How Police Unions Protect the Privileges and Pensions of NYC's 'Finest'
It fit every Republican’s paranoid rant about government labor. A public-sector union turned out its members at a protest insisting that they be immune from prosecution for corruption. But because we’re talking about the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the biggest union in the New York Police Department, there was no right-wing outcry in response to its demonstrations against the Bronx District Attorney’s office’s decision to go after “ticket fixing.”
The illegal practice of making tickets disappear for friends, family and politicians has long been tolerated by the NYPD and has only recently attracted prosecutorial interest. On Oct. 28 hundreds of officers packed the Bronx courthouse to protest the prosecutions and left their sense of public decency at home. The cops reportedly blocked traffic, sullied the courthouse with refuse, taunted nearby welfare recipients and grabbed journalists’ cameras to keep them from documenting the proceedings. Their flimsy message was that ticket fixing had gone on for a long time. (Ironically, when the NYPD defends its labor practices against PBA complaints, it often plays the “This is the way it’s always been done” card.) And despite having well-paid public relations personnel, the union still thought it wise to print placards stating, “Just following orders.”
It outraged onlookers and readers, who may be shocked to find out that 50 Bronx PBA delegates are reportedly demanding the resignation of PBA president Patrick Lynch because he didn’t fight hard enough against the Bronx DA. On the one hand, ticket fixing could be considered one of the more benign problems in the department, as indictments in the Bronx case also revealed police ties to more serious crimes: assault, grand larceny and drug trafficking. However, it opens up the frightening reality that the cops value their impunity, especially when there are probes into systemic racism in the department and a group of officers has already been charged with arms trafficking.
From coast to coast, Occupy Wall Street protesters find themselves in constant battle with the police, with many participants insisting that, from an economic standpoint, the cops, too, make up the “99%” majority. And in cities like New York, protesters point to the fact that cops are unionized, working-class people whose pensions and pay are under attack by the corporate state. But the startling reality of the ticket-fixing scandal and the role of not only police unions but the NYPD’s rank and file show a different picture.
The PBA and the other police unions — which represent cops based on their rank — are in some senses labor organizations like any other: They bargain for wage increases, manage member benefits and address workplace concerns with management. But these fraternal orders also publicly support members who stand accused of abusing their positions, whether it’s brutality against people of color or protesters or using their jobs for personal gain. For instance, Lynch often denounces prosecution of cops, and even continued to defend a rookie cop who was caught on film body-checking a Critical Mass bike rider after the jury returned a guilty verdict.
In a more emotional case in November 2009, the Detectives Endowment Association (DEA) vocally opposed a City Council move to name a street after Sean Bell, an unarmed black man who was killed by detectives, who fired more than 50 shots at him and his friends in a parking lot the night before his wedding. The acquittal of the four detectives by a Queens judge wasn’t enough for the DEA, which rubbed more salt in the mourning family’s wounds by pressuring the city legislature not to act on the community’s desires.
Cases of police brutality are supposed to be handled by a Civilian Complaint Review Board, but activists often point to the body’s relative toothlessness. Lynch told the press in October that an overzealous Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) — cops call it the “rat squad” — was hurting department morale, but The New York Times noted that most of the latest police scandals were uncovered by outside groups, despite an increase in the IAB’s budget.
The department boasted in November that the IAB followed through on an investigation that led to the conviction of Brooklyn South Narcotics Detective Jason Arbeeny for planting fake evidence on an innocent couple in 2007. But even in that case, witnesses claimed that the practice in the Brooklyn South Narcotics squad was widespread; it is known as “flaking.” The judge in the case, Gustin Reichbach, admonished the corrupt cops, saying their unit “seemingly embraces a cowboy culture where anything goes in the never-ending war on drugs” and fosters an environment where “a refusal to go along with questionable practices raises the specter of blacklisting and isolation.”
That same month a commanding officer and several other front liners were disciplined following a high profile incident in which Jumaane Williams, a black City Councilmember and a black aide to the Public Advocate were arrested during the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn after they identified themselves and were given permission to cross a police barricade. The punishments ranged from verbal reprimands to loss of vacation time — slaps on the wrist. But Captains Endowment Association President Roy Richter still stood by the police action — which was caught on camera, quickly sparking popular outrage — and tried to pin the blame on the councilman. It’s no wonder, then, that New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman told reporters that this was not an isolated incident, but rather “emblematic of the serious attitude problem of the NYPD.”
So NYPD management can’t police the workforce, and the rank and file diligently make life miserable for the honest cops who tattle and ruin the fun for everyone else. In 2010, Officer Adrian Schoolcraft leaked tapes to the Village Voice revealing how commanding officers in Brooklyn’s 81st Precinct fudged crime statistics through pressuring officers to downgrade criminal offenses and setting quotas for issuing summonses. Schoolcraft alleges that in retaliation he was forced into a mental ward at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in an effort to discredit him. He also alleges that he has been harassed by NYPD officials while suspended from his job and living upstate.
