NYC police union may cut back courtesy cards

Patrick Lynch, boss of New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), is reportedly slashing “the number of ‘get out of jail free’ courtesy cards distributed to cops to give to family and friends… to current cops from 30 to 20, and to retirees from 20 to 10, sources told The Post. The cards are often used to wiggle out of minor trouble such as speeding tickets, the theory being that presenting one suggests you know someone in the NYPD.” [Dean Balsamini, New York Post; also the topic of a discussion in our comments section]

Perfect New York touch: the anonymous griping in the Post comes from sources who complain that things aren’t corrupt enough in that cards aren’t being distributed as freely as before. The courtesy cards are sold on eBay for prices that can range up to $200, but awareness of their commercial availability is said to be one reason “plastic [lowest-level] cards are being honored less and less by officers.”

Alex Tabarrok quotes one source on “gold” (family member) and “silver” (most favored civilian) card levels, and another with extensive reflections on the workings of “professional courtesy,” which can include retaliation against officers who incautiously “write over the card” by ticketing someone with police connections.

Commentary from my colleague Julian Sanchez:

Think about the message these cards send to every officer who’s expected to honor them. They say that the law—or at least, some ill-defined subset of it—isn’t a body of rules binding on all of us, but something we impose on others—on the people outside our circle of personal affection. They say that in every interaction with citizens, you must pay special attention to whether they are members of the special class of people who can flout laws, or ordinary peons who deserve no such courtesy. They say that, at least within limits, officers of the law should expect to be able to break the law and not be punished for it. They say that a cop who has the temerity to hold another officer or their family to the same standards as everyone else is a kind of traitor who should expect to suffer dire consequences for the sin of failing to respect that privileged status. Moreover, they say that this is not merely some unspoken understanding—a small deviation from impartial justice to be quietly tolerated—but a formalized policy with the explicit support of police leadership.

Can we really be surprised, when a practice like this is open and normalized, that the culture it both reveals and reinforces has consequences beyond a few foregone speeding tickets? Should we wonder that police fail to hold their own accountable for serious misconduct when they’re under what amounts to explicit instructions to make exceptions for smaller infractions on a daily basis?

And Ed Krayewski:

The cards cut to the heart of the problem with public-sector unions: They create an environment where government employees who are supposed to ‘serve and protect’ the public instead get extra privileges. This is particularly dangerous with police unions, whose membership is armed by the state to enforce laws. Such unions regularly push for rules that protect bad cops.


  • Back in 2004, the police union’s own spokesman was explicitly saying: “This union encourages its members not to write a ticket over a card.” This has gone on so long that they’ve brazen enough to state, in media interviews, that it’s official policy not to ticket people with their cards.

    How that’s not enough for federal prison sentences, I do not know.

    • I agree that this feels like it should be illegal; it seems like it toes the line on bribery/extortion, and it violates equal protection. But I’m not sure if any federal criminal law is actually being broken. 18 U.S. Code § 242 (Deprivation of rights under color of law) prohibits “different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race”, but that’s not what’s happening here. And since city police aren’t federal officers, many other federal laws don’t apply to them.

  • The Equal Protection Clause, if enforced, would throw out every single fine etc. of anyone–quite simply, not being a friend of a cop is not a rational basis upon which to get fined. It really is that simple, and since it is institutionalized, it’s state action. (Nothing you can really do about “one-offs”).

    Judges create and enforce all sorts of non-law—why not enforce the Equal Protection Clause?

  • I had never even heard of these before, but when I mentioned it in my office, one person pulled out a gold courtesy card, and a miniature badge that said “policeman’s daughter”. So I guess it’s a real thing.