“The findings of a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association survey of its rank and file could be summarized this way: the job’s bad, the pay’s lousy and the Mayor’s worse.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who amid all the doom and gloom got something approaching a glowing rating—relatively speaking, anyway—dismissed this as the universal lament of the police officer, never mind the era or the department.
“I’ve been in the business for 40 years, and cops have been complaining about low morale at every place I’ve ever worked,” he said in response to the survey done for the union by McLaughlin & Associates and released March 15.
If you took the results at face value, it would seem to be a triumph of the will that the typical city cop makes it out of bed every morning. Ninety-five percent of the 6,000 who responded to the survey—a quarter of the PBA’s membership—said they felt less safe while working than they had when Michael Bloomberg was Mayor, with 87 percent saying the city was more dangerous now. Eighty-six percent said they wouldn’t recommend becoming a member of the NYPD to their children or other relatives, and 85 percent said they would leave the force to take a law-enforcement position that paid better, even if it meant they had to leave the New York City area.
Worse News: He May Be Sticking Around
It was when you got to the section concerning their feelings about the Mayor that it became clear that things could actually get worse. Asked what they liked most about Mr. de Blasio, 62 percent said “nothing.” The next-most-popular answers were that his “term is up” (8 percent) and “one-term Mayor” (3 percent). Those sentiments, for a survey that was completed in late February, appeared to ignore that the most-recent Quinnipiac Poll, done a month earlier, showed the Mayor climbing out of the funk he had fallen into with voters: his job approval rating had risen to 50 percent, and a plurality of them said he deserved a second term. Which if it’s an indication of future developments would leave most cops even more depressed than they are now, according to the survey.
But while pollster John McLaughlin and PBA President Pat Lynch both described the methodology as scientific and designed to elicit honest answers rather than serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, the questions could be viewed as carefully selected to secure a desired result.
For instance, the one that produced the closest thing to unanimity: only 1 percent of the officers agreed with the statement that “The one-percent pay raises awarded by arbitrator Howard Edelman were just and reasonable.”
At least one union official during the press conference at PBA headquarters wondered aloud where the one-percenters who agreed with that sentiment came from. And he had a point. It’s just that this was a question that offered no context. If a follow-up question had asked whether they would feel differently if told that police officers in higher ranks, as well as firefighters and other uniformed employees, had gotten the same two 1-percent raises for a comparable two-year period, it might not have altered the disappointment Police Officers felt, but chances are a larger segment of them might have acknowledged that Mr. Edelman’s award could be perceived as “reasonable,” if not necessarily “just.”
‘Pattern Bargaining Lazy’
Mr. Lynch, of course, would not have been among those influenced by such information. “It should not be ‘pattern fits all,’” he said of the city’s successful argument during the arbitration that was decided last fall that once a bargaining pattern for uniformed workers was established by a coalition that included several other NYPD unions, it was essential to labor stability that it be applied to everyone. “Pattern bargaining is lazy bargaining.”
By far, the biggest single gripe cops had about their working conditions—notwithstanding the apprehension expressed by most of them regarding job safety and the belief that most of their colleagues hesitated to take enforcement action because they were paralyzed by fear of lawsuits or civilian complaints—was their pay level. In response to the question, “If you could make just one change to improve the lives and working conditions of New York City police officers, what would it be?,” 35 percent chose a boost in pay; the next-most-popular response, cited by just 8 percent of the respondents, had to do with improving their work schedules.
Mr. Lynch’s remarks came from the same vein as those voiced more than a decade ago by then-United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten when she would complain about the city’s attempt to impose “lock-step pattern bargaining” on her union. It is no coincidence that the PBA and the UFT are the two unions in the best position to make a case for giving their members raises above the municipal norm if pattern bargaining were not such an ingrained part of municipal labor relations that it looms large in any arbitration proceeding.
The Pay’s the Thing
Mr. McLaughlin’s survey also revealed that salary was a far-more-important element to cops than any other facet of their compensation: 67 percent cited it compared to 22 percent for whom pension benefits mattered most. Framing the debate in just that fashion increased the likelihood that cops would feel negatively about Mr. de Blasio; so did the demographics, from a pension standpoint, for those who took part in the survey: 63 percent of them belong to Tier 2 of the retirement system, while 33 percent are members of Tier 3, which took effect for officers hired from 2010 forward.
