Twenty years ago this summer, New York City and the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) paid $8.7 million to settle a civil lawsuit with Abner Louima, who was tortured with a broken broomstick while in police custody at a Brooklyn station house.
Louima settled the infamous brutality case after he was promised the city and union would alter how the New York Police Department trains, monitors and disciplines its officers. Things were supposed to change for the better.
Flash forward to last week. The battle still rages on over police misconduct, discipline and the withholding of key disciplinary records from the federal courts and police abuse investigators.
The PBA, the largest of five police unions, has pushed back against reform in almost every way imaginable. The union is key to why NYPD officers have escaped discipline time and again for beating or killing people of color, behavior that raises uncomfortable questions about manifest racism in law enforcement.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been a disappointing enabler of the NYPD’s unions and the behavior they tacitly – and sometimes explicitly – condone. He won in 2013 on a platform that repudiated aggressive policing tactics. But he has proven to be an apologist for the PBA, siding with police use of aggressive tactics last summer on Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters.
Just last month, State Attorney General Letitia James sued the NYPD for a pattern of excessive force and false arrests against protesters. That case – and others like it around the country – suggest the anti-police brutality uprisings of 2020 might have finally cracked the NYPD unions’ barrier of invulnerability. And last week, the New York City Council threw down the gauntlet. It introduced a long-promised package of bills that would reshape the NYPD and improve officer accountability.
Among other things, the measures would strip the NYPD commissioner of authority over police discipline, shifting that responsibility to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The bills also ask voters to approve a referendum requiring the next police commissioner to be selected by a majority vote of the City Council, instead of the current unilateral judgment of the mayor.
All of this follows an executive order issued last summer by Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring every municipal police department in New York State to work with local community leaders to implement reforms to police practices. The New York State Legislature also banned chokeholds, mandated body cameras, created a special prosecutor to investigate police-involved deaths, and changed laws that shielded police disciplinary records.
But here in NYC, the official tone is different. Mayor de Blasio claims he supports disclosure of police disciplinary records, but his administration’s lawyers demand a blanket non-disclosure agreement in federal court cases to keep the records secret. And the PBA, which endorsed former President Donald Trump for reelection, spreads around generous campaign contributions every election cycle and flexes its political muscle in ways that helps keep egregious practices like this in place.
The PBA likes to wrap its members in the American flag, proclaiming them heroes and brave defenders against the hordes. However, the union takes extreme anti-human rights stances. For instance, when Daniel Pantaleo – who fatally choked Eric Garner while arresting him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes in 2014 – was finally fired in 2019, the PBA filed a high-profile appeal and publicly threatened a work slowdown.
The PBA harshly denounced BLM protesters. Yet, the union declined to call out the mostly white mob – stoked by Trump — that violently stormed, vandalized and defaced the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, resulting in five deaths, including the killing of a Capitol Police officer. It is hard to believe this hypocritical bunch speak for Black rank and file officers.
No other New York City collective bargaining unit is engaged in protecting its members like the PBA, which does not hesitate to give a blanket defense in the most horrendous abuse cases. The union’s clout has afforded the NYPD an unusual aura of invincibility, in part because elected officials do not want to be seen as coming down against labor unions. “One thing we have to do is separate in the minds of the public that the police unions are like other municipal labor unions, fighting for pensions and health benefits. They are not,” said Brooklyn College Prof. Alex Vitale, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project. “They embrace a right-wing, toxic politics here in New York and across the nation, and any politician that takes money from them is working against any type of progressive agenda.”
Gov. Cuomo has given New York municipalities until April 1 to propose police reforms. Cities and towns that fail to comply face the loss of state local aid. To help communities engaged in the governor’s order identify interventions that can address their particular public safety needs, the Community Service Society has compiled a database of best practices as well as interviews with some of the leading experts on policing and addressing the problem of police violence. To view the database, go to www.cssny.org/pages/police-reform-practices.
Here in the city, tacking the PBA’s outsized, unwarranted power should be top of the list.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.