Phoenix police officers threatened to illegally strike, said they would “torch this place” during contract negotiations, and discussed “break[ing] it off in [the police chief’s] ass,” according to a brief filed by the Goldwater Institute in an Arizona appeals court. These and other salacious allegations about the union’s aggressive tactics emerged during a court case challenging an obscure portion of Phoenix’s labor contracts, which allows police officers and other city employees to work on union business while drawing a public salary.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Court of Appeals will consider the constitutionality of such so-called “release time” or “official time” contractual provisions. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association is appealing a permanent injunction against the practice, a ruling that occurred after the Goldwater Institute led a challenge against Phoenix’s release time in Maricopa County Superior Court. 

Phoenix has some of the most generous release-time policies in the nation: Six police officers are allowed to work full-time on union business, receiving full pay, benefits, and 960 hours of guaranteed overtime, courtesy of the Phoenix taxpayers, and the union is also granted 2,000 work-hours from other cops. The Phoenix Police Department has estimated that release time costs taxpayers around $1 million a year.

Clint Bolick, a Goldwater Institute attorney, said release time is “the biggest scam in America that no one knows about.” He continued: “[When police unions use it], we thought it was the most flagrant abuse of taxpayer resources. Public safety ought to be the top priority of local government, and here you have police officers being taken off the streets and being assigned to union headquarters.”

A Phoenix Police Department spokesperson declined an interview request from National Review on behalf of the police chiefand the union did not return my call.

Release time has pulled officers off the streets, even as violent crime increases and the police rosters have shrunk. The local media have reported that the Phoenix Police Department has lost more than 500 officers in recent years, and recent statistics have shown an increase in the instances of murder, rape, and aggravated assault in the city.

Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia testified that if officers were not on release time, they would be “serving the citizens of Phoenix” in the “capacity of fighting crime,” according to a brief the Goldwater Institute filed in April. It adds that “overall, the Police Department has stated that release time ‘decrease[s] the efficiency of City government’ and that a ‘reduction in the cost of City funded [police union] operations will have the effect of increasing funds for mission critical functions.’”

The police union uses official time not only to represent officers in disciplinary proceedings but also to lobby for bills, negotiate for higher pay and better benefits, and campaign for politicians, Bolick says.

The Goldwater Institute has argued that release time is a violation of the Arizona constitution’s gift clause, which prohibits gifts of public funds to private entities unless there’s a clear public benefit. Almost all state constitutions have a gift clause, and many allow release time, so if the Arizona Court of Appeals concurs with the Maricopa County Superior Court that release time is unconstitutional, it could set an example nationwide.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.