Get Out Of Jail Free: The Corruption of Police Benevolence Cards

Get out of jail free cards are only supposed to exist in Monopoly. But they also exist in New York, in literal card form – at least for minor traffic infractions. These are the Police Benevolence Association (PBA) Cards. The New York Police Department claims that the cards carry no special privileges and should not influence an officer’s decision whether or not to issue a traffic ticket. The police unions, however, tell a different story. Al O’Leary, a spokesman for the PBA, said that the union expects officers to refrain from writing tickets for those with PBA cards as long as they are not a danger to others. (Of course, this in turn raises the question of why the police are writing traffic tickets for anyone who is not a danger to others.)

Perhaps the most frequent recipients of the cards are family members of police officers. O’Leary justified that by saying officers deserve a perk for their families because “[t]he risks our officers take every day make them different from other people.” Special privileges for family members would be corrupt enough. But union leaders admit that they also hand out cards as “tokens of appreciation” to politicians, judges, lawyers, and reporters. Indeed, the New York Police Benevolence Association’s includes an article headlined: “Call it a PR tool or a get-out-of-jail-free card: Each year, local PBAs hand out stacks to the well-connected.” In Nassau County, special cards are given to large donors to the police foundations. While the cards are particular notorious in New York, they exist in many police departments around the country.

This is corruption, plain and simple. And this corruption is shockingly blatant. Yet to the extent that the cards have generated significant controversy, it has been about the fact that the cards are now easy to buy on eBay, rather than the fact that they exist in the first place. One city councilman called for an investigation because selling the cards was “an insult to the people who do work for the NYPD.” Another, who admitted to holding a card himself, said: “Selling the courtesy to the highest bidder is wrong and probably should be illegal.”

These critics miss the point. The issue is not whether people other than the select favored of police officers gets out of tickets. Councilman Dan Garodnick got it right when he said: “Our traffic laws should not be enforced with winks and nods. I don’t know which is worse, the existence of a get-out-of-jail-free card or the fact that the cards are being hawked on the internet.”

Defenders of the card say that it’s a way for police officers to vouch for upstanding members of the community, so that they can be given the benefit of the doubt. There are multiple problems with this – not least that being an all around good person has very little correlation with whether someone was speeding and deserves a ticket. Additionally:

  1. If cops are giving tickets too frequently or with too much force, the politicians who use the cards have little motivation to change traffic rules or rein in the police department. It allows elites the benefit of increased police ticketing (safer streets) without having to bear the cost (an increased chance of being ticketed themselves).
  2. When journalists use the cards, they will have less incentive to investigate stories of police brutality or corruption because they would fear having their privileges taken away. Some media outlets acknowledge that using the cards would be a conflict of interest–but others do not.
  3. Even if the violation someone used the card to get out of is not particularly egregious, say driving 45 MPH in a 40 MPH zone, the knowledge that they have that card in their pocket could make people drive more recklessly, raising the risks for others on the road.

Making tickets for well-connected people go away once they have been issued (“ticket fixing”) is illegal and has resulted in widespread criminal prosecution of police officers in New York City. During the ticket-fixing investigation, “prosecutors found fixing tickets to be so extensive that they considered charging the union under the state racketeering law as a criminal enterprise, the tactic employed against organized crime families.” It is therefore bizarre that journalists, politicians, and prosecutors tolerate such blatant manipulation of officer discretion at the point of ticket issue. Because the PBA cards take physical form, it would be relatively easy to ban police departments from handing them out. While that wouldn’t eliminate the problem entirely–someone pulled over could mention to the officer that he or she is a politician or journalist, or that his or her relative is a police officer–but it would still go a long way towards eliminating an obvious form of police corruption.

One thought on “Get Out Of Jail Free: The Corruption of Police Benevolence Cards

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for sharing this extremely interesting and topical piece! I especially appreciated your explicit labeling of the giving and using of PBA cards as corruption, and more importantly, why the discussion surrounding this practice lacks this shrewd characterization.

    Your piece also got me thinking more broadly about why sometimes very plainly “corrupt” practices are never described as such. Specifically, I’m thinking about the Washington Post’s thorough investigation on civil asset forfeiture (link below), and John Oliver’s comedic yet scathing commentary and reporting on same (link also below). To briefly recap, civil asset forfeiture in these contexts refers to the police force’s ability to seize civilians’ money or property based simply on the suspicion that such assets were used in criminal activity. As our favorite British commentator shows, this tool has opened the floodgates to police misbehavior and perverse incentives (note: even John Oliver doesn’t call this practice corruption!), and has been used as a tool to support police department spending (and often for illegitimate purposes). Though the DOJ has recently passed restrictions on the program, the lingering question on my mind is why this practice has rarely, if ever, been called “corruption.” It seems to me, as it did to you in the case of PBA cards, that it is corruption, plain and simple.

    Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/collection/stop-and-seize-2/
    John Oliver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kEpZWGgJks

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