Many cities have experienced occasional outbreaks of the “blue flu”. Police officers get angry over a contract dispute or an argument with the mayor, and for a few days, refuse to report for work or write fewer tickets.
But only New York City has ever experienced decades of sustained militancy by its police unions – from repeated work slowdowns like the one now taking place, to riotous mass rallies and public denunciations, political campaigns, and well-funded legislative pressure.
“The unions are completely unlike those in any city I’m familiar with,” said Samuel Walker, author of The Police in America, and a longtime criminal justice professor. “Typically, the worst you get is a union vote of no confidence in the police chief. But in New York, the kind of attitude you get from the police unions, it’s completely over the top.”
New York’s uniformed force is nearly three times as large as the next biggest force (in Chicago), giving its five police unions a far stronger voice than elsewhere. But sheer size cannot explain the outsize role the unions have long played in the police policies of the city, one almost equal to that of the police brass and city hall.
It was the unions that put semi-automatic weapons in the holsters of city police officers in the early 1990s, over the strenuous objections of the department’s leaders. It was the unions that preserved the right of officers to live in the suburbs, resisting the attempts of several mayors to make them live in the city they patrol. They have usually gotten their way on issues of staffing, shifts, overtime and pensions. And the unions have repeatedly thwarted investigations into corruption and brutality on the force – including the bathroom sodomization of Abner Louima in 1997 – using tactics including warning officers of undercover operations and trying to discredit the Internal Affairs Bureau.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association “often acts as a shelter for and protector of the corrupt cop,” an official city investigations commission concluded in 1994, referring to the largest and most powerful of the unions.
Now those unions are using their muscle to demand apologies and humiliation from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who they say has been insufficiently respectful of the police force. Because the mayor has given a platform to police critics like the Rev Al Sharpton, and has spoken openly of the fear many black residents experience in dealing with the department, many officers turned their back on him at the funerals of two officers murdered on the job.
Over the past several weeks, the unions orchestrated a city-wide slowdown in arrests and ticket-writing. They seem to have let up in recent days, but their demands, both for a better contract and an overt sign of respect from city hall, have not gone away. As the head of the sergeant’s union recently told de Blasio: “You have to humble yourself.”
Some of that strident attitude can be traced back to the original Irish sense of solidarity on the force, defiant of outside political authority and protective of individual members. The PBA was long a redoubt of white suburban officers, often at odds with the more liberal city they patrolled, and it took its voice from the city’s in-your-face culture. The union appointed its first black director only in 2002; many black officers felt more comfortable in groups like the Guardians Association. Phil Caruso, the union’s president in the 1980s and 90s, said he didn’t believe gay men or lesbians should be police officers, and blocked efforts to expand minority hiring on the force.
Jobs for the boys
“It’s like having a men’s club,” Charles Cochrane, who led the Gay Officers Action League in the early 1980s, told New York Newsday in 1991. “They act like they’re a small clan. It’s every other ‘ist’ you can get: It’s subtly sexist, subtly racist and subtly homophobic.”
More than half of the NYPD’s patrol force, the group represented by the PBA, is now black, Hispanic or Asian. But Peter Moskos, a former police officer who is now an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said officers of all backgrounds tend to be far more conservative than the average New Yorker.
“There’s a little more ideological diversity than there used to be, but the force as a whole is way off to the right,” said Moskos, author of Cop in the Hood. “The loudest voices in the union are still people whose parents left the city for Long Island and who come into the city only to work and go to Rangers games.”
A spokesman for the PBA did not return a request for comment. Patrick Lynch, the union’s president, grew up and lives in Bayside, Queens, which is across Little Neck Bay from the edge of the city’s Long Island suburbs.
In part because of its very different ideology and demographics, the police unions have rarely had the support of the city’s mainstream labor movement, which is far more liberal, and have kept their distance from it. They have never been members of the New York City Central Labor Council, which represents 300 local unions. Leaders have always argued that because officers put their lives on the line for the city, they should not be subject to the same bargaining patterns as workers in less dangerous jobs, and should be awarded privileges that few other public unions get.
But they have been able to count on two major allies. The first is the city’s tabloid press, which finds it useful to be seen supporting the demands of police officers, particularly when they conflict with liberal mayors like de Blasio or David Dinkins. A columnist for the New York Post recently accused de Blasio of prompting the current slowdown by pushing a “radical agenda” and disrespecting the police.
Their most important ally over nearly a century has been the New York state legislature, which has used its constitutional ability to micromanage the city’s laws and finances to reward the police unions in countless ways. Those unions control a large bloc of votes, can cripple a campaign by portraying a candidate as against law and order, and take generous advantage of the state’s high political contribution limits. According to an analysis of campaign filings by the Guardian, the five police unions (one each for patrol officers, sergeants, lieutenants, detectives, and captains) have contributed more than $1.4m to the campaigns of state officials since 2010.
Even now, the unions are using their sizeable political power in Albany to try to strip the police commissioner of his ability to discipline officers for misconduct, whether it is corruption, brutality or engaging in a slowdown. In the final hours of last year’s session, both legislative chambers overwhelmingly passed a bill that would turn over all disciplinary proceedings to an arbitrator controlled by the unions.