That difference was emphasized by an NYPD supervisor I’ll call Carl who, when asked about the findings as they pertained to officer morale, said, “I think they’re pretty accurate, but for different reasons.”
He explained, “The cops who were on the job before 2009 [the year then-Gov. David Paterson vetoed the bill that had routinely placed new cops in Tier 2, pushing future hires into the far-less-desirable Tier 3], they have a completely different benefits package.”
The most-obvious change is that Tier 3 police officers must work 22 years in order to qualify for a full pension rather than the traditional 20-year career that assured them a retirement allowance equaling half of their final average salary. But there are other negative wrinkles: Tier 3 officers who leave the service upon reaching the new service standard are ineligible for pension cost-of-living increases. To qualify for them, they must remain on the force for 25 years.
Inadequate Disability Pay
There is also the vastly inferior disability benefit compared to colleagues in Tier 2, who if they suffer a job-related injury that ends their careers as cops receive a pension benefit equal to 75 percent of final average salary, tax-free. The post-2009 hires get just half their final average salary if disabled, and it is subject to taxes, which can reduce the disability benefit for them to as little as $27 a day.
If a question in the survey had dealt with the difference in benefits based on which pension tier an officer was in, it would have at the least diffused some of the anger towards the Mayor for defending his bargaining pattern.
One consequence of the PBA’s decision to go to arbitration was that it was unable to voluntarily reach a pact with a significantly upgraded disability-pension benefit for newer hires, as the Uniformed Firefighters Association did under a deal on legislation that still needs Albany’s approval. And the inferior pension benefit came about not only because of Mr. Paterson’s veto, but because he was encouraged to take that action by then-Mayor Bloomberg. While Governor Cuomo has been vocally supportive of city cops and pledged last year to back the disability-benefit legislation, he is also the man who, upon succeeding Mr. Paterson, moved the state further away from the more-generous pension plans of the past, persuading state legislators to approve a Tier 6 in 2012 by abandoning his campaign promise to create an independent redistricting process that would have threatened lawmakers’ perennial re-elections.
But a starting salary that remains less than $43,000 after the arbitration remains an irritant, Carl said: “You can’t survive in this city on the base salary.”
Cop-Murder ‘Shock Waves’
There are also legitimate concerns about safety, he continued, although it’s questionable that Mr. de Blasio is the culprit. Referring to the murders on Dec. 20, 2014 of Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos while sitting in their patrol car outside a Brooklyn housing project, Carl said, “This was the first assassination [of officers] since the 1970s. That sent shock waves through the department.”
As angry as cops led by Mr. Lynch were that night, with the passage of 15 months it’s hard to believe that many of them still believe the lack of supportive words they got from the Mayor in the 17 days between a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo in connection with Eric Garner’s death and those murders played any role in the decision by the crazed career criminal from Baltimore who ambushed Officers Liu and Ramos to avenge that earlier death.
Carl said, however, that changes in policing that have occurred under Mr. de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton have stirred both resentment and concern in the ranks. This has had an impact in areas besides stop-and-frisks, which have declined even more sharply under the current administration than they did during the final two years of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure, when a growing public outcry and a Federal court suit prompted Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to issue a directive telling cops to focus on quality stops and quit worrying about piling up numbers.
Placed Limits on Them
“I think they’re more cautious,” Carl said. “That new [NYPD] unit on risk assessment, they’re imposing limitations. This Sergeant had too many lawsuits [filed against him] and they told him if he wanted to stay in the same position, he would have to wear a body camera.”
One of the few surprises in the PBA survey was that 70 percent of the officers who responded said they favored being equipped with body cameras that recorded both audio and video, believing this would “allow for a more-just resolution of civilian complaints.”
Carl said this reflected the belief of many cops that they were victims of false accusations by those they arrested who were looking for leverage in getting the cases against them dismissed, and that the cameras would work to their advantage in such cases if they went before the Civilian Complaint Review Board. But he had some qualms, saying, “What happens if you’re making an arrest [for legitimate reasons] and you make a mistake, and the focus becomes the mistake? And you can’t turn [the camera] on and off.”
