Larry James, the top lawyer to the Fraternal Order of Police, is always ready for the question.
How does he reconcile being an African American while also serving as general counsel of the world’s largest organization of sworn law enforcement officers? The two communities, he said, have more in common than many might think with regard to negative stereotypes stemming from a few bad actors.
Whenever there is news about an awful crime or situation, “we pray the person is white,” said James, recalling a conversation he had with black clergy. “Every time a black person does something, we perceive an impact on the entire black race,” he said. “The same thing that the white community did to us, we’re doing to cops.”
The civil unrest that’s spread across the U.S. over the past two weeks following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody has kept James busy talking with FOP members, politicians, community activists, and others trying to find a productive path forward.
“If you take the approach of, ‘We’re not going to apologize, we made no mistakes,’ then we’re going to lose,” James said.
James is a name partner at Columbus, Ohio-based Crabbe, Brown & James. He’s served as outside general counsel to the FOP since 2001, when he was referred by former partner Andrew Douglas, a Republican and retired Ohio Supreme Court justice.
Two decades and two leadership transitions later, James attributed his staying power at the organization in part to the many hats he wears. In addition to general counsel, he’s served as safety director for the city of Columbus, co-founder of the African American Leadership Academy, and local counsel to the Columbus chapters of the National Urban League and NAACP.
“I’ve prosecuted cops, defended cops, and administrated cops. You name it, I’ve done it,” James said.
Doing Damage Control
James himself was born in Elyria, Ohio, near Cleveland, but grew up in the Jim Crow era in Demopolis, Ala.
“There isn’t shit you can throw at me that I haven’t seen,” James said. “What you call me is one thing, but what I answer to is another.”
Over the years James has witnessed first-hand how incidents like the Floyd case can reset years of hard work bringing together police and the communities they serve.
“These episodes just take us back, and you have to start over and retake the same ground you thought you had built up,” said James, adding that he tries to stay away from “gasoline issues,” which divide both the FOP and those they’re seeking to protect.
While the FOP has close ties to the Trump administration, James doesn’t support sending the U.S. military into American cities. “If that happens, we’ve lost the war,” he said. “We have to take this fight on.”
James is working with FOP members to build stronger bonds with their local communities and restore public trust.
“If in times of crisis you need to form those relationships, you’re dead at, ‘Hello,’” he said.
Emotions and Frustrations
The FOP’s 351,000 members are law enforcement officers in cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington—but not Minneapolis or New York—and the organization works with civilian oversight bodies in those municipalities.
James said the FOP acts for police like a bar association does for lawyers. The organization provides legal defense services to its members if they need them. James mostly deals with employment law and trademark issues related to the FOP brand in overseeing a network of roughly 80 lawyers from a variety of firms throughout the country that represent the organization and its local lodges.
The FOP’s national headquarters paid $318,506 to James’ firm during fiscal 2018-19, according to Labor Department filings.
The coronavirus crisis kept James working from home until June 1, when Ohio lifted most restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. He’s now helping the FOP’s local and state members expand their outreach, while urging them to take ownership of errors in police work.
Changing demographics and generational shifts—fewer young people today are involved in church groups than those in previous decades—necessitate finding a new common language between police and citizenry, James said.
James said he believes most good cops don’t want to work with bad cops. When police budgets are cut, James said the first thing to go are training dollars. Until recently, many companies had been reluctant to get involved in social causes, so James is working to try and secure private funds for new police training programs.
“We have a problem that’s manageable, we just need to take the steps to improve,” James said. “That’s the type of stuff I’m trying to lead on. And we don’t really have a choice.”