“The authority of local officials to deter police misconduct will be seriously compromised; public accountability for the conduct of police will be all but eliminated,” the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote, in describing the effects of the bill. “This legislation would in many cases serve to immunize police officers who have committed acts of misconduct against civilians.”
As the Empire Center for Public Policy noted, the bill’s legislative memo “sounds as if it was written by the unions backing the measure.”
The discipline bill is now on the desk of Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has vetoed a similar bill before, as have several of his predecessors. On the other hand, the governor’s campaigns have accepted more than $140,000 from the police unions. He recently defended Lynch, who said there was “blood on the hands” of de Blasio for the recent murder of two police officers, as “a Queens boy” and “a pro” for standing up for his members.
Now Cuomo is being pressured by the unions to step in and settle the dispute with de Blasio, a role he may accept, since he enjoys showing up city hall.
The unions’ demands for extra privileges began early on. The PBA was formed in 1894 to provide dependents of police officers with a $175 death benefit, but only a few years later it began its transformation into a politically minded labor organization. In 1900, for the first time, the group began raising money to influence the passage of a bill in Albany that would limit officers to an eight-hour work day.
That infuriated the famously corrupt police chief, William “Big Bill” Devery, who wanted to be able to choose which officers worked long days and which got easy assignments. He issued an order forbidding the fundraising and said officers could play no role in trying to undermine his management of the force. The PBA – which would not be formally recognized as a bargaining unit by the city until 1962 – insisted in 1900 that it was nothing more than a charitable group, but the New York Times was skeptical:
“For a long time,” the paper reported, “it has been rumored that a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association was really an organization for the purpose of carrying out the political and legislative objects of members of the force.”
The unions’ habit of bypassing city hall and winning more favorable working conditions from Albany through big donations was repeated often over the decades. In 1921, the Detectives’ Endowment Association raised what witnesses called a $10,000 “slush fund” to persuade legislators to increase the pay of detectives. In 1969, the PBA fought off an attempt by Mayor John Lindsay to give the police commissioner more flexibility in the assignment of officers during high-crime hours.
In 1970, the unions pressured Albany into approving the first in a series of “heart bills,” which allowed police officers (and firefighters) to claim that any heart ailment was an on-the-job injury, allowing them to collect substantial tax-free disability pensions, courtesy of the city treasury. Doctors said that few of the ailments were truly related to job conditions, and in 1979 Mayor Ed Koch called the bills “outrageous and a ripoff” that cost the taxpayers $20m a year, the equivalent of $65m today. But the heart rules are still in effect.
When the budget crisis of 1970s forced Mayor Abe Beame to lay off thousands of cops, the unions pulled out their usual trump card, scaring the city with the specter of higher crime. They distributed leaflets to tourists in 1975 entitled “Welcome to Fear City,” warning visitors to stay off the streets after 6pm and never to ride the subway. Living in the suburbs, though, many officers didn’t have to worry about the safety of their own families.
As the legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote at the time: “That policeman handing out ‘Fear City’ leaflets on a Brooklyn street actually lives in Rockland County, and he pays taxes and casts his vote with one objective: keep Sonny Liston out of my daughter’s classroom.”
The unions are at their loudest when they perceive excessive scrutiny or criticism of their members’ actions on the job. They spent years fending off demands for a civilian board to review complaints of brutality, requested by mayors going back to Lindsay. They staged a work slowdown in 1985 when a white officer was indicted for shooting an elderly black woman.
And they regularly protected officers accused of corruption and brutality, at substantial cost to their reputation and even their treasury. The most egregious example of this was in the case of Louima, a Haitian immigrant. After he was sodomized with a broom handle by three officers in the basement of a Brooklyn station house in 1997, he sued the PBA, saying union delegates helped the officers get their story straight and prevented others in the station from talking to police investigators.
Lynch stood on the courthouse steps in 2000 after the officers were convicted, denying any culpability and swearing he would never give up the fight to exonerate them. But testimony in the case made it clear that the union had participated in a cover-up, and a year later, it surrendered. In an unprecedented settlement, the first time a police union ever paid to end a brutality case, the PBA agreed to pay Louima $1.625m.
The unions are at their loudest when they perceive excessive scrutiny or criticism of their members’ actions
That didn’t put a stop to Lynch’s stridency, of course. In 2004, after Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said there was no justification for an officer to have shot to death Timothy Stansbury Jr, an unarmed black man in Brooklyn, the union demanded Kelly resign. Lynch said it was clear that 23,000 patrol officers who risk their lives every day did not have the backing of the commissioner.
If that sounds similar to the incendiary language Lynch is now using against the de Blasio administration for criticizing the department’s excesses, it’s because it doesn’t really matter who the mayor or commissioner is, or what the circumstances are. The PBA hasn’t been able to reach a contract settlement with the city. As long as the unions have the power to threaten the security of the city, or the secure jobs of elected officials, they will use it to pursue their own interests.
In fact, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the union’s Republican allies in Albany are already talking about settling the dispute in the same way they have for decades now: by increasing police pensions.