May 4, 2004

Card-carrying benefits

Call it a PR tool or a get-out-of-jail-free card: Each year, local PBAs hand out stacks to the well-connected

BY J. Jioni Palmer Staff Writer

Each year, police union officials in New York City and in Suffolk and Nassau counties dole out small plastic cards to political party leaders and other politically connected VIPs, often with their job titles printed on them.

In Suffolk, for instance, county Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer gets stacks of the cards from the Police Benevolent Association. So do Republican Party Chairwoman Patricia Acampora and Independence Party chief Frank McKay.

Local police unions have varying explanations of the purpose of the cards. The PBA chief in Nassau views them merely as "public relations" tools benefiting the officeholders who pass them out, while the union in New York City encourages officers to avoid ticketing cardholders. But Schaffer said as far as he knows the cards have only one purpose: to inoculate the holders against traffic tickets.

"It's one of those unspoken understandings," said Schaffer, who said he doesn't carry a card and paid a $75 fine last year after receiving a ticket for running a red light. "I think that the history has been that if you show it to the police officer then they would give you the courtesy of not writing a ticket - that's my interpretation."

While Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said he is confident his officers will issue tickets when the situation warrants, he said it is likely that having the card gives the bearer a better chance of avoiding a ticket. "I'm not going to say that's not possible or it doesn't happen, it probably does," he said.

Al O'Leary, communications director for the New York City PBA, said the union urges members to honor the card and not ticket carriers as long as they are not a danger to others.

"This union encourages its members not to write a ticket over a card," O'Leary said.

But Monroe Freedman, a distinguished professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University, described the cards as "a serious abuse of official power."

"It gives special privileges to certain people that others are not going to receive and that's wrong," Freedman said.

According to interviews with several current and retired police officers in Nassau and Suffolk, police unions pass out thousands of cards each year - to county legislators, city council members, police officers' relatives, attorneys and members of the news media.

There's even a brief drill that holders of PBA cards are instructed to follow when they are stopped: Hand over the card along with your driver's license, and casually mention the name of the person who issued you the card, according to the officers.

Several Newsday staffers have the cards, though the paper's conflict of interest policy prohibits newsroom employees from "using their position for preferential treatment or personal gain," said Howard Schneider, Newsday's editor. Merely accepting a card violates that policy and Schneider said those who have them will be asked to discard them or return them.

"Being a reporter or photographer is a public trust and we take that seriously," Schneider said.

Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for The New York Times, said the paper expects staff members to pay for the ticket if police stop them.

"Reporters ought not be seeking privilege with any institution they cover," she said.

A spokesman for the New York Post would only say the paper "is given a number of these cards and they are given to reporters for use in the course of their work."

A spokesman for the New York Sun did not respond to requests for comment, and one for the Daily News could not be reached.

Officials of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, Suffolk Superior Officers Association and the Detectives Association did not return calls for comment.

McKay, who serves as both the state and Suffolk Independence leader, said he's flattered by the PBA's "gesture" and freely doles out his stack of cards to "worthy people" who will probably never use them.

"I gave some to a pastor and a deacon in a church," he said. "I think it is a show of respect for people who are active in the community."

Acampora, in contrast, said she does not use or give out the cards.

Suffolk PBA President Jeff Frayler has said in the past that it is union policy to discourage Suffolk police officers from issuing traffic tickets to fellow officers, regardless of jurisdiction, and their relatives, out of professional courtesy.

Nassau PBA president Gary DelaRaba said his union has issued PBA cards continuously since 1928. He said he wasn't sure how many cards were printed each year or how many different titles they carry.

He said the cards are "a public relations tool" for people to show off. But in no way are they "get-out-of-jail-free" cards.

"Anybody who has one of mine I expect to follow the law," DelaRaba said. "If you have a card signed by me, you can identify yourself as a friend of mine if you run out of gas or get in an accident. But don't think you're going to use that card to get yourself out of any crimes."

Suffolk Legis. Michael Caracciolo (R-Baiting Hollow), a retired Nassau County police officer and former union official, said he was surprised at the proliferating number of PBA cards for privileged people.

Caracciolo said he didn't give drivers bearing PBA cards any special breaks when he was a patrolman and doubts officers in Suffolk do now.

"In Suffolk, it is not a given - they are very strident in their enforcement of the law," he said.

Dormer issued a memo reiterating the department's policy of equal enforcement of traffic laws after a Newsday story last month about the PBA's hands-off stance toward ticketing police officers or their relatives. Dormer told a graduating class of new police officers last month that applying the law equally and fairly is the essence of policing.

"This is what gives you the moral authority on the streets, when you deal with citizens so you can get respect," he told the 158 rookie cops at their commencement ceremony at the police academy in Brentwood.

"If anybody, whether inside or outside the police department, tells you not to enforce certain laws or to give an exemption to certain groups of people, they are wrong," Dormer said.

Persuasive plastic

Police union cards, which some drivers attempt to use for leniency during traffic stops, typically are given to officers' family members. Special versions also are made for the politically connected; these have the recipient's title printed on the plastic. A sampling of some cards, with the issuer and the recipient:

  • Suffolk Police Benevolent Association (For state Independence Party chairman)
  • Suffolk Police Benevolent Association County (For Democratic Committee chair)
  • Nassau Superior Of.cers Association (For unspecified recipient)
  • Nassau Police Benevolent Association (For county legislator)
  • New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (For attorney)

NOTE: Nassau Police Benevolent Association, Suffolk Detectives Association and Suffolk Superior Officers Association also issue cards.

Traffic-stop etiquette

Office holders and others may receive stacks of cards, which they hand out at their discretion. Experts then advise the individual bearer to heed the following guidelines, though there are no guarantees of leniency.

Sign on back of card exactly as name appears on driver's license. Name of the person who issued the card also should be written.

After being pulled over, politely acknowledge the violation.

Hand the card to the officer with your driver's license, casually mentioning the name of the person who handed out the card.