Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is right to be outraged over recent campaign literature showing Minneapolis police officers in uniform, flanked by police squads in support of gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty (“Pawlenty mailer with Mpls. cops draws criticism,” Aug. 4). The picture in the campaign piece is not only an astonishing display of misusing taxpayer dollars, it is an exploitation of these officers to influence an election. The use of the official police uniform to induce voters in an election is unethical and could be interpreted as illegal.
Though Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo states that “the MPD does not endorse any political candidate,” it is remarkable that officers would pose in political campaign literature in uniform with police squads without the approval of someone. So who approved this? While states and local governments have the authority to issue more restrictive laws than the federal government, they do not have the authority to be less restrictive.
The official police uniform is an important public symbol. It commands respect and represents safety, security and service to the community. Police uniforms also convey authority, power and the ability to control. The mere presence of a uniformed police officer is considered the first step in the use-of-force continuum used by police departments nationwide to guide officers’ actions when confronted with conflict or potential unlawful behavior. The authority of law enforcement, represented by the official uniform, is given by the people who are served — all the people. It is for these reasons that the official uniform (both military and police) is prohibited for use to influence or interfere with elections or nominations for office as written in the federal Hatch Act (U.S. Code: Title 5, Chapter 15, § 1502 — Influencing Elections).
While the Hatch Act is not widely known, the potential for government employees to influence elections has been a concern for elected officials since the earliest days of the Republic. In response to these concerns, the government issued this statement: “While it is the right of any officer to give his vote at elections as a qualified citizen … it is expected that he will not attempt to influence the votes of others nor take any part in the business of electioneering, that being deemed inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution.” In 1939, these ideas became law in what is known as the Hatch Act, which limited the political activities of federal employees. In 1940, certain employees of state and local governments, including those in law enforcement, were added.
Both major political parties have violated the Hatch Act in the past and in this upcoming election. Across the river in Ramsey County, one candidate for sheriff appears to be using his uniform and interim position to influence the sheriff’s race — using county personnel and resources in parades with T-shirted campaign volunteers following; posing in uniform with campaign volunteers; soliciting donations for the Minnesota State Sheriff’s Association in a letter to residents of Ramsey County, and wearing a government-issued police badge at partisan, campaign fundraising events. All of these activities blur the lines between his personal campaign activity and his government job. They, in effect, trade on the influence of his position as interim sheriff to give him name recognition and encourage members of the public to support him in the upcoming election.
If government leaders expect to gain the public’s trust, they must begin by exemplifying both the intent and the spirit of the law and not abuse official authority to improperly influence or coerce the public’s vote. Former Gov. Pawlenty, police union leaders like Bob Kroll and law enforcement leaders should know better and be held accountable for election decisions that circumvent or actually violate the law.
Laura Goodman is a retired deputy chief of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, a former sergeant for the Minneapolis Police Department and a former Minnesota state crime victims ombudsman.