Has the top police union in New York’s political power declined?

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NEW YORK — New York City’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Association isn’t what it used to be.

For decades, the PBA basically controlled law enforcement-related legislation in Albany and the city. Now?

“They’ve had very significant and I would say disruptive influence in blocking so much important criminal legal reform of our criminal justice system,” Manhattan Democratic Assemblymember Dan Quart and PBA foe tells PIX11. “But that has changed somewhat.”

Republican State Assembly member Karl Brabenec, generally a PBA friend, also acknowledges this.

“I think it’s a little less clout than they’ve had over the years.”

Retired NYPD Inspector and current adjunct professor at John Jay College Steve Nasta goes further.

“Overall it is quite evident that they have lost a lot of clout,” he said.

So, what happened?

Two major factors have resulted in the PBA’s dramatic loss of influence over the past two years. The Republican Party lost control of the State Senate in 2018. And now, the upheaval sparked by the killing of George Floyd has inflamed anti-police passions.

Part 2 of PIX11 News’ look on the PBA’s declining political power

“Elected officials have joined the bandwagon, the anti-police bandwagon and now they’re afraid to speak out on any matter to support the police,” according to Nasta.

The impact has been dramatic. In June, the legislature passed a package of 10 bills that the PBA generally viewed as anti-police.

Among them are the repeal of 50-a, the provision protecting police from public disclosure of disciplinary actions, the Eric Garner Anti-chokehold Act and the bill establishing a special investigations office and making the Attorney General the prosecutor for police killings of unarmed civilians.

“There would have been no possibility of passing any of the laws, “ according to Quart, “if the Republicans continued to hold the State Senate.”

Consultant Cedric Alexander thinks police are going to have to learn to live with reforms. He’s a clinical psychologist with about 40 years in law enforcement. His experience includes serving as police chief and deputy mayor in Rochester and as Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

“We’re at this place in this nation right now at this very moment is that what the public is saying. They’re saying we want something different,” Alexander told PIX11 News.

Alexander is sympathetic to the PBA’s often heated rhetoric.

“We can’t bash union leaders for trying to support their constituents. That’s what they’re paid to do.”

So what is the PBA leadership doing? Fiery PBA president Pat Lynch is still outspoken. He appeared with President Trump to endorse Trump’s re-election bid and then got five minutes in prime time at the Republican National Convention. His message was simple.

“The Democrats have walked away from us,” he said. “They have walked away from police officers.”

But beneath the surface, the PBA appears to be changing its political donation strategy.

As Greg B. Smith reported in the non-profit news site The City in June, the greatest beneficiary of PBA spending between 2015 and 2018 was the State Senate Republican Campaign Committee. It received $78,500.

But, according to filings reviewed by PIX11 News, in the latest election cycle, from 2019 through July of this year, the PBA gave exactly nothing to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and $6,000 to the NY State Democratic Campaign Committee.

According to filings with the state Board of Elections, the union donated at least $29,000 to state senators for 2019-20 election cycle. Another $15,050 went to assemblymembers.

Only two of the 16 senators receiving funds are republicans. Just three of 21 Assembly members receiving donations are Republicans.

“That money is now flowing again for the Democratic party because they’re in the majority right now. They control the agenda up in Albany,” GOP Assemblyman Brabenec tells PIX11. “In the senate or in the assembly, you’re gonna need the majority party.”

Brabenec also says unions need to support the lawmakers who support them. But that support may not always be there.

The largest senate contribution went to Queens Democrat, Sen. Joseph Addabbo, Jr. of Ozone Park. His campaign received $4,000.

In a telephone conversation, we asked Sen. Addabbo what the PBA gets for its money.

“Very little,” he said. “I appreciate the PBA and other contributors… contributions are not tied to any votes because I’ve shown I have a very independent way of voting.”

In fact, the $4,000 from the PBA is only about 1.3% of the almost $300,000 Addabbo raised during the time period.

The PBA also donated $2,500 to Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Her spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment from PIX11 News.

Assembly speaker Carl Heastie received $1,500 in PBA donations. His political action committee received another $500.

“Donations have no bearing on the speaker’s positions,” Heastie’s communications director, Michael Whyland, told PIX11 News. He pointed to the package of ten bills moved forward by the speaker and passed in June to support the statement.

The largest share of the PBA’s efforts goes to lobbying: a total of $418,850 in 2019 and 20 to three outside firms; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, Bolton St. John’s and Tusk Strategies, plus about $20,000 to the PBA itself. The union pays Manatt, Phelps & Phillips $10,000 a month.

That’s a lot of money spent on lobbying. But the PBA has 24,000 members. That means it breaks down to only about $18.29 per member.

The lobbying covers an array of legislation, from pension and financial issues to crucial policing and criminal justice.

Ex-cop and current adjunct professor at John Jay College, Steve Nasta, thinks some of that money could be better spent elsewhere.

“I think that they (PBA) should perhaps spend money instead of lobbying in Albany, spend on getting word out to the public because evidently it didn’t work,“ he said.

The PBA does spend a fair amount to get word out to the public, just over $110,000 through July in the 2019-20 election cycle.

So where does all this leave the PBA?

“I imagine it will be a certainly less receptive audience around Democrats in the legislature than there was by Senate Republicans to police unions and their agenda,” Quart said.

Brabenec, who tells us his father was a cop, says the PBA is far from finished.

“They still have influence I believe.”

Within the NYPD, the department’s top uniformed cop, Chief of Department Terrence Monahan tells PIX11 News that the PBA has input but not decision-making power.

“They don’t sit at the table when we discuss policy and procedures,” Monahan says. “We always listen to the PBA, I have an open line to them, I speak with Patty Lynch all the time, so we have an open communication. But, no, they don’t get to help determine policy.”

To Cedric Alexander, the PBA faces a crucial question as cops face calls for more transparency in the effort to win the public trust.

“How are they going to change their negative perception but at the same time suppor the men and women who are paying their dues for membership? They have a responsibility, too. This is not a time for stubbornness, this is not a time for us to constantly be in conflict with each other.”

PIX11 tried to get an interview with PBA President Pat Lynch.

When that didn’t happen, PIX11 emailed the PBA two basic questions:

The PBA was asked how their influence in the NY State legislature has been affected by the Republican loss of control of the Senate and by the protests after the death of George Floyd. The PBA was also asked if they believe it’s getting a fair shake in Albany.

The PBA sent a statement attributed to Pat Lynch.

“The PBA’s approach to politics and legislation is not complicated. We represent the women and men who protect New York City, providing a critical service to New Yorkers. We have always had strong relationships with elected leaders who share that goal. Right now, too many politicians in City Hall and Albany have stopped listening to their own constituents. They aren’t hearing voters calling for safer streets. Instead, they’re listening to a handful of professional protestors pushing a radical agenda, and our communities are suffering for it. The situation won’t improve unless New Yorkers turn out at the polls and remind these politicians who they work for.”

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