As the Phoenix Police Department endured one of its most turbulent years in recent history, many officers quit the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association over the union's politics and priorities.
Roughly 8 percent of members resigned from PLEA last year, which the labor group mainly attributes to officers who quit paying monthly dues to save money during the tough economy.
But others have left in protest of the union's support of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona's controversial new immigration law, or because of the ongoing, bitter battle between union leaders and Phoenix Public Safety Manager Jack Harris.
Some disenchanted with PLEA say the union's political positions and public attacks against Harris distract from what should be the labor group's main mission: to fight for better pay and working conditions for rank-and-file police officers.
PLEA President Mark Spencer said the union board expected to alienate members.
The attacks on management and passionate support for SB 1070 directly responded to what a majority of members wanted to see from union leaders, he said. SB 1070 makes it a crime to be in the state illegally and requires law-enforcement officers to detain suspected undocumented immigrants when practicable.
"There's a cost involved with doing business like that," Spencer said.
"All of our members are important, but we get our direction from the majority of members."
Spencer expects that the worst of the drops have passed and that fewer officers will leave this week, one of only two times a year city employees can quit a labor group.
PLEA added 31 members this winter and will continue to add members or recruit those who recently backed out, Spencer said.
He also said some officers no longer wanted to pay $60 in basic monthly dues to save cash in the tough economy.
"It comes in cycles," he said. "We're not aware of any mass exodus."
PLEA's membership was about 89 percent of about 2,560 eligible police officers in 2006 and spiked in recent years before dropping to 83 percent of 2,675 patrol officers in July 2010, city records show.
The city's other unions representing firefighters, management, sanitation workers, engineers and other city employees saw their memberships grow or hold steady.
Tired of rhetoric
J.R. Pool, a Phoenix police domestic-violence detective, worked for years as a PLEA representative before dropping out of the union and joining another labor organization in July.
Pool said his friends on the force feel that PLEA "negotiates through news releases" and that blasts against the Police Department alienate officers who've grown tired of the rhetoric.
"The majority is the frustration with PLEA losing focus on the patrol officer in favor of a personal agenda," Pool said. "It's ruining my reputation, and it's ruining patrol officers' reputation."
PLEA has criticized Harris' leadership and backed a lawsuit against Harris for drawing a pension as well as a salary.
Harris and the department faced a turbulent 2010, which brought multiple fraud investigations, an officer facing murder charges in the fatal shooting of an unarmed suspect, and the unsolved shooting death of a sergeant.
Money and benefits
As the bargaining unit for Phoenix police officers and detectives, PLEA is primarily responsible for negotiating salaries and benefits for patrol officers. The union also works on developing better working conditions, such as pushing for changes in how the city handles internal investigations and other policy issues.
PLEA representatives go to officer-involved shootings, represent officers accused of misconduct and help officers accused of crimes get legal assistance.
The Police Department budget is about $419 million, or 43 percent of the city's more than $1 billion general-fund operating budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
The union helped play a role in sparing officers from citywide layoffs as Phoenix was facing a more than $277 million budget shortfall last year.
All other city departments faced layoffs except police and firefighters. They did, however, agree to 3.2 percent in wage reductions along with all the other city employees.
Phoenix officials had little to say about the loss of PLEA membership, saying the city is prohibited from influencing how employees choose to be represented and will cooperate with whatever group officers officially support.
Pool paid dues as a PLEA member for 22 years before quitting.
Part of the problem, he said, was the union's bloglike website, run by the PLEA board, which recently characterized the Police Department as corrupt and "doomed to failure and a cycle of destruction that will continually repeat until change is brought about."
"It was the constant negativity coming from PLEA that started wearing on me over time," Pool said.
Nick Wubker, a Phoenix drug-enforcement detective, made his concerns known in direct letters to Spencer about how patrol officers perceive PLEA.
The former member explained that he was leaving the union because "the members of PLEA are deeply concerned about what is happening with PLEA, your alignment with certain political figures, your political stances on non-PLEA-related issues, and your inability to convey the true concerns of the members," he wrote in one letter.
The FOP is growing
As PLEA has been losing members, the Phoenix Fraternal Order of Police has seen its ranks grow from fewer than 300 in 2008 to 503 active members in 2010. The increased membership is encouraging the FOP to consider trying to push PLEA aside.
Leaders at the FOP and other police groups said PLEA's rhetoric unnecessarily portrays the department as dysfunctional.
The Phoenix FOP lodge could challenge PLEA as the bargaining unit for rank-and-file police officers after the city's current contract expires in 2012, according to Jim Mann, executive director for the FOP's Arizona Labor Council.
The FOP is a national law-enforcement organization with more than 325,000 members around the U.S., including at least 2,200 lodges that serve as bargaining units for their police departments.
The FOP has been aggressively poising itself for the fight, posting recruitment videos on YouTube and material on police-station bulletin boards. PLEA and the FOP also have been dueling through surveys and polls.
In December, PLEA leaders posted the results of their latest membership poll, which they said showed "over 80 percent of Phoenix police officers believe Harris should be fired."
Critics of PLEA said the no-confidence vote was merely a small percentage of PLEA membership, not of all sworn officers. Others said they never had a chance to vote.
The FOP countered with a survey of 410 Phoenix voters that indicated 65 percent of those polled supported Harris, while 53 percent of those polled disagreed with how Spencer did his job.
'Let members decide'
Despite the turmoil, it's unclear whether a majority of Phoenix police would switch from PLEA to the FOP.
Brian Livingston, president of the Arizona Police Association, composed of PLEA and dozens of other state law-enforcement unions, said PLEA will be fine.
"Let the members decide," said Livingston, who served as PLEA chairman in 1999 when he was shot in the line of duty and forced to retire.
"I've every confidence they will choose PLEA because of their history and where the organization is going," Livingston added.
Lt. Mark Hafkey, president of the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, said his union, the bargaining unit for police supervisors, recently changed its bylaws to accept disgruntled PLEA members as associates. He also said dues are less expensive than PLEA's.
Hafkey said he disagrees with PLEA's political stances, although he questioned whether pushing PLEA out would be the right decision for the city's police.
"I'm not sure people want that," Hafkey said. "PLEA was a respected union for years. It wasn't until a few years ago . . . people started thinking about supporting FOP."
Vice Mayor Thelda Williams said that the struggle between PLEA and the FOP has been going on for decades and that she expects PLEA will come out on top as it has in the past.
In 1988, PLEA emerged victorious from a similar challenge by the FOP, with officers voting 825-323 to keep PLEA in place.
"The Police Department has been through upheaval and has had so many bad things happen this year that I'm sure it has influenced this struggle and (PLEA) membership," Williams said.