The chant was hard to decipher through a bullhorn on a Tribeca street Sunday night, all the more so because the message was a bit unfamiliar. But, listen to the video posted online enough times, and you can make out what the protester was yelling: “Fuck the PBA!”
That’s the commonly used initialism of the Police Benevolent Association, the largest union representing NYPD officers – and the largest municipal police union in the world. The average New Yorker may not know anything about the PBA and its counterpart, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, or SBA, but the two unions are arguably as responsible for the current state of New York City policing as Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. (New York City has a total of five police unions that often have similar views, but the lieutenants, detectives and captains unions are much smaller.)
Certainly, close observers of New York politics have become familiar with the two major police unions and their extremely outspoken leadership. PBA President Pat Lynch issues enraged statements in response to any blowback against a police officer for using force. For instance, in 2004, when then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly concluded that it was unjustified for a police officer to shoot an unarmed black man in Brooklyn who was engaged in no criminal activity other than being on a housing project rooftop, Lynch reacted by saying, "Commissioner Kelly gave a message to the 23,000 New York City police officers that said basically this: Take all the risks of doing your job, go up on all those roofs, patrol all those subway platforms, walk the streets day and night, take the risks to yourself, take the risks to your family, but then when the worst happens, when there's a tragedy, that you will not have the backing of the New York police commissioner.”
That is, if anything, mild by Lynch’s standards. Usually, he goes on to predict that terror and chaos will be the inevitable result of the cop-hating, criminal-coddling politicians’ latest mistake. If there’s a use of force by a police officer that the PBA would admit is wrong and worthy of punishment, no one else knows what it is. (A PBA spokesman did not respond to an interview request, or a question as to whether Lynch has ever supported firing a cop for police brutality, before publication.)
Last year, Lynch even attacked then-Commissioner James O’Neill for firing Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner on Staten Island five years earlier. “The job is dead,“ Lynch said after Pantaleo’s termination. “Our police officers are in distress. Not because they have a difficult job, not because they put themselves in danger, but because they realize they’re abandoned.”
The rank-and-file seems to agree with Lynch’s approach: Last year, running unopposed, he was elected to his sixth term as PBA president.
Lynch’s most infamous comment, the one that many believe set New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio running scared from the cause of police reform, came after a man shot two NYPD officers in Brooklyn in 2014. The slain officers’ “blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the Office of the Mayor,” Lynch said. The PBA president blamed de Blasio because the mayor acknowledged, in the wake of Garner’s death, that racially disparate policing exists in New York City. Cops subsequently turned their back on de Blasio at the slain officers’ funeral, and the mayor has sided with the cops ever since.
Now, six years later, de Blasio’s erstwhile liberal base has been disappointed by seeing continued instances of police brutality, especially during the recent spate of protests against systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. As The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg observed on Monday, “late Saturday night, addressing the unrest in New York, de Blasio seemed to see the confrontations almost entirely through the eyes of law enforcement.” Of the cops who rammed protesters blocking their SUVs and throwing objects at the vehicles, de Blasio said, “I’m not going to blame officers who were trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation.” In response to this incident, along with the videos of NYPD officers attacking protesters with their hands, pepper spray and bikes, even some of the mayor’s own former advisors criticized him. On Monday, de Blasio’s position evolved into one more critical of the officers involved.
But to understand why the mayor does what he does, one must understand what he’s up against. On Monday, The City reported that since 2015 the PBA has spent upwards of $1.4 million on lobbying and campaign contributions. In addition to conventional political advocacy for their interests, as City & State noted in a 2019 cover story, “the cops also have the power to undermine a mayor by refusing to do their job.” In December 2014, when Lynch blamed the two officers’ murders on de Blasio, NYPD officers made two-thirds fewer arrests and wrote 94% fewer tickets than they had during the same period the year before. The PBA has also moved to block new policies intended to increase transparency and accountability, for example by suing to prevent the release of body camera footage.
“De Blasio meant what he said when he vowed to change the NYPD,” said one former de Blasio speechwriter, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “But then he tried, and there was infinitely more pushback than he'd anticipated. Maybe the most powerful force in the municipal government openly revolted against him, and it terrified him. It has ever since.”
As a gel-haired, pinstripe-suited union boss, Lynch is in many ways a throwback to an earlier era in New York politics, in which white men with tough-on-crime views were politically mainstream and brass-knuckled political brawlers from public sector unions were the norm. In archetypal NYPD fashion, Lynch was raised in a large Irish-Catholic family in Bayside, Queens.
SBA President Ed Mullins, other than being bald, cuts a very similar profile to Lynch – only he makes his counterpart seem mild-mannered in comparison. In February, when de Blasio condemned an assassination attempt on police officers, the SBA’s Twitter account responded, “Mayor DeBlasio, the members of the NYPD are declaring war on you! We do not respect you, DO NOT visit us in hospitals. You sold the NYPD to the vile creatures, the 1% who hate cops but vote for you.” Earlier this month, when it was revealed that New York City Department of Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot had angrily defended her refusal to hand over masks intended for doctors and nurses to NYPD officers demanding them for the department, the SBA wrote, “this bitch has blood on her hands but why should anyone be surprised the NYPD has suffered under DeBlasio since he became Mayor.” On Monday, the union leaked personal information about the mayor’s daughter Chiara de Blasio, stemming from her being arrested for failure to disperse at a peaceful civil disobedience protest in Manhattan. The SBA called Chiara de Blasio a “rioting anarchist” and falsely alleged that she had been throwing objects. “Is that why you’re tying our hands, because your daughter is out there?” Mullins asked the mayor, rhetorically, in an interview with the Times.
