Are New York cops special?

Scott Greenfield has been like a dog with a bone on the awful behavior of New York cops (e.g., here), and their mouthy union president, regarding the cops turning their backs on the Mayor of New York in a very public show of disdain.  The cops expressed their open disrespect for the Mayor following the killing of two perfectly innocent New York City police officers.

Photo credit: AP Photo / John Minchillo

Photo credit: AP Photo / John Minchillo

For what it is worth, I strongly agree with Scott that such behavior is disgraceful. It represents an intolerable insult to the voters of New York and, what is far worse, a not too subtle attack on the important principle of absolute civilian control over the police. This is true no matter what the cops think of the liberal Mayor.

I wonder whether the behavior of these police officers and their union president is unique to the cop culture in New York? My question is a serious one, albeit perhaps naive. Are New York cops special?

Any guesses?



37 responses

  1. I think there are special factors that have created a kind of perfect storm for the NYPD. For one thing, Mayor de Blasio took office with a promise to cut down on stop-and-frisk, which was then declared unconstitutional as applied by a federal court. Stop-and-frisk had been a mainstay of policing in New York–more than in other cities. New York also has a history of being rocked by scandals in the use of force, particularly against people of color–the Abner Louima case, for instance. Then, when a group of cops killed Eric Garner, it came after the events in Ferguson, so that the failure to indict the officer who used a choke-hold was more widely publicized, and generated more protest, than would otherwise have been the case. All of that made it possible for the leadership of the policeman’s union (which is engaged in contract negotiations) to incite a siege mentality among much of the rank-and-file. And that leadership has been much more unscrupulous than in other cities.

    I’m not an expert of police or policing, but I suspect that the New York police are not very different than police in general, and not as bad as they look right now.

    I’d also like to say Thank God for Bill Bratton, the commissioner (again). He is the best cop in the nation. He did a great deal to professionalize the police in Boston, in New York during his earlier tenure, and in Los Angeles. New York is lucky to have him right now.

    In a larger sense, all of the turmoil over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases should lead us to re-examine the role we expect police to play, and their place in our society.

  2. Special compared to what? As far as I know police departments don’t have report cards that can be used to compare them.

  3. jsneff,

    I will try to be more precise: Is there something to the cop culture in NYC that makes that culture unique, or can one extrapolate, given the huge size of that department, to cops in other places?

    All the best.


  4. With the benefit of a somewhat inside view, I would say that the NYPD is actually about 30 years ahead of many of the other large departments in the country (e.g. Chicago). NY and London almost certainly have the most modern and professional forces in the world, and the NYPD demonstrates this by learning lessons faster than it used to. For example, we are still handling dozens of lawsuits from the protests around the 2004 GOP convention, and many OWS suits, but the general feeling is that the tactics employed in the recent protests will generate far fewer 1983 suits because of better tactics.

    However, NYC is positively antediluvian when it comes to Union politics. People forgot how “real” NYC politics works under 13 years of Bloomberg because he was the rare politician who was independent enough to ignore the “system”. However, Bloomberg’s biggest ‘failure’, and not accidentally the biggest mess he left to De Blasio, was the failure to renegotiate the 1500+ union contracts that govern the more than 300K municipal workers, including the PD.

    I think people are unwilling to believe that union leaders like Pat Lynch could be so “cynical” as to inject the recent assisination and the sensitive issues of race and policing into a union contract negotiation, but that is extremely short sighted. NYC operates on the principal that everyone will take what they can get, and many would consider the PD union leaders to be negligent if they did not exploit every possible angle to obtain the best possible contract result for their constituents. Call it zealous, if distasteful, advocacy.

    The cops turning their backs on the mayor may have many different internal motivations, but as a rule cops everywhere tend to be conformists who do not like to stand out of the crowd. Thus, to create the kind of effect that the Unions have achieved, you don’t really need to convince all of the rank and file that De Blasio has “blood on his hands”; rather, you just need a sufficient cadre of loyalists agitators to convince their peers that the “conformist” position is the one advocated by the union.

