Cops Vs. Cops

The NY Police Union’s Civil War

Even as the largest police union ordered its members to slightly ease off the slowdown, scabrous infighting is roiling the PBA behind the scenes.

01.16.15 10:45 AM ET

The police slowdown in New York—orchestrated by union officials who denied calling for it and insisted it wasn’t happening even as arrests virtually stopped across much of the city—appears to be coming to an end. With numbers going back up, the behind-the-curtain mechanics of the slowdown are being exposed, along with details of union control over how the job actually functions.

“I got word from my PBA delegates to start increasing arrests, to give the higher-ups something,” one Manhattan police officer said. PBA is the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the union of the NYPD’s rank and file, and by far the largest of the five unions that represent the police department.

His delegates told him to get out on the streets, but hold back a bit. “We didn’t go back to 100 percent,” he said. That matches with reporting in the Daily News last week that PBA boss Pat Lynch told union officials to spread the word among officers that “arrests should go back to at least 50 percent of what they used to do.”

Holding back a bit may be the union’s way of appeasing city officials who are demanding an end to the slowdown, illegal under New York’s Taylor Law, while maintaining some leverage. The union needs chips to play in negotiations about contracts, along with more intangible matters like the way Mayor Bill de Blasio talks about policing.

“The higher-ups, captain level and above, wanted to start punishing officers by denying of vacation days,” the Manhattan cop said. That approach, as John Surico reported in The Daily Beast this week, has brought arrests and summonses back up to around half of what they were before the slowdown—just what Lynch called for.

“Some commands I heard denied vacation days. They wouldn’t let you go sick for a day,” the officer said. But, he added, “My command didn’t do that.” And he didn’t know what kind of directives were coming from his top officer. “I’m at a level where I don’t see the captain’s direct influence,” he said.

The influence that got him out making small-time arrests again is the same source that told him to cut them out in the first place: his police union delegates.

“It’s almost like the Cosa Nostra,” the cop said with a laugh, adding that he only received news about the slowdown from union representatives in his command. “There’s always a buffer,” he said.

Even with the slowdown, well, slowed down, police unions haven’t dropped their fight with the city officials—particularly de Blasio—whom they say betrayed them. Led by the PBA, the war of words continues.

The longer it goes on, the more it exposes family secrets, like political infighting tied to an upcoming PBA election and signs of a growing rift with the city’s other police unions, which until now have let Lynch be the public face of the cops in their fight with City Hall.

Lynch, though, has seemed more intent upon lambasting the mayor, whom he says has disrespected the force ever since he campaigned for office on a promise to reform the last administration’s aggressive use of stop and frisk, rather than on winning particular concessions. Lynch has demanded an apology from de Blasio while also declaring that the mayor had “blood on his hands” after two police officers were assassinated—not by the mayor—in Brooklyn.

Those murders triggered the slowdown, which union officials attributed to tighter safety measures they implemented in the wake of the killings.

Without a clear set of demands from the PBA, as the cops’ battle with City Hall has dragged on, it’s gotten harder to say what they are fighting for.

A PBA meeting earlier this week degenerated into a pushing and shouting match between union members, the Daily News reported.

Lynch was criticized by some of his own delegates for focusing on extracting apologies from the mayor rather than presenting tangible demands for change. One PBA representative screamed at Lynch that his members “don’t want an apology”—instead, he said, “They want more cars, better vests, more manpower!”

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The PBA fired back after the meeting, blaming “traitors” who “effectively played right into the hands of our liberal, cop-hating mayor by giving the false impression that the PBA was divided.”

A PBA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the infighting was staged for the benefit of the media by a small group of political opponents planning to run against Lynch, the four-term president, when the union holds its elections in June.

On top of the dissension within the PBA, other police unions have offered their own proposals for mending the mayor’s relationship with the department.

On Tuesday, the same day as the explosive PBA meeting, the Lieutenant’s Benevolent Association released a plan to mend the “either real or perceived” hostility between the police and the city’s elected leaders.

The fact that the lieutenants released a unilateral proposal for how to break the stalemate is evidence of a growing rift with the PBA, said the source familiar with the union’s negotiations with the city.

How much distance there is between Lynch and the rank and file he represents is harder to gauge. One indication of Lynch’s support: He’s won his last four union elections.

What many average police officers say they want is a measure of respect, and support in the aftermath of questionable incidents, that they feel the mayor has withheld. “It would be easy to say I want a good contract but it’s not so much that,” said the officer who works in Manhattan. “I guess your average cop just want to see the mayor say, ‘Cops are innocent until proven guilty.’”

That same cop acknowledged that there were more than just “traitors” inside the department who opposed Lynch. “He’s been in for a while and hasn’t been challenged,” the officer said. “A lot of cops really aren’t satisfied with his leadership,” he said, “so it’s time to bring out the daggers.”

Despite the PBA’s problems and the continued rancor in its leaders’ rhetoric, the mayor seems to be moving closer to the police line on some issues.

Earlier in the week, the mayor promised to boycott a bill proposed by the City Council that would criminalize police chokeholds. On Thursday, he slammed hardline anti-police protesters. “Anyone who uses hate speak, anyone who denigrates our officers, anyone who is negative and threatening to our officers—first of all it’s wrong, it’s disgusting, it’s unacceptable,” de Blasio said. It was a harsher line than the mayor has taken with the protesters in past, but not likely to win him much credit with the police union.

Bitterness between the mayor and the police is something like a congenital feature in New York politics, especially when there are contract negotiations in the background.

“[Lynch’s] personality worked for him in the past” a source with knowledge of the negotiations between the police unions and City Hall said. “So he’s sticking with it.”

Nevertheless, times have changed, he said.

“In the past, you weren’t in the middle of a shit-storm. Now there’s a formidable opponent in City Hall who’s using a divide-and-conquer approach and practically gloating about the fact that he won’t back down or apologize.”