourage them to think about history,” said Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri, a Democrat and member of the CBC. “Historically, the local police departments have been almost as hostile as the outright hoodlums. … Minority communities believe they’re going to get a much more objective reading on things from the federal government.” Cleaver said the opening of a patterns and practices investigation last year in Ferguson was instrumental in calming unrest there.
Pasco is also working against a bill introduced in the House by tea party Republican Raúl Labrador of Idaho and Democrat Hank Johnson of Georgia, a CBC member, that would “de-militarize police” by ending the transfer of certain equipment, including high-caliber weapons and armored vehicles, from the Department of Defense to local police. The FOP’s position is that local police ought to have access to much of the equipment, but that it should be tied to training.
Pasco’s suggestion doesn’t go far enough for CBC member Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). “What is a local police force doing with a tank?” he asked. “If you need the military, call the National Guard.”
Pasco and the reformers will maneuver in the coming weeks, with hearings planned by the House and Senate judiciary committees, but don’t expect Pasco to burn any bridges.