The survey was conducted between Feb. 9 and 26, meaning most responses were already in by the time that a dispute pitting CCRB Chair Richard Emery against the PBA and the Sergeants Benevolent Association reached a rhetorical peak when Mr. Emery told the Daily News Feb. 24 that he would not exclude his law firm from representing persons whose cases were substantiated by his board just “because some union is squealing like a stuck pig.”
A Freudian Slip?
The PBA used that ill-chosen remark to escalate the conflict, claiming Mr. Emery was calling cops “pigs.” That wasn’t the case, but given the acrimony that had developed, it wasn’t beyond the realm of reason for the union leaders to conclude that under stress Mr. Emery had made a Freudian slip that offered an inadvertent glimpse of a hidden bias against cops.
There were no questions in the survey that focused solely on the CCRB, but its proceedings fall under two categories in which it is part of the process that concerns officers when it comes to fair treatment. Asked to rate on a scale of 1-to-10 “the fairness of the disciplinary processes and penalties to which New York City police officers are subject,” the average among respondents was 2.18. And 97 percent of them agreed with the statement that “police officers are reluctant to take action for fear of lawsuits or complaints by the public.”
Carl said there was a certain randomness to whether officers were dealt with fairly in the disciplinary process, and even in the kind of enforcement actions they might be forced to take that could thrust them into the heart of a controversy.
“You could be in uniform for 20 years and never have to pull your gun,” he said. “But guys who are answering 100 radio runs a month, they’re gonna run into something. Sooner or later, something’s going to happen.”
When it does, he said, “It depends how harshly you get punished.”
Wrong Way to Motivate?
During the stop-and-frisk trial, former Chief of Department Joseph Esposito had defended including stop-and-frisks in officers’ performance ratings by claiming that about 10 percent of patrol officers were “lazy” and would stay anchored in their patrol cars eating donuts unless “performance goals” existed to require that they take enforcement activity.
Former NYPD Sergeant and unofficial department historian Mike Bosak previously ridiculed this as a constructive way to make such cops more involved, contending that they were most likely to stop people who had done nothing wrong, since this would spare them the possibility of a physical struggle and unwanted paperwork and overtime that would result from a stop in which reasonable cause existed because of an indication of wrongdoing.
Carl agreed with Chief Esposito’s cynical assessment of a portion of the patrol force, saying, “There are a lot of cops that hide—house mouse—they never want to go out on patrol” for fear that something could go wrong, either in an encounter with a lawbreaker or due to static from their superiors.
“But,” he added, “you’ll have guys with hundreds of arrests who also have civilian complaints against them, and it won’t affect them,” because they know their superiors will back them if their actions appear legitimate and the arrests stand up.
A Risky ‘Trifecta’
There are some arrests that are dicey, he said, that fall under the heading of “the trifecta,” in which the suspect is charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and obstructing governmental administration, because “there’s no victim.” Conversely, he said, “domestic-violence cases get dismissed all the time, but the defendant can’t really sue and get any money because the wife had made the complaint and then changed her mind.”
That’s a crucial difference that influences his instructions to his subordinates about when to look to make an arrest, Carl said. “I tell my cops don’t get into unnecessary arguments—it isn’t worth it.”
One aspect of the survey that places Police Officers’ low regard for the Mayor in context is that it shows they don’t hold their NYPD bosses, even at the Sergeant level, in tremendously high esteem, either.
Asked to grade their direct supervisors, only 38 percent of the Police Officer respondents gave positive marks, with just 5 percent of them rating their immediate bosses as excellent, while 61 percent offered a negative assessment. Asked about NYPD commanding officers, the tally was 69 percent negative, 30 percent positive, with only 4 percent deeming them excellent and 32 percent giving them the designation of “poor.” In that light, Mr. de Blasio’s abysmal ratings don’t look quite so terrible.
Accentuate the Negative?
But Carl said there was justification for the tough grading. While Mr. Bratton has stressed that he is trying to move away from judging cops based on arrest and summons activity to also consider positive interactions they have with the communities they patrol, Carl claimed that saving a life isn’t factored into monthly activity reports on officer performance.
