The Real Reason New York Police Unions Are Waffling on Stop-and-Frisk

And why they're not likely to get everything they want. 

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REUTERS

This month leaders of New York City's police unions have changed the debate over stop-and-frisk: After promising for months they'd block Mayor Bill de Blasio's attempt to drop the city's appeal of a critical stop-and-frisk ruling, Captains Endowment Association president Roy Richter told Capital New York last week that he "might" consider dropping the appeal if the de Blasio administration played ball on contract negotiations. 

This is indeed a huge change. Last we discussed the NYPD and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, now 10 weeks into Michael Bloomberg's old job, the two parties were at an impasse. De Blasio, who campaigned on reforming stop-and-frisk's racial disparities, announced in January that he planned to drop Bloomberg's appeal of a federal ruling requiring the city to drastically overhaul the stop-and-frisk program. In turn, several of the unions representing NYPD sworn officers promised to take up the appeal themselves. Additionally, some members of the NYPD seemingly expressed their displeasure with the new mayor by leaking sensitive info—the circumstances of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, de Blasio's late night phone call to a precinct that had arrested one of his political allies—to New York media. 

What's happened since then? In the last week of February, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals (the same one that chided District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin for her handling of stop-and-frisk lawsuits) kicked the two stop-and-frisk cases back to the district court—but not Judge Scheindlin—for settlement. While the unions' motion will be heard, it likely won't stop de Blasio and the city from settling the cases.

So what should we make of the unions' apparent willingness to roll back and modify stop-and-frisk in exchange for more money? The current stalemate dates back to 2012, when negotiations failed between Bloomberg and the city's 152 public employee unions. Some unions have been without contracts since before 2012. The sticking point in these negotiations: Many city unions wanted raises and better benefit packages, and those that had been working with contracts prior to 2012 wanted retroactive pay increases; Bloomberg said no. The most charitable way to look at trading stop-and-frisk for cash and benefits is that the officers unions' see poor compensation as more valuable than their right to conduct stop-and-frisk.

At first glance, this willingness to concede undermines the argument advanced by Bloomberg and the NYPD, which is that stop-and-frisk is necessary to keep New Yorkers safe. After all, if stopping and frisking is all that's standing between 2013 New York and 1990 New York, would the NYPD really put a price on giving it up? 

But it's just not the security of New York residents that is at stake. In its response to de Blasio's announcement that he would withdraw the city's appeal, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association wrote that its "goal is to continue to be involved in the process in order to give voice to our members and to make every effort to ensure that their rights are protected.” The PBA reiterated this when the appeals court ordered the district court to mediate a settlement in mid-February. "Our mission has always been to gain a seat at the table in order to protect our members' rights and reputations," a union spokesperson told the New York Daily News

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton recently announced that the unions will soon have actual seats at NYPD headquarters, but they want more than just office space. They want to be a part of the discussions about the rules governing their officers' on-the-job actions. Considering how much the city has paid in recent years to settle NYPD lawsuits, and that one of the clearest impacts of stop-and-frisk reform is making it easier for people to sue the NYPD, there's no way the unions simply throw up their hands and let the de Blasio administration do this without their input. 

It's also unlikely they'll have as much sway over the new rules as they want. On Wednesday, de Blasio announced he was dropping another lawsuit Bloomberg filed, this one against a law the New York City Council passed to make it easier for people to sue the NYPD for racial profiling. 

Top image: New York City Police officers salute during the swearing in ceremony for William F. Bratton. REUTERS/Mike Segar 

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