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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014, 10:00 am

As New York City Considers Criminal Justice Reforms, Police Unions Stand in the Way

BY Ari Paul

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Rather than acting in solidarity with other unions and working towards progressive causes, police unions often defend officers' reactionary and violent behavior.   (Giacomo Barbaro / Flickr)

While the nation was waiting to hear whether a grand jury would indict the Ferguson police officer who killed Michael Brown, New Yorkers learned of yet another police killing. On Thursday, an unarmed 28-year-old African-American man named Akai Gurley was shot in a stairwell of his Brooklyn public housing complex. Both the police commissioner and the mayor extended condolences to the family and called the incident a travesty.

Local police union president Patrick Lynch expressed a few words of regret, too. But rather than focusing on remorse for Gurley, Lynch decried “those who make their careers criticizing police” and said that stairwells like the one Gurley was killed in are "fertile ground for violent crime." 

Progressive Democrats have heralded the ascendance of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a sign of a new era in liberal urban policy, especially with the help of unions. But one union is blocking key progressive reforms in the city’s troubled criminal justice system: the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), representing more than 30,000 officers at the New York Police Department.

When de Blasio hired former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s top cop Bill Bratton to run the department, it assuaged fears among the police rank-and-file that the new mayor’s perceived mushy liberalism would increase crime by ending the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactic. But the alliance was brief. PBA President Patrick Lynch has taken de Blasio to task on more mundane matters like disability benefits, but also decried the move to give a summons of marijuana possession instead of making an arrest as “surrender.”

Nothing has ruffled Lynch’s feathers like the death of black Staten Island man Eric Garner, who was killed by a cop using a chokehold to subdue him during an investigation of claims that Garner may have been selling individual cigarettes, or “loosies.” The death has been widely seen as the consequence of over-zealous “quality of life” policing of non-white communities. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city’s main teachers union, marched in solidarity with Rev. Al Sharpton over the incident—infuriating Lynch and PBA supporters.

City Council is now moving to outlaw the kind of maneuver that killed Garner. The PBA lashed back, calling such a safeguard a “negative anti-police message” and the product of an “out of control City Council.”

The growing campaign of criminal justice activists against Bratton’s brief stewardship of the department is beginning to shift its focus not just on the commissioner but on the union as well.

“When incidents like the Garner case happen, as black law enforcement, either we know the victim, the victim’s family or we are the victim,” says Blacks in Law Enforcement representative Damon Jones, asking rhetorically of Lynch, “Are you playing to the base of the NYPD, which is usually a white, male base? Or are you not recognizing that this could have been any of the black or Latino members who pay dues?”

Jones claims that in the state since 1970, there have been 26 incidents of off-duty or plain-clothes black police officers accidentally shot by their white colleagues. “It’s never been in the reverse,” of off-duty plain-clothes white officers being shot by black colleagues, he says. “In the most recent cases, the union still blamed the victim.”

And while Jones recognizes the importance of unions in bargaining and giving due process to members, he argues that the PBA’s Lynch has acted more like an extension of NYPD management than a part of the labor movement. “Lynch is saying what [Commissioner] Bratton won’t say, because he works for de Blasio and wants to be politically correct,” Jones says.

The PBA’s decision to sidewith Bratton represents a curious evolution, since the cop unions originally bristled at Bratton’s ascendance to NYPD commissioner 20 years ago, according to Brooklyn College sociologist and policing scholar Alex Vitale. Cops, he said, wanted to arrest big criminals, not round up homeless people in the parks and cuff fare evaders. They saw it as busy work.

“The unions were in the leadership of saying, ‘This is not real policing,’” Vitale says.

Bratton threw a bone to the cops while under Giuliani, fulfilling the police unions’ desire to turn in powder blue shirts worn by patrolmen for navy blue. “They thought it was too effeminate,” Vitale says. In addition, just before Giuliani took office, the police force switched from revolvers to semi-automatic handguns, a longstanding officer demand.

These shifts helped cause a massive mindset change. “Now the union has been not only convinced that they are responsible for the crime drop, but that they achieved it through moralistic policing,” Vitale says. “They believe, as a result, that the only thing that keeps the city from devolving into Sodom and Gomorra is the constant moral reminders of the police through ticketing and arrests. [Officers are] skeptic[al] of New Yorkers being able to behave themselves, especially the poor and non-white.”

The PBA’s intransigence has stifled other public sector unions from wading into criminal justice reform. While private sector unions like SEIU 32BJ have lent their voices to police critics, the UFT, as a public sector union, took a gamble making a statement by joining up with Sharpton.

“They share the same health care plans and negotiating patterns,” Vitale says of public sector unions and their bonds with groups like the PBA. “So solidarity means something fairly concrete because they have to work together on these things.”

The PBA and its sister police unions are perhaps the only collective bargaining units the city’s right wing can embrace. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post recently gave Lynch op-ed space to blast critics in a segment the tabloid called the “War on Cops,” yet no similar space has been given the city’s teachers’ union, which has endured significant negative press recently. E.J. McMahon of the conservative Manhattan Institute, usually eager to preach to a reporter about the horrors of public sector unions, did not return requests to talk about the power of police unions. The PBA’s press office also did not respond to requests for comment.

There is a tendency among progressives in the labor movement to hold back criticism of police violence because “cops are in a union, too.” But this is a union that has taken solidarity and given none back. Lynch's defense of other unions under attack has been perfunctory at best. And as Jones points out, he has never attempted to act as a representative of the police by reaching out to black and Latino neighborhoods to build bridges with those communities. 

And when it comes to issues like marijuana arrests and brutality against people of color, the union has continued to act as an implacable opponent of desperately needed progressive reform in New York City.

Ari Paul has covered politics for The Nation, Vice, The Guardian, Dissent, Jacobin, Al Jazeera America and many other outlets.

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