A recent internal furor over possible cheating on a promotion test for Lieutenant hasn’t helped, either. Sergeants’ Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins at the time the problem surfaced dismissed suggestions in the Post that there had been cheating in the traditional sense, telling the Chief’s Mark Toor that members of his union who took a makeup exam merely benefitted from hearing discussions about test questions among those who took the original test.
That may remove some of the stigma attached, Carl said, but it does nothing to remedy the unfair advantage that those who took the makeup test enjoyed and the impact it had on removing merit from the promotion process. Those taking that exam didn’t have to resort to underhanded means, he said with exasperation: “All they have to do is go to the blogs, because these idiots put up everything.”
Among those at the entry-level rank, he said, “You have people who have been stuck in a command for 10 years and everything is stagnant. If you wanna go somewhere, you have to know somebody. You feel like you have no control over your career.”
One reflection of the discontent that goes beyond stationhouse grumbling, Carl said, is the shortage of cops—most of them minority—willing to volunteer for undercover assignments, particularly concerning narcotics buys. They have seen, he said, that there are less-hazardous ways to get promoted than doing business with dealers who are likely to be carrying guns.
And there’s nothing that could chill enthusiasm for undercover work quite like the experience of Gescard Isnora, the cop who initiated the confrontation that ended with the killing of Sean Bell a decade ago. Mr. Isnora heard an argument that convinced him Mr. Bell and his friends might be heading to their car to retrieve a gun that would be used in a drive-by shooting. He turned out to be wrong, and he violated NYPD policy in stepping out of his undercover role to take enforcement action. But Police Commissioner Kelly’s decision in 2012—after Mr. Isnora and two other cops were acquitted in a 2008 criminal trial—to not only fire him but take away his pension became a cautionary tale about the major career hazards of making a well-intentioned mistake while doing undercover work.
And while cops have a legitimate gripe that some City Council Members are trying to micromanage the NYPD to a greater degree than during the Bloomberg administration, Carl said, “I think morale was kind of low when Bloomberg was Mayor, too.”
Whatever unhappiness exists over last November’s contract-arbitration award, it broke a logjam after cops worked the final 41 months of the Bloomberg administration under an expired contract.
Grounds for Skepticism
It’s also hard to put much stock in the view of 96 percent of those surveyed that the relationship between the NYPD and the public “has worsened in the past few years,” with 70 percent saying that it’s “greatly worsened” with Mr. de Blasio as Mayor. Compared to the point in the Bloomberg administration five years ago when there were 685,000 stop-and-frisks? Or the period in Rudy Giuliani’s second term when enforcement was so over the top in the black community that then-PBA President Doc Savage called it a “blueprint for tyranny” and then-Detectives Endowment Association head Tom Scotto spoke of a “toxic atmosphere” for cops?
Mr. Lynch said his members believed the union was alone among government entities in defending officers, notwithstanding the conscious attempt Mr. de Blasio has made for more than a year to speak on their behalf. (The Mayor probably didn’t help his cause when he felt compelled right in the middle of the survey period to revisit his remarks about “the talk” with his son and insist it shouldn’t have been a flashpoint for cops, with the PBA charging he had “thrown them under the bus.”)
The PBA leader told reporters, “You pay them as professionals, you treat them as professionals, you defend them as professionals… and then morale will go up.”
But if there’s been any progress in talks on a new contract that would earn them raises equal to or greater than those other police unions negotiated more than a year ago under contracts that provide hikes through 2018 (the arbitration award brought Police Officers raises that covered just the latter parts of 2010 and 2011), it isn’t apparent.
‘An Insulting Attitude’
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Mr. Lynch said when asked whether a deal could be worked out at the bargaining table or the discussions were likely to once again wind up in arbitration, where the law prohibits awards of more than two years’ duration unless both sides agree.
But, he added, “What we find is an attitude that’s insulting from City Hall: ‘Police Officers are going to go out and do their jobs 100 percent all the time; why pay them?’”
That certainly seems to be the feeling within the ranks, based on the survey. But since Mr. de Blasio, like predecessors including Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Giuliani, has made clear his commitment to protecting established bargaining patterns, it’s obvious some creativity and risk-taking on both sides is the only way cops are going to come up with raises sufficient to boost their sense that their work is appreciated in a way they can take to the bank.