Updated Apr 18, 2016

For Cops, Free Speech Isn’t


Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch last week protested the NYPD’s decision to suspend Police Officer Joseph Spina for telling a motorist it was Mayor de Blasio’s fault he was getting a ticket, denouncing it as “a colossal politically-motivated overreaction by the department.”

The department prevented an overreaction by restoring him to duty, although on modified assignment, six days after the April 12 ban, as confirmed by the union. As to the suspension being politically motivated, it’s a strange claim to make considering that Officer Spina gave the motorist something extra with the ticket in the form of his own political beef with the Mayor.

He was captured on video telling the person he had ticketed—initially for excessive noise emanating from his car’s sound system and then for an invalid driver’s license—“Mayor de Blasio wants us to give out summonses, okay? All right? I don’t know if you voted for him or not. I don’t live in the city. I wouldn’t have voted for him because this is what he wants; he wants us to give out summonses.”

Mr. Lynch claimed the greater summons activity was a consequence of the Mayor’s “Vision Zero” initiative aimed at reducing the number of traffic deaths, saying in a statement that the program “limits officers’ discretion to issue warnings and puts further pressure on them to issue summonses, subjecting New Yorkers to expensive summonses that many cannot afford to pay.”

That’s undoubtedly true in terms of basic traffic infractions like speeding or going through red lights. It’s not clear to us that excessive noise from a sound system would fall into that category where discretion is limited. But in any event, Mr. Lynch was exercising his own free-speech rights as a union leader, which include vociferously defending a member regardless of whether the facts are on his side.

But the NYPD has pretty clear rules limiting ordinary members’ right to express themselves. It is why cops are generally reluctant to speak on the record to reporters even to offer comments that are far less likely to stir hackles than those made by Officer Spina.

Perhaps he would have escaped discipline if he had stopped with his opening remark: “Mayor de Blasio wants us to give out summonses, okay?” It could be seen as a variation on a cop saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m just doing my job.”

But when Officer Spina continued by questioning why the recipient of the ticket would have wanted to vote for Mr. de Blasio, he was crossing a line and espousing a political bias. Clearly, the person being ticketed didn’t appreciate the advice, or the recording of it wouldn’t have wound up being posted online.

Those officers who haven’t yet figured out that inappropriate behavior in their dealings with the public is far less likely to go undiscovered than in the past are going to continue to suffer the consequences. We would hope that Mr. Lynch is putting an exclamation point on that message in private communications with his rank and file even as he publicly protests that they are taking a bad rap.