    I know officers who, in the deep dark of the local Irish bar, will admit that there are systemic problems with how the NYPD treats minorities. However, even those officers are reluctant to criticize Pat Lynch, because he is out there fighting for the cost of living increase that they haven’t gotten for the past 3+ years.

    The real flaw of the De Blasio administration is how poorly they have handled the union negotiations in general. It is not surprising that the seasoned fighters like Pat Lynch are pushing the mayor around.

  5. Tobias.

    Fascinating. Thank you.

    By the way, and from a theoretical point of view, I am not a big fan of public employee unions. I started to inject that note into the post but thought it might be distracting. From your insightful comment, it appears that I missed the elephant in the room.

    Again, thanks for your engagement. All the best.


  6. “…what is far worse, a not too subtle attack on the important principle of absolute civilian control over the police.”

    I am pretty sure that principle is tied to the civilian control and authority over the military. Cops are supposed to be “civilians”, abiding by the same rules and same criminal justice system as the rest of us.

    Then again I heard some Hollywood type promoting a show over the weekend say the hook in her show was famous people dating “civilians”, so I suspect “civilians” is the new code word for plebeian.

  7. Terraformer,

    I meant civilian control in the electoral sense and not to imply that police officers were not citizens or civilians too. Sorry that I was unclear.

    All the best.


  8. I am not sure the police unions, even in NYC, are as much of a change in police political activities. Cops and their families vote, and they have used groups like FOP to provide political help to their friends and to curse their enemies. While still at Yale LS, Judge Winter wrote classic in public employee labor law in which he argued that with the political clout of uniformed employees, collective bargaining amounted to two bites out of the apple. Maybe now though pension funding problems and tight municipal budgets have weakened the unions.
    The literature on police culture does indicate that a lot of attitudes go with the blue, danger of job, no one appreciates us, thin blue line against the barbarians. But there are probably elements unique to each large city, such as the Irish cop bars, in this part of the world Irish bars are for the shrinking middle class.

  9. I don’t think public employee unions are any more inefficient than many of the other strange structures we use to manage power in our weird federal/state hybrid system.

    Bear in mind that NYC has never had a strong tradition of direct democratic governance. Most people couldn’t even name their city council member, since the city council is relatively powerless compared to the mayor. New York City has always been governed by quasi-private interest groups pushing and pulling over the details. The richest New Yorkers consider it their privilege to ignore government in most instances, and hire lawyers, contractors, factors, etc. to handle the actual nitty gritty.

    The public unions are a powerful voice for certain middle class and lower middle class constituencies. The “working class” interests are often more amorphous, and fluid – e.g., those who might be considered Al Sharpton’s ‘constituency’.

    And any apparently monolithic structure in NYC, particularly the NYPD, needs to be understood as a loose conglomeration of separate administrative fiefdoms and parochial interests. (Understanding the patrol boroughs and the separate commands within NYPD is key to understanding the institution).

    What works here wouldn’t necessarily work elsewhere.

    I feel compelled to add the weasel words about all views being my own based on my non-privileged observations, and not reflecting the views of my employers/clients etc.

    Thanks for providing a forum for thoughtful discussion. I tend to eschew such discussions on the Internet because people generally don’t want to have the “comfortable” positions of the “left” and “right” challenged.

  10. Anony.,

    My brother was a local chairman of a very powerful union. I have been a member of the UAW. I don’t dislike private sector unions.

    Public employee unions, however, raise very different issues than compared to the labor union movement writ large. There is considerable research suggesting that public employee unions are very good at “rent seeking” meaning that they secure benefits from politicians that would not otherwise be available in an open market–economic inefficiency, if you will. In turn, this rent seeking tends to encourage politicians to view public employee unions as more powerful than private citizens because public union members see material benefits to voting as a block, and politicians are unlikely to believe that the private taxpayer is able to discern the true cost of the public employee unions’ rent seeking. Think, for example, of the pension costs of fire and police employees.

    All the best.


  11. The errant attitude of the police union leader is systemic: “Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.” – Wall Street Journal

    I am astonished that what is simmering, and sometimes boiling, underneath the patina of apparent conformity to civil behavior is not seen as dangerous.

