Letter: Police and politics explained

On Jan. 5, you published a letter from Richard Sobers, a retired police lieutenant, concerning political activity by police associations. Sobers said that he wrote his letter in hopes that someone could bring clarity to this matter “once and for all.” As state examiner of the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service, I hope I might be able to help.

There was a landmark case in 1992 that established case law in this area, and the attorney general opinions cited by Sobers are actually prior to Cannatella v. Department of Civil Service. In this 4th Circuit Court of Appeal case, the court ruled that New Orleans police Sgt. Ronald Cannatella’s endorsement of a political candidate was on behalf of the police association, not as an individual. Further, the court said that Article X, Subsection 9 of the Louisiana State Constitution prohibited political activity by commissioners and classified civil service employees, but did not extend to labor organizations.

The Office of State Examiner has always been somewhat concerned because this case was pertaining to the City of New Orleans, which is not in the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service system. Because of the ambiguity, the Shreveport Police Officers Association sought a declaratory judgment from the 1st Judicial District Court in Caddo Parish. In rendering the judgment, the court cited the Cannatella case, as well as a later attorney general opinion from 1998 (98-464). While the Shreveport case did not establish case law as the decision was only rendered by a district court, the court did affirm the applicability of the reasoning in the Cannatella case to the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service, as did the attorney general.

In other words, there is some justification for the position that endorsement of a candidate by a labor organization using a classified employee as spokesman is allowed, inasmuch as labor organizations are not prevented from engaging in political activity.

In the body of law pertinent to this system, the penalty for political activity is termination. In the Kenner case to which Sobers made reference, five officers were terminated, but the reasoning was somewhat different. In this case, the Kenner Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board found that there was political activity, but they felt termination was too severe.

The Appellate Court stated that it would not determine whether the actions constituted political activity, but once the civil service board ruled that political activity had occurred, termination was the only course of action allowed under the law.

The Office of State Examiner continues to urge those contemplating endorsements on behalf of employee organizations to consult with their attorney for the latest advice in this regard.

Melinda B. Livingston

state examiner

Baton Rouge