They might be the toughest men and women in their towns, but even police chiefs sometimes find it hard to say “no” to their bosses.
That was the case a few years ago for Calumet Park Police Chief Mark Davis when that village’s mayor at the time, Buster Porch, asked if he’d attend a political fundraiser. Out of respect to the guy who appointed him to the job, Davis said he bought the tickets.
“Your boss comes to you and says here are tickets. What are you going to do, tell him you ain’t got no money?” said Davis, Calumet Park’s top cop for the past 11 years. “If you don’t, you’re going to look odd. . . . It wouldn’t be a wise idea.”
Illinois State Board of Elections records show that Davis made a pair of $200 contributions to Citizens for Mayor Porch – one in 2006 and the other in 2008.
Davis stressed that Porch, who no longer is mayor of the tiny south suburb, didn’t twist his arm to buy the tickets. Porch – who appointed Davis chief in 2002 – relayed the same.
Whatever the case, Davis is hardly alone.
A Better Government Association review found 30 police chiefs in Cook County have made donations to local political campaigns while serving as the top cop or before getting hired. Eighteen of those chiefs – or 60 percent – donated directly to campaign funds benefitting their bosses: the mayors, trustees and board members who oversee them, according to interviews and records.
For the most part, the donations ranged from $20 to $500 and involved buying tickets for golf outings, dinner dances and other events that raised money for election campaigns.
For several years, River Grove Director of Police Rodger Loni has attended “Mayor’s Night,” an annual corned beef and cabbage dinner held every January in the small west suburban village. It’s been going on for 49 years, Loni said. “It’s like a tradition here.”
The event serves as a fundraiser for River Grove Mayor Marilynn May, but Loni said there’s nothing political about the $650 he’s spent every January since 2004 to take his wife, his sons and their guests to the event. “It’s just a family night out for us,” Loni said.
May became mayor in 2004 and appointed Loni police director two years later, with the village board formally approving the hire.
While police chiefs interviewed by the BGA insisted their donations were not intended to curry favor with political figures in their communities – and they also noted it’s perfectly legal to give money to whom they please – some experts see the potential for problems.
“Objectivity is key” to the job, said Thomas Meloni, a former police chief in Thornton who now serves as a professor at Western Illinois University’s School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration.
“Staying out of the political process allows you to remain . . . an objective public servant,” Meloni said.
T. Neil Moore, director of the Institute for Law Enforcement Administration in Plano, Tex., said he recommends that police chiefs do not engage in politics.
“There seems to be, in some jurisdictions, an expectation that police chiefs will be a participant in the political process in the Midwest,” said Moore, who spent 10 years as police chief in Ft. Wayne, Ind.
The implication is if you want to keep your job, you have to donate – an illegal quid pro quo.
On the flipside: some chiefs willingly donate to political power brokers as a measure of job security – whether they deserve that security or not, experts said.
Moore provided a hypothetical that illustrates a potential problem with chiefs engaging in politics: A shop owner in a particular town is aligned with an opposing political party to the mayor. The police chief has donated money to the mayor’s campaign fund. The shop owner is arrested, and he questions whether the arrest was based on “some vendetta that the police chief has taken to make life miserable for someone of the opposing party.”
In other words, the political involvement of a chief can create an impression that personal allegiances rather than cold, hard facts influence decisions. This is important because decisions made by chiefs can have such a big impact on lives – including whether someone spends years in prison since chiefs can hold the key to whether criminal charges are pursued.
“We not only have to be right, we have to be perceived as right in the actions that we take,” Moore said.
But not everyone agrees.
John Kennedy, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said none of his group’s members have expressed concerns about being pressured to make political contributions.
Kennedy said chiefs, as private citizens, have a right to engage in the political process and the association doesn’t advise its members on such personal matters.
“I don’t see a conflict,” said Ray Hanania, spokesman for Cicero Town President Larry Dominick, when asked about the tens of thousands of dollars Dominick has received from town employees, including $4,005 from police Supt. Bernard Harrison. “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Hanania said the employees contribute because they support Dominick’s vision and if people don’t like it, they should pursue legislation banning it.
That’s what Palatine did.
By ordinance, the northwest suburb prohibits village employees – with the exception of elected officials – from making contributions to any candidate for office within the village. It is unlawful for those candidates to even solicit donations from village workers.
Experts said even if there’s no such ban, mayors should have the integrity to refuse donations from police chiefs.
“I frankly appreciate the ordinance as it is something I could turn to should a village politician ask for my involvement, which I am proud to say has never even occurred in my 28 years here with the village,” Palatine Police Chief John Koziol told the BGA via email.
He’s donated to Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, whom he described as a family friend with no connection to Koziol’s job in Palatine.
“Philosophically, I do not believe police chiefs should become part of the political landscape whether on or off duty. I believe it’s important to always analyze contributions or even relationships to make sure there are no conflicts of interest.”
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Alden Loury, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9036.