    I am doubly astonished that there are not enough eyes that notice it.

  12. One comment @ Greenfield’s blog, which Judge RGK linked to, follows:

    The complaint that anyone who works in such a dangerous job deserves respect is very common. However, Bureau of Labor Statistics 10 most dangerous jobs 2013:

    1. Logging workers
    2. Fishers and related fishing workers
    3. Aircraft pilot and flight engineers
    4. Roofers
    5. Structural iron and steel workers
    6. Refuse and recyclable material collectors
    7. Electrical power-line installers and repairers
    8. Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers
    9. Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers
    10. Construction laborers

    (Cop’s Response, Shooting Blanks).

    The immediate resort to “but it is haard werk” when cops kill unarmed folks is the logical fallacy we know as “the straw man.”

    None of the more dangerous jobbers could claim “sovereign immunity,” an official way of saying “isn’t that special” (Church Lady, SNL).

  13. As has been noted by several of the comments, the rift between the Mayor and the NYPD, or at least the PBA, is a complex one and the rantings of a certain blogger never come close to addressing or evaluating them. The PBA was deeply upset at the way the Mayor approached the “stop and frisk” trial in the SDNY. Even after the Second Circuit sent an obvious signal that they would like the constitutional issue to come before it and that it wasn’t happy with the conduct of the trial judge, the City declined to take an appeal. When the PBA tried to intervene (which it had no standing to do) the City opposed their application while it simply could have remained moot and let the plaintiffs make the obvious argument about lack of standing. Add the perception (if not the reality) that “broken windows” and stop and frisk had been instrumental in reducing the crime rate, and it becomes clearer as to why the PBA, and most likely a good portion of the rank and file, are not shy about displaying their disdain for the Mayor.
    Just another ingredient that makes up the stew.

  14. They have more opportunities to arrest diplomats but they do so at much higher rate than the DC police who should have more opportunities.

    Not so long ago they mugged a judge and that seems very special to me.

  15. Judge, Rent seeking is just a fancy word for self interest. We are all rent seekers. In theory perfectly competitive markets do not produce rents, that is what there is no free lunch means. Once imperfects are allowed, that is reality creeps in, rent seeking raises its head, the agency problems are exemplary. An open ended preference for open markets is not warranted, there are other market imperfects besides monopolies
    Other than a little game theory, I am not sure what public choice theory adds to classic interest group analysis. The comments of Anonymous, the real one not me, that public employees are just one of many players in the interest contest. The disorganized voters do not go away without unions, there is just more rent for the great and the good.

  16. Duke raises a different issue about public employees unions, that they are not traditional Gompers economic unions, and seek to inject themselves into policy issues that would not come within traditional NLRB bargaining..
    Cut back on stop and frisk does not seem to be impacting crime statistics in NYC. Broken windows does
    not seem to have disappeared, though a death penalty for annoying store owners does seem harsh.

  17. Judge:
    You ask if the culture is different here. As a lifelong New Yorker I reply that I am not sure. I do know that the anger many rank-and-file cops feel towards the mayor is very real. And just today Commissioner Bratton warned cops not to again turn their backs on the mayor at another cop funeral scheduled for this weekend: He said a cop’s funeral is about grieving, not grievance. But you hit on what may be a bigger issue, namely, public sector unions. I recall FDR’s quote about this subject that public sector unions “turn citizen against citizen.”. Now that the bills are coming due, I.e., crushing pension debt is outstripping the ability of a smaller workforce to pay for same, we may forced to have a conversation about he appropriateness of such entities.

  18. Robert I know it is fashionable to speak of the crushing pension costs, but we are really talking about fixed or defined benefit plans. In those plans the employer bears the portfolio risk. Public employers, like most of the rest of us assume market value of their portfolios was like cash and could only go up. Despite the Judge’s public choice theory, the unions did not elect the politicians alone, and the employer’s contributions were as inadequate as the employees. A cynic might suggest that the only people not responsible for their own actions were the local taxpayers who accepted the lower tax rates caused by kicking the can down the road and hoping there was never a bad day ahead down that road.
    In addition politicians were quit willing to trade future for present benefits since in pandered to the taxpayers desire for stable or falling tax rates. If they did not know they were buying on credit, tough circumstances.

