New York Times
May 8, 2015


Patrick Lynch, Police Union Leader, Faces Election Fight

By ALAN FEUER

In early January, mutiny broke out within the upper ranks of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union. At a monthly meeting, at a catering hall in Queens, a cabal of senior delegates confronted the union’s president, Patrick J. Lynch, with a defiant declaration: It was time to end his distracting battle with Mayor Bill de Blasio and refocus his attention on his members.

Mr. Lynch, who is not known for his placid personality, had by then been sniping at the mayor since the summer in an ugly public war over race, respect and the Police Department’s role in increasingly embittered community relations. As the meeting drew to an end, the rebels seized a microphone and insisted that he concentrate instead on the fact that his union had been without a contract for the past five years. The demand touched off a shouting match in which fists were raised, obscenities were hurled and a few men started shoving. After listening to, and briefly taking part in, the argument, Mr. Lynch abruptly left the hall.

It was a startling affront to the longtime union boss who has run the P.B.A. for 16 years under three mayors and four police commissioners — an insult to which injury was added days later when some of the insurgents officially announced that they planned a challenge to Mr. Lynch in the union’s elections, which are coming up this month.

The angry upstart who had led his troops in a revolt against City Hall was confronting a rebellion from within.

“My job is to speak for the police, and I’ve been criticized for doing that many times,” Mr. Lynch said on a recent afternoon, defending himself against his challengers’ claim that he overplayed his hand against the mayor. “Was I angry this winter? I was. But so were my members. It’s not my role to be popular or liked. It’s my role to be a voice for my members.”

From the moment that Mr. Lynch, 51, took over the P.B.A. in 1999, that voice has been described with a long if limited list of adjectives: coarse, loud, very loud, strident, harsh, abrasive. His impassioned outrage has more or less defined him throughout his long career, and his critics say it has finally become a liability as he moves toward his first contested election in a decade, at what is also an exceptionally fraught time for his members.

Just last week, speaking about the murder of Officer Brian Moore, who died on Monday after being shot while on patrol in Queens, William J. Bratton, the police commissioner, said he had not seen “so much anti-police sentiment” since the early 1970s. Much of the rage has been fomented by the police killings of young black men across the country, leaving Mr. Lynch and his 23,000 members to grapple with the feeling among some people that they are a lawless occupying force.

Both of the men who will oppose him in the election — Brian Fusco, a high-ranking P.B.A. official and 27-year department veteran, and Ronald Wilson, a 28-year veteran — contend that Mr. Lynch’s problems go beyond his antagonistic personality and are rooted in his failure over the years to uphold his members’ interests. In June 2009, they say, Mr. Lynch was unable to prevent Gov. David A. Paterson from slashing pension benefitsf or newly hired officers. They also claim that Mr. Lynch delayed until this year taking the current contract squabble into binding arbitration so that the matter would come to a head in the midst of the elections.

A Quinnipiac University poll released around the time of the catering-hall insurrection found that nearly 80 percent of New York voters considered Mr. Lynch’s attacks on Mr. de Blasio “too extreme.” The poll, combined with some hostile editorials and comments by his colleagues — one of whom assailed him as “a throwback to Archie Bunker” — helped establish a narrative that Mr. Lynch was a petulant civil servant whose rancorous dispute with the mayor did damage to his members.

What the union as a whole thinks of him has been hard to know.

But soon enough, the members will have a chance to weigh in. Election ballots go out to the rank and file on May 21 and are to be tallied by June 5.

Twenty years ago, the P.B.A. was in shambles. Its presidency was passed down from one boss to the next like a feudal dukedom. Its lawyers went to prison in a kickback scandal. Its members got a contract with a multiyear pay freeze — the so-called zeros for heroes — even though they had worked to dramatically lower the crime rate. Annual conventions were plagued by drunken antics: One year, someone put live swans in an elevator. Leonard Levitt, a longtime police reporter for Newsday, once wrote that the union was “but a step from organized crime.”

Mr. Lynch helped change all that when he took office, at 35, after running in a four-way race as a youthful reformer. He was a go-getter, sleeping outside station houses in a Winnebago camper during his campaign.

His credentials were impeccable: a photogenic Irish-American from Bayside, Queens, married to his high school sweetheart, with an immigrant mother and a father who spent 30 years as a subway motorman. Mr. Lynch was a community affairs officer from Brooklyn’s 90th Precinct and not what the police would call “an active cop,” but he possessed the right bloodlines: One of his older brothers was in the department; an uncle and a great-grandfather had been, too.

