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

Ari Paul November 25, 2014

Rather than acting in solidarity with other unions and working towards progressive causes, police unions often defend officers' reactionary and violent behavior.

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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