  19. The other thing about pension costs is that they aren’t, and weren’t, invisible. We’ve known about them for some time, and instead of putting aside some money to pay bills we knew were coming, complain that we put too much on our credit cards back then and shouldn’t have to pay all of it now, because we would have to work to earn the money to pay the bills. (In this analogy, work = taxes. Please don’t start there.)

  20. Dear repenting lawyer & David:
    That the problem with kicking the can down the road: sooner or later, your run out road.

  21. the can has run out of road in detroit,elected leaders buying union votes with public money,taking taxes from people with no pension or health care to pay for their own

  22. RL,

    While disorganized voters do not go away without public sector unions, the cost (“rent”) to them can rise dramatically. What is more scary to me is that politicians frequently curry the favor of public sector unions, thus giving their members disproportionate power to alter public policy from within the government and outside the normal electoral channels.

    All the best.


  23. Robert,

    I wonder whether the power of the cop union in NYC is greater than in most other places in this country? I have no idea, and I also wonder how we might determine the answer to that question from an empirical point of view. Questions, questions, questions.

    All the best.


  24. Judge:
    My answer? Powerful but not the most powerful. Two other public sector unions come to mind. First, the New York City teachers as represented by the UFT. This is the union that made the infamous “rubber rooms” (rooms where teachers sit all day, do nothing and collect their pay and pensions because they have been accused of wrongdoing) possible precisely because it is so hard to actually terminate a teacher. Among cop unions, the cops out on Long Island are, believe it or not, supposedly the highest paid in the country even though cops in many other jurisdictions probably have it tougher.

  25. Robert, my somewhat obscure point and David’s clear point was that municipal government had treated pension funding as for tomorrow in service of taxpayers not unions and now that bill is due suddenly taxpayers are not responsible and unions are evil.

  26. Judge the power of police unions on the economic side could be compared using some fancy statistical variant of the comparable cities approach of NE CIR with ability to pay factored in. The impact on policy would be more difficult to measure. Presence of both civil service and contract remedies in discipline cases would be interesting as would be tolerance for adverse judgments in abuse cases.

  27. Robert Pay standing alone or policing condition standing alone are not particularly good measures of power, pay has to be considered along with tax base and attendant resistance to raises, suburban communities of wealth tend to be tolerant of taxes if services are better than in cities, common examples are teachers salaries and Long Island cops may provide services closer to private security services in wealthy suburbs.Doubt many Long Islanders are worried about cops having better pensions or health care than they have.

  28. Judge, Too much David Truman in my early years, in local politics I suspect removal or weakening of an interest simply sends the rent elsewhere. Influence on policy is another matter, though as I suggested that has always been present because of police and police families voting. My grandmother, the widow of a police officer and the daughter of two officers never missed voting in a municipal election and she always advised on which candidates were or were not friends of the police.

  29. Judge — To answer your question, no, NYPD officers aren’t “special”; almost all police regard themselves as beyond reproach or criticism. Even Chris Christie left them alone. Perhaps the “special” person is Mayor DeBlasio who has enough conviction to offer some very mild criticism of the NYPD. After 20 years of Guiliani/ Bloomberg, they simply don’t know what to make of this.

    George J. Cotz

  30. Pingback: The Case Against Pettiness | Simple Justice

  31. I have a question that has been bothering me. Aside from what one thinks of the behavior of the officers on the one hand or the mayor on the other, why does the mayor (or for that matter any other official, including the Union head) get to “eulogize” a man he never met, much less knew? In other words, if I work for the government (as I have, in NYC mayor in a previous administration, and federal) and am killed in the line of duty, do I or my family have a say in my posthumous affairs? It seems safe to assume that most decedents wouldn’t choose such a spectacle. Maybe some of the commenters can explain the origin of the custom, if it be that.

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