No one would mistake the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the New York Civil Liberties Union for best buddies.
The two organizations — especially in recent months — have often found themselves on opposite sides of a rancorous debate over police reform in New York City.
But as two recent lawsuits against the NYPD have once again brought the department’s alleged quota system front and center in the news, they’ve also exposed something somewhat unexpected. The police reform movement and the department’s loudest supporters actually agree on one of the most important elements of the debate:
Everybody — and that means everybody — hates quotas.
But of course, police reformers and the PBA are not natural allies. When the union acknowledges the NYCLU’s existence, for example, it’s usually to excoriate the group for being “anti-cop” and smearing the good work of the city’s officers. And the PBA can be counted on to oppose almost any proposal police reform organizations are championing. In the past year it has spoken out against everything from new rules on stop-and-frisk and the imposition of criminal sanctions on officers who use chokeholds to classes for high school students on how to interact with police.
And the overheated rhetoric of PBA president Pat Lynch, in the wake of Eric Garner’s killing last summer, has made him something of a bogeyman in the minds of many.
But the police union has consistently agreed that quotas are damaging to the police department and the community. Way back in 2010, the PBA supported a change in state law that officially made quotas illegal. In 2013, Lynch wrote an op-ed in the Daily News again decrying quotas.
And just last week, the group threw its support behind a lawsuit — filed by none other than the NYCLU — on behalf of an officer who claims he was disciplined for complaining about the quota system.
The organization’s amicus brief — an official statement of support — argues that quota systems are “highly detrimental to a police department’s relationship with the public and its ability to carry out its law enforcement duties fairly.” That language sounds a whole lot like that of an NYCLU press release about the same lawsuit, which declared that “quotas lead to illegal arrests, criminal summonses, and ruined lives. They undermine the trust between the police and the people they are supposed to be protecting and serving.”
And quotas are no minor concern. Perhaps no other issue is as central to the goals of reformers as the quota system, which the NYPD denied even exists, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The drive to meet minimum requirements for arrests and summonses, critics say, leads to a siege mentality in communities of color, unnecessary harassment of residents, and a deep-seated mistrust between communities and the police who patrol them. Eliminating the push for ever-higher tallies could go a long way toward preventing the abuses reformers are most worried about.
See also: The NYPD Tapes
So if there’s so much agreement on such an important issue, why don’t we hear more about it? Why aren’t the PBA and groups like the NYCLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, or the Police Reform Organizing Project doing joint news conferences or, like, throwing picnics or something?
Some of the answers are obvious, says Eugene O’Donnell, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice — the rhetoric has just gotten too aggressive in recent years. Under Ray Kelly, O’Donnell says, the department kept pushing policies such as stop-and-frisk in the face of overwhelming opposition from reform groups. And the two sides got ever more entrenched.
“The conversation got very antagonistic,” O’Donnell says, “and a lot of fingers were pointed.”
Heated language on both sides, especially earlier this year, has prolonged what could have been a thaw and more productive dialogue under new commissioner William Bratton, O’Donnell says. But he thinks things have a chance to improve. “Hopefully now people can take a breath and start looking for common ground,” O’Donnell says.
He just might be right. When the Voice called the various groups involved to ask why they weren’t aligning more publicly, we got a lot of uncomfortable laughter. But we also got somewhat positive responses.
Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said he would be open to some kind of cooperation with the PBA. But it seemed, to him, that the union was more interested in opposing reforms than finding a way to move forward on those things the parties can agree on.
Referring to a landmark suit filed by CCR that mandated major reforms to the department’s stop-and-frisk practices, Charney said the PBA had been anything but helpful. When news broke last week of a memo distributed to the rank and file with new guidelines for stops, Lynch pilloried the new policy, saying cops would need an attorney with them on patrol to keep from violating the law.
“They continue to say inflammatory and inaccurate things,” Charney said, “rather than recognizing that there is a common goal here.” Still, Charney says his organization does see eye to eye with the PBA on the quota issue. And it would like to find a way to establish some cooperation in some form. “We’re willing to listen,” Charney said. “The door is always open.”
The NYCLU’s associate legal director, Chris Dunn, said he was well aware of the PBA’s opposition to quotas, but that so far the two sides haven’t exactly been going out for beers. While he acknowledged that such a thing might be hard to pull off, given the disagreement over a range of other issues, quotas are a real area of common ground, he said. Maybe they could find a way to work together.
“I can tell you that we would welcome that opportunity,” Dunn said. “But I don’t know that the PBA would.”
Well. Only one way to find out, right?
“We’re interested in working with anyone who is willing to work with us,” a PBA official told the Voice, adding that quotas seem to be an area where there could be some cooperation.
“[A quota] removes the officer’s discretion,” the official said, “and from the point of view of community relations, sometimes it’s better to just give someone a warning and an admonishment.” A few words, and a little leniency, can address whatever issue needs addressing, the official said. “And you didn’t make an enemy in the process.”
So, wait, is it possible they’ve just never talked about this? Is it possible that some Megazord-style convergence of cops and critics could rise up and speak with a united voice?
We think so. And we’re more than happy to take credit for the rapprochement.