Law Enforcement Officers Cannot Hold Public Offices Incompatible With Their Law Enforcement Positions

By Richard Thal, WPPA General Counsel

Recently three WPPA members asked if they could run for city council in the city where they work. All three knew that under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights they were entitled to engage in political activity and to be a candidate for any elective public office. And all three were disappointed when city attorneys told them, “Yes, you can run. But if elected you need to choose between being on the common council or a police officer because the two positions are incompatible.”

Incompatible? Why are the two positions incompatible? Couldn’t an alderperson/police officer simply abstain from voting in those areas that affected the police department? The answer to these questions is that under Wisconsin law the “doctrine of incompatibility” prevents a public office holder from being in a position where he or she might have conflicting duties. Even if the officer promises to abstain to avoid conflicts, under Wisconsin law a member of a municipality’s governing body may not hold another office or position of employment with the municipality. That means that a city alderperson or village trustee cannot also be a police officer in the city or village where he or she is elected; a county board member may not also be a deputy sheriff; and a town board member may not be employed as a police officer in the town that he or she governs.

So, you may ask, what good are the provisions in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights that entitle officers to be candidates for elective public office? Although these provisions did not help the three WPPA members who had hoped to run for city council this spring, they have helped others. The Bill of Rights provides: “No law enforcement officer may be required, as a condition of being a candidate for any elective public office, to take a leave of absence during his or her candidacy.” In other words, the right to be a candidate allows an officer to continue to work during the period of his or her candidacy. This means, for example, that a municipality cannot force a law enforcement officer to take a leave of absence while that officer is running for sheriff. That is important because prior to the enactment of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights some municipalities discouraged officers from running for sheriff by requiring candidates for the office of sheriff to take a leave of absence.

Although a law enforcement officer may not serve as a member of the governing body in the municipality where he or she is employed, every officer has the right to engage in many other kinds of political activity. Moreover, every WPPA local can engage in political action. Following are some political activities that your local can do.

Endorsements. Locals can interview and endorse local candidates of all types (city, county, and judicial). Locals do not have to register as a Political Action Committee (PAC) to do this.

Volunteers. Locals can encourage members to volunteer for endorsed candidates. Individual volunteer activity is not a political contribution to a candidate. Retirees are often a good source of volunteers for phone banks, door-to-door campaigning, placing signs, etc.

Newsletters. Locals can communicate with members and their families about endorsed candidates and the reasons for the local’s endorsement. This can be at membership meetings or through newsletters or election alerts.

Candidate Forums. Locals can invite candidates to attend meetings with members and their families to discuss law-enforcement issues. This can be a prelude to endorsement or simply a way to put law enforcement issues before candidates.

Fundraisers. Locals can invite members and their families to attend fundraisers for candidates and to make individual contributions to candidates.

The fact that more WPPA members are running (or would like to run) for public office shows that growing numbers of our members know that protecting ourselves and our families requires political action. Sure, there are restrictions on your political activity. But you always have a First Amendment right to engage in political activity, as well as the rights contained in the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.

If you have questions about these rights, feel free to consult your business agent or WPPA’s legal counsel.

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