Mullins, however, rejects the notion that his union opposes police reform. “The SBA isn't an impediment to reform,” he said in a statement emailed to City & State via a spokesman. “We represent our diverse membership through no matter who is mayor, but especially in the face of one who so clearly was never interested in staying in the city long enough to gain the credibility needed to lead in a crisis.”
It would be a mistake to attribute the union dynamics to just the personalities of these individual union leaders. The presidents of the PBA and SBA are elected and they represent the views of many police officers. On Tuesday afternoon, Mullins posted a letter he sent to his members that read, in part, “I know you are being held back and used as pawns.” At the bottom, he included anonymous comments he said he has received from members, including this: "We have pepperball guns, tear gas, and other anti criminal riot apparatus such as horses not being deployed!"
The police unions and their various presidents have feuded with every New York City mayor in recent memory – sometimes adopting explicitly discriminatory or bigoted positions. In 1966, when then-Mayor John Lindsay increased civilian review of the NYPD, John Cassese, then-president the PBA, griped, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” The union sponsored a referendum effort that successfully defeated the measure. In 1973, the PBA sought to block women from joining street patrols. In 1978, the union opposed banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, warning that allowing LGBTQ officers to serve could be “catastrophic.” Even the law-and-order-obsessed Rudy Giuliani, who the PBA blamed for a lack of pay raises and supposed staffing shortages, received caustic criticism from Lynch.
“Pat Lynch is so famous for racist and vitriolic rhetoric, which fuels the fire, but it’s overly simplistic and maybe even dangerous to make it seem like it’s about Pat Lynch,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, the director of Communities United for Police Reform. “When we look at police unions in other jurisdictions around the country, it’s not that different from New York. Police unions block forward motion on police reform. We would argue that the police unions as an institution, as well as the NYPD, because they’re not as separate as people say, have outsized political power.”
Some of this may be endemic to the nature of public employee unions. It is the norm for even more progressive unions to jealously guard their employees’ prerogatives – just look at teachers’ unions, the bane of self-styled education reformers. Past presidents of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City public school teacher union, include such famously uncompromising figures as Albert Shanker and Randi Weingarten.
“I think the reason most cops act this way is that’s how bureaucracy and institutions work,” said the former de Blasio speechwriter. “They have their own interests. If you’re in the NYPD, you’re responsible for solving the city and country’s mental illness problems, you’re the first line of response in emergencies, you’re essentially a social worker in a city and country that doesn’t devote enough resources to solving those problems. If you’re out on the street and one of your friends gets shot or you feel like the public is too quick to blame you, you and the institutions that represent you are mostly devoted to safeguarding your interests. It’s going to put (police officers) in a defensive, angry crouch.”
De Blasio denies that he has been shaken by the police unions’ resistance. “Anyone with eyes to see knows that I have made my views clear on the need to change the NYPD and have often incurred the wrath of certain union leaders and haven't changed my views at all,” the mayor said in a Sunday press conference. “I want to see more faster, speedier, more transparent discipline when it comes to police.” The mayor’s office declined to provide additional comment for this story.
But civil rights advocates say that the NYPD often avoids “speedier, more transparent discipline” that is currently possible. Due to union contracts, it is exceedingly difficult to swiftly a fire a cop for excessive use of force, as they are entitled to a departmental trial and could sue to get their job back – as the PBA is currently doing on behalf of Pantaleo – if they want to argue that the trial wasn’t conducted fairly. “If they wanted to move discipline, they could fire cops within 2-3 months,” said Kang. “There’s no reason to be going years and years,” as was the case with Pantaleo, Kang added.
In the videos from the recent Black Lives Matter protests, “We saw white shirts,” meaning higher-ranking officers such as lieutenants and captains, “throwing people to the ground,” Kang noted. “Those names should be made public. They should be put on immediate suspension and there’s a disciplinary process that needs to be filed. What the mayor and NYPD are banking on is the concern will die down and no one will be asking in a year what happened to those cops.”
Kang also noted that Francisco Garcia, the officer recorded punching a man who allegedly violated social distancing regulations in Manhattan in early May, was merely placed on modified desk duty. “(The NYPD) should have put him on disciplinary suspension, which is the most they can do, filed charges the next day and fast-tracked for a department trial,” Kang said.
If the police unions’ political posture is the natural result of the underlying conditions, then they will remain an impediment to the accountability and transparency measures that civil libertarians propose, such as repealing 50-A, the state law that blocks disclosure of NYPD personnel records. But that doesn’t mean laws and departmental practices can’t be changed. According to Kang, “it starts with political leadership.” But for the kind of leadership she and other police reform advocates want to see, it will be at least another year and a half until a new mayor takes office.