Bell's interim city attorney has written cease-and-desist letters and is threatening to discipline officers over campaign literature that urges voters in the scandal-torn town to save the city's 84-year-old Police Department.
The mailers contain photos of officers in uniform, which city officials say violates the state government code. Several candidates in the upcoming city election also complained about the literature from the Bell Police Officers Assn.
The city is at a financial crossroads, city officials say, and must consider drastic budget cuts, such as disbanding the Police Department, to avoid bankruptcy. Interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo said the small, working-class city could have a deficit of $3.5 million to $4.5 million by the end of the fiscal year — nearly a third of the city's general fund.
But with 45 jobs at stake, the police union is pushing back hard by endorsing council candidates and running an independent campaign to save the department.
Interim City Atty. Jamie Casso last month wrote two cease-and-desist letters to the union, writing that "My office will work with the Interim Chief Administrative Officer to take the steps necessary to investigate those employees who appear in these mailers."
The union appears to be girding for confrontation. Leo Briones, the group's political consultant, said that in ignoring the city's directive, officers were like "Martin Luther King saying no to Jim Crow."
Briones accused Casso and Carrillo of using "Rizzo tactics," a reference to Robert Rizzo, the former city administrator who faces more than 50 counts of felony corruption.
One group of candidates sent a letter to Carrillo last week complaining about the union's tactics in the election. Hilda Delgado, consultant for a slate of candidates running under the banner Justice for Bell, said officers have intimidated volunteers and flashed badges while campaigning. The police union is supporting other candidates.
It is not unusual for police unions to became significant players in city elections. The Bell police union bankrolled the campaign to gather signatures to force the recall election of four council members, spending about $24,000. Residents go to the polls March 8.
The union has endorsed five candidates and Briones said it plans to spend $30,000 to $40,000 on the election. He said the union already has spent $7,000 to $10,000 on its campaign to save the Police Department.
One flier supporting the five union candidates shows a male and a female officer with the slogan, "Don't let politicians take away our police protection."
The election has grabbed the attention of police groups around the state. The Peace Officers Research Assn. of California gave the Bell police union $5,000, and the La Verne police union last week contributed $1,000.