Even in his early days in office, Mr. Lynch was known for picking fights with city leaders. In 2004, he called for the resignation of the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, after Mr. Kelly said there was “no justification” for the shooting of a black teenager by a white officer on the roof of a Brooklyn housing project. The same year, Mr. Lynch led his troops in a noisy 1 a.m. protest outside Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse when the city and the union were ensnarled in a contract dispute.

But his fight with Mr. de Blasio has been deeper and more tribal. Unlike Mr. Bloomberg or his predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. de Blasio ran on a platform that was critical of police tactics, and he was openly sympathetic when protests erupted this winter after a state grand jury failed to indict the Staten Island officer involved in the death of Eric Garner.

Perceiving disrespect, Mr. Lynch forcefully pushed back. He called on the police to sign petitions barring the mayor from attending their funerals if they were killed on the job, and he quietly stood by as his officers engaged in a slowdown on summonses and quality-of-life arrests.

In late December, the dispute reached a peak when Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an unstable man from Baltimore, fatally shot Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos as they sat in their patrol car near Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn.

While visiting the hospital where the officers had been taken, Mr. Lynch undertook his most infamous act, turning his back on the mayor in a hallway. He then walked out and announced to the waiting cameras that Mr. de Blasio had “blood on the hands.”

By that point, Mr. Lynch was already reviled by many, not just in the city’s liberal circles, but also in its tabloids, which are typically pro-police. Then again, neither the media nor liberals were his target audience. One should not confuse Mr. Lynch’s public communications with a desire to communicate with the public. His anger, while genuine, was also a form of strategic messaging meant to suggest that he had his members’ backs. “I don’t have opinions,” Mr. Lynch said last month. “My members have opinions.”

As the war cooled down, the other chief combatants conspicuously moved on toward offering solutions. Mr. de Blasio, for instance, earmarked millions of dollars to buy bulletproof vests for the police, to expand the department’s cadet program and to provide its officers with the latest smartphones and tablets. Mr. Bratton outlined a forward-looking plan to reduce the force’s presence in high-crime neighborhoods using databases and high technology. Even the city’s four other police unions wrested something from the conflict, breaking with the P.B.A. to negotiate contracts — albeit less than ideal ones — with City Hall.

All that Mr. Lynch got, according to the theory that emerged, was some bad poll numbers and two men bucking for his job.

One day late last month, Mr. Lynch was at work in his office high above the financial district. The elections were a month away, but he was engaged in routine union business, having just read through a new report on how the city planned to handle lawsuits against police officers.

Though he was not in the spotlight, he had on a fitted navy suit and wore his graying hair slicked back to the sleekness of a duck breast. But there was none of the jawboning, finger-pointing language he often deploys in public. In private, Mr. Lynch tends to offer a more genial persona, displaying hints of humor (“My opponents say that everything is terrible and on top of it, Lynch is short”) in the gruffly competent tones of a gunnery sergeant or a college football coach.

Which raises a question: Why, if he is evidently capable of cordiality and dialogue, did he choose not to use those faculties in his fight with Mr. de Blasio?

His answer is that anger brought attention to his cause.

“We had a situation where police officers were under attack,” he said. “The fact that we’re even having this discussion shows that what we did was exactly correct.”

Mr. Lynch maintains that his assertive stance this winter “turned the mayor’s head” — noting that Mr. de Blasio subsequently vowed to veto a City Council bill seeking to criminalize the type of chokehold that led to the death of Mr. Garner, and that the mayor in the past few months has been generally more supportive of the police.

As Mr. Lynch’s spokesman, Al O’Leary, later put it, “We turned down the flames on the controversy because we were getting results.”

Both of his challengers have questioned that idea, construing Mr. Lynch’s battle with the mayor as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a political stunt. “Our contract expired in 2010,” said Mr. Fusco, a former friend and ally of Mr. Lynch’s. “It’s no coincidence that after half a decade, Paddy steered things so that they’ve landed at a moment when he can say, ‘Hey, don’t change generals during the war.’ ”

Furthermore, his critics say, Mr. Lynch has become complacent, intolerant of criticism and distant from his members’ daily needs. “He’s basically a dictator,” a union delegate from Mr. Fusco’s precinct, Robert Andersen, said. “It’s his way or the highway. That’s who he’s become.”

