These “get out of jail free” cards epitomize so much of what is wrong with policing in America

PBA Card get out of jail free Photo: Cory Doctorow Twitter/Screenshot

Videos by Rare

Videos by Rare

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a New York City police union, caused a stink this week in the NYPD by giving officers a smaller allotment of “get out of jail free” cards to distribute among their family and friends.

For real.

New York City police officers have official cards they can hand out which bestow upon their relatives the privilege of avoiding legal consequences for minor, ticketable infractions like speeding. There’s no legal force backing the cards, but the police union encourages officers to let cardholders off with a warning. The cards garner enough respect from cops that they’re sold for hundreds of dollars online.

Let’s do some math. There are about 35,000 officers in the NYPD, plus thousands more retirees. Under the new system, each active officer gets 20 cards (down from 30) to hand out, and each retiree gets 10 (down from 20). Even with a cautious estimate of 10,000 retirees, that means 800,000 people are effectively above the (low-level) law in New York City.

As Ed Krayewski comments at Reason, this creates “an environment where government employees who are supposed to ‘serve and protect’ the public instead get extra privileges.” Police get to “protect their friends and families from the indignity of punishment for a minor traffic violation or some other infraction of a petty law” — and fair enough, I want the same thing for my loved ones — “But what about the rest of us?”

What makes this even more frustrating is how inherently arbitrary and unjust policing of many low-level offenses already is.

Consider the legal muddle surrounding “gravity knives,” which are banned in NYC. As I wrote at Rare back in 2016, the definition of this type of knife on the books in New York is super vague, and as a result, people (disproportionately blue collar workers and minorities) get arrested and subjected to asset forfeiture for carrying knives they thought were totally legal.

The knives are typically purchased at totally normal stores for use on the job, like in construction work or plumbing. The people who buy them have no suspicion that they’re doing anything that can get them in trouble. They’re not trying to hurt anyone. And none of that matters.

Now, since these knife arrests can lead to either a misdemeanor or felony charge, maybe they’re not quite petty enough for the “get out of jail free” cards to work their corrupt magic. But, writes the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez, “I think one can reasonably draw a link between [the cards’] sort of petty favoritism and the more serious abuses that leave so many minority communities regarding their local police less as public servants than an occupying force.” Sanchez continues:

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.

Is it any wonder that many Americans are wary of police officers? Is it any wonder they find our justice system cruel and capricious? Is it any wonder they’re asking for serious criminal justice reform?

What do you think?

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