Cops Showing up in Uniform to a Debate Over Their Pay Is Intimidation and It Needs to Stop

Fargo police officers and firefighters packed the Fargo City Hall Monday night, May 20, to listen to a debate over increases for the employees of the two departments. Barry Amundson / The Forum

On Monday night the Fargo City Commission voted 4 -1 to give raises to the city’s police and firefighters (as well as about 30 percent of the city’s workforce).

The cost to taxpayers is a relatively modest $473,812.

I’ll not quibble with that outcome. The raises seem reasonable, and it behooves local governments like Fargo to remain competitive when it comes to compensating critical public employees.

What I’m trying to say is that these folks deserve the raises.

But something inappropriate happened at the city commission meeting, and it happens far too often in North Dakota politics: While the elected officials were debating the pay raises, they looked out at an audience full of cops in full uniform, some of them even wearing body armor.

These policymakers tell me the tactic work. They say it’s intimidating to have uniformed law enforcement officers staring them down as the debate policy. 

You can see it in the image above taken by Fargo Forum reporter Barry Amundson.

This is not at all uncommon tactic when cops are trying to get elected leaders to vote a certain way, nor is it recent. State lawmakers tell me stories, from recent legislative sessions, where committee rooms were packed with uniforms. Former House Majority Leader John Dorso, who served back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, once told me a story about Highway Patrol officers, in uniform, packing the gallery in the state House during a vote on pensions.

These policymakers tell me the tactic work. They say it’s intimidating to have uniformed law enforcement officers staring them down as the debate policy.

Dorso said he thinks the display in the House gallery altered the outcome of the vote that day.

Which is why the tactic has to stop.

I have no problem with cops, or anyone else for that matter, making their voices heard. They have the same rights as the rest of us. But just as there are strict prohibitions on using U.S. military uniforms in politics, there ought to be similar restrictions on using law enforcement uniforms and equipment.

A police officer’s uniform is a powerful symbol, all the more so when coupled with the weapons and other tools of law enforcement. That’s as it should be. The uniform exists to project authority, and while that’s entirely appropriate when the cops are doing their jobs, it becomes inappropriate when the cops are trying to influence a political outcome.

If the cops want elected leaders to know they’re watching, they could do something like buy t-shirts with the same color/message on them. Or hold signs, if the meeting allows it.

They should not, however, use their uniforms.

That’s wrong.

That needs to stop.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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