Jun 10, 2020 - Economy

Police union scrutiny could soon move into finance

Illustration of cracked and broken police badge

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Police unions are under a political microscope, with reformers arguing that they too often help keep bad cops on the streets.

Why it matters: This controversy could soon move beyond elected officials to venture capital and private equity firms that count police unions among their limited partners.

Public employees unions have long invested in alternative investment funds, from mega-groups like CalPERS and CalSTRS down to small town firefighter pensions.

  • The NYC Police Pension Fund, for example, had around $2.5 billion worth of private equity investments as of last June, representing around 5% of its investment assets.
  • The L.A. Fire & Police Pensions had nearly $2.7 billion worth of private equity investments as of the end of March, representing 12.5% of its investment assets.
  • In both cases, venture capital funds are included under the "private equity" umbrella.

VC and PE firms are partial to public pensions because most of them are still defined benefit plans, and are particularly partial to public safety unions because it makes them feel like noble benefactors.

  • I recall a conversation from years ago with a VC (now retired) who took great pride in how his hometown’s fire department was among his firm’s limited partners. It was tiny compared to most of the other LPs, but it was the one he wanted to talk about.

Yes, but: Now police unions are beginning to get looked at as an exception to the rule.

  • In politics, for example, House Democrats are shelving a bill they introduced last year to enable more police to unionize, with its co-sponsor telling Axios that it could “contribute to acts of police brutality."
  • One major Bay Area venture firm tells me, on background, that it doesn’t have any police pensions as direct LPs, but is looking to see if it has any indirect police pension investors via funds-of-funds.
  • A spokesperson for Vista Equity, which counts both NYC and LA police pensions among its LPs, declined to respond to a request for comment — which is anything but a vote of confidence. Another PE exec, whose firm is currently fundraising, said “there’s no way in hell I want to be part of that story.”

To be clear, there isn't an active divestiture movement. And there won’t be, because it’s virtually impossible to force out an existing LP, so long as it keeps meeting its capital calls.

  • Plus, there is a very delicate balance between supporting the pensions of individual police officers and possibly opposing the organizations that oversee those pensions.

But don't be surprised if certain firms take this moment to reassess future fundraising, particularly in light of renewed (or new) emphasis on helping to improve racial equity. In addition to hiring, investment and philanthropy, it's an area where VC and PE firms can wield influence.

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