By the time the P.B.A. held its annual convention last August at a Holiday Inn near Albany, it was widely known within the union that Mr. Lynch would be facing a contested election, and according to Mr. Fusco, his incitements last year were part of his campaign.

“Because he was getting so much media attention, he figured he had a chance to really amp things up,” Mr. Fusco said. “He started taking advantage of every Fox interview, every interview on CNN, to bang on the drum. I remember thinking, ‘Man, is he really that self-serving?’ ”

Mr. Lynch, in turn, has attacked both Mr. Fusco and Mr. Wilson as liars and opportunists, adding that everything he says and does is on behalf of his members, who are barred by law from striking. But it may be telling that none of the other leaders of police unions, who represent the department’s sergeants, lieutenants, captains and detectives, agreed to speak on his behalf.

Edward D. Mullins, the president of the Sergeants’ Benevolent Association, who met with Mr. de Blasio in February over pastrami sandwiches and soda, said through a spokesman that he considered Mr. Lynch “a friend,” but added that the sergeants’ union was “able to discuss frank, difficult issues with many different constituencies to make this city better.”

Mr. Mullins was silent about whether Mr. Lynch could do the same.

Even though he has staked his future on a reputation for aggressiveness, Mr. Lynch acknowledges that a disconnect exists between his members and the public. And yet, he argues, the present-day disdain for the police is misdirected.

For the last 10 years or so, the department’s racial makeup has been more or less evenly split between white and minority officers — a striking change from when Mr. Lynch came on the force. As a street-level form of government, he said, police officers are increasingly involved in impoverished neighborhoods, called upon to handle a bewildering array of social ailments: homelessness, mental illness, domestic dysfunction.

Mr. Lynch added that his members were not responsible for creating those problems, or invasive tactics like stop-and-frisk that are often used to deal with them. Indeed, he said, some of his members hate those tactics as much as people in the neighborhoods say they do.

“We’re fighting a tidal wave of criticism,” Mr. Lynch said. “But that criticism should be focused on the policy makers, not on the police officers standing on the corner.”

The implication of this statement is profound: that rank-and-file police officers and the minority communities in which they spend a large part of their time may have more in common than they think. In some sense, both have been affected by broader trends like gentrification and city policies that have encouraged development in struggling neighborhoods. With only slight exaggeration, one could describe this dynamic as blue-collar officers making the city safe for white-collar residents, with men like Eric Garner caught in between.

“It’s ironic, but economic inequality plays a role here,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant in New York who has worked for police unions across the country. “The police are being asked to pacify areas that once they’re cleared, they could never afford to live in — and then they’re getting criticized for doing it. It creates the kind of bitterness we saw this winter and that seemed so unfathomable to so many people.”

Though Mr. Lynch was largely the face of that bitterness, he is not without reasoned solutions to the problems of community policing. His first suggestion is to hire more police officers, which would, of course, increase his union’s membership, but also, he says, permit a force that now rushes from job to job to spend more time interacting positively with residents. He has also advocated doing away with arrest quotas — department officials deny they exist — to reduce the pressure on his members and, in turn, on the neighborhoods they patrol.

What has been disappointing to some who know Mr. Lynch is his apparent unwillingness, or inability, to articulate that message without incendiary language.

“He could have come out after Garner and said the problem’s not systemic because the department is mostly minority at this point,” said Edward W. Hayes, a prominent lawyer who helped run Mr. Lynch’s first campaign. “But instead there was all that business about blood on the mayor’s hands.”

Mr. Lynch refuses to apologize for even his most divisive statements, pointing out that his fury over the Myrtle Avenue killings, for example, was merely an expression of his union’s beliefs.

“I have walked into emergency rooms in hospitals when police officers were shot many times,” he said. “Sometimes it’s to deep shock. Sometimes it’s to knee-buckling sadness. This time it was to sheer anger. Because we knew it was coming, we had said it was coming, and people told us, ‘Ah, calm down, that’s just rhetoric.’ ”

Stiffening with emotion, he went on: “The words I said and the actions I took, that’s exactly what the members were thinking. If you ask the members, they don’t disagree with a thing I said.”

Whether that is true, of course, is precisely what the election will decide.

A version of this article appears in print on May 10, 2015, on page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Firebrand Union Leader Finds Himself Under Fire