Cops often rally in solidarity with the bad apples the internal mechanisms actually catch, as in the case of Officer Robert Neri, a white officer who in 2004 shot and killed Timothy Stansbury, an unarmed black teenager who had startled the cop on the way to a party in a Brooklyn housing project. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly took the unusual step of saying the killing appeared to be unjustified, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the grieving family. The PBA was livid, voicing “no confidence” in Kelly’s leadership. Neri, already turned into the latest symbol of the city’s popular black anger at the NYPD, was voted in as a PBA delegate, a sort of low-level reward from the rank and file for the public humiliation he had to endure for ending the life of a young man who had done no wrong.
In the world of New York City politics, the police unions wield social power. Candidates who need their endorsements and reporters who need them as sources tend to appease them. The union sent a clear message that it won’t tolerate a county prosecutor who treats cops like common citizens. Mayoral candidates are listening, as is Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., who is on thin ice after bungling several high-profile cases in his first two years in office, including the rape charges against International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss Kahn and a case involving two NYPD officers accused of raping a drunk woman while assisting her into her East Village apartment. Vance likely faces a challenge from the conservative ex-judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, who ran last time with heavy police union support.
The role police and their unions play in a city like New York is especially important as the OWS movement raises the issue of the 99%, which includes the members of the force. Zuccotti Park protesters often try to talk to officers on the scene about economic issues and why working-class Joes and Janes like themselves should support the movement. “There’s a lot of room for that message to be delivered to the cops,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former cop and professor of police science at John Jay College for Criminal Justice.
Some in the OWS movement believe that there can be common ground with the cops, because they are unionized, and the mainstream labor movement has come out in support of OWS. The police unions, however, seem interested only in raises and benefits for cops. The union will mobilize members to protest against cuts to their own pensions, which are much more generous that those of other civil servants, but won’t take it a step further to support the popular demand that the governor reinstate the millionaires’ tax or join other unions in economic justice campaigns.
There’s a reason for that attitude. In the NYPD, the police life is frequently all members of the force know. Young cops in particular work irregular schedules, making it difficult to maintain relationships with people outside the department. The camaraderie in the station houses and on the job becomes all the more important for the newbies. Other cops become their closest associates, integrating them into a culture where interpersonal loyalties become more important than showing restraint and upholding the law. Favors are exchanged and no one snitches for fear of being an outcast. And then a cop reads about one of his buddies being dragged out in the press, with Al Sharpton and everyone else bringing on criticism, and the whole affair becomes “us against them.”
This is not to say that there aren’t honest cops and those who might sympathize with OWS because they, too, have money problems at home or see a bleak economic future for their children. While they still have the ability to make more than $90,000 a year and retire with a pension at 40, however, it is unlikely that many cops are going to cross over soon. The “law and order” conservatism mixes nicely with a false consciousness that tells them, “I passed the police exam, so why can’t anyone else?” even though this isn’t an option for most. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Veterans of the military, on the other hand, have been vocal supporters of OWS. Perhaps this is because after they serve the system spits them back out onto the street. If state and city governments become so financially stretched that they start axing younger cops and drastically reducing police benefits, this might change.
Until then, they’re “just following orders.”
Do-Nut Be LIke
by Ari Paul
Police unions wield power in New York City politics. Here are three of the more visible of these fraternal orders:
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA): With 24,000 members, it is by far the largest NYPD union, representing the front-line officers. While these officers are the lowest on the NYPD totem pole, its president, Patrick Lynch, is one of the most influential people in the NYPD.
Fun fact: When Lynch, an Irish-American, was elected president in 1999, he ended two decades of Italian-American leadership. According to cop reporter Leonard Levitt, he declared ethnic victory, saying, “Out with the tomatoes, in with the potatoes.”
Detectives Endowment Association (DEA): The gumshoes’ syndicate’s boss, Michael Palladino, is an outspoken advocate. Among many key issues, he opposes the department’s use of Breathalyzers on cops after they have fired their weapons. To his credit, he lobbied hard for federal funding for healthcare for sick and injured 9/11 response workers.
Fun fact: In April 2008, the DEA banned New York Daily News journalists from a press conference with its acquitted members in the Sean Bell shooting trial, on the grounds that the tabloid had given too much voice to the prosecution.
Captains Endowment Association (CEA): This once obscure union has come into the spotlight in recent years following revelations that a posse of high-level officers raided the home of police whistle-blower Adrian Schoolcraft and had the dissident cop committed, against his will, to the psychiatric ward in a Queens hospital for six days. Several commanding officers (aka white shirts) have been caught on tape using excessive force against OWS protesters.
Fun fact: CEA President Roy Richter defended Anthony Bolonga, the infamous commanding officer who in the first week of OWS pepper-sprayed peaceful, female protesters. He told the Daily News: “His actions prevented further injury and escalation of tumultuous conduct. To date, this conduct has not been portrayed in its true context.”