New York City's De Blasio Contends With a Police Union Angry About Pay

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New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (second left) listens as New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton speaks at a press conference on Oct. 21, 2015, in New York City.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
  • Arbitrators' decision would grant 1% raises for 2 years
  • Hundreds shouted in protest at the mayor's residence Wednesday

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spent much of the past year trying to repair his relationship with police. Now he’s drawn their wrath again.

The discontent, whipped up by the union representing 23,000 of the department’s 36,000 officers, is over an arbitrator’s recommendation favoring the city on a dispute over their contract, which expired in 2010, four years before de Blasio became mayor.

The decision would give the rank and file 1 percent raises annually for two years, in line with those given to supervisors and firefighters. Hundreds of officers protested the proposal Wednesday night at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence, demanding de Blasio’s ouster when he’s up for re-election in 2017.

“We have lost eight New York City police officers since the expiration of our
contract,” Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said at the protest. “Their lives are worth more than 1 percent.”

For de Blasio, 54, a self-described progressive who’s been attacked by tabloid newspapers and Republican antagonists as soft on crime, the conflict has spilled over to become a test of leadership. Hundreds of officers showed their contempt a year ago, turning their backs as he entered funerals for two officers shot to death after months of street protests against brutality. Lynch said the mayor showed more concern about curbing excessive force than the safety of officers. Such talk hasn’t made de Blasio give in.

“Don’t confuse union leaders with the rank and file,” de Blasio said at a City Hall news briefing last week. Police should be gratified that the city has spent hundreds of millions on crime-fighting technology, bulletproof vests, hiring 1,300 officers and training, the mayor said.

Contentious relationships are natural between big-city mayors trying to control payrolls and union leaders seeking money and benefits for members. For de Blasio, the dispute carries a heightened risk if Lynch, a 52-year-old who has run the union since 1999, succeeds in depicting him as anti-police or an incompetent manager, said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political scientist.

Wednesday night, officers at Gracie Mansion blew whistles, encouraged motorists to honk and shouted “one-term mayor!” They chanted “Crime is rising, pay is stinking.”

Shapiro said union activists “are promoting the perception that crime is up even though it isn’t, and that they are in danger and he doesn’t care, to send the mayor a signal that these issues could hurt his re-election effort.”

Crime has fallen to historic lows, continuing a trend that has made the largest U.S. city among the safest. While homicides have risen 8 percent, to 295 as of Nov. 1, compared with 274 a year earlier, overall crime is down 5 percent and shootings are almost 10 percent lower. De Blasio often bestows credit on officers and Police Commissioner William Bratton.

That has done little to sooth those angered by the decision of Howard Edelman, the neutral member of a three-person arbitration panel, who recommended 1 percent raises for August 2010 through July 2012, including back pay for the years since. An arbitration award can span only two years, so the city and the union must still resolve contracts through 2017, as de Blasio has with about 84 percent of city employees.

Last week, hundreds of police officers protested in front of Edelman’s home.

Lynch says Edelman should have raised patrol officers’ salary to match that of the 1,500 Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police, who earned an average $108,000 after six years, 23 percent more than New York’s $88,000 in 2009, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a non-profit, business-funded fiscal monitor.

“He rolled the dice and he lost the roll of the dice,” Bratton said of Lynch’s bet to seek arbitration rather than negotiate.

One percent raises for the rank and file would cost the city about $430 million for each of the two years taking into account the cost of back pay and pensions since 2010, CBC vice president Maria Doulis calculated. De Blasio has already set aside enough to cover it in his current $79.9 billion budget, she said.

The PBA would accept a 16 percent raise over four years, spokesman Al O’Leary said. If de Blasio won’t agree, the union will seek arbitration again and again, O’Leary said.

“The rank and file are strongly behind him,” O’Leary said. “We’re going to fight and scrap until we get up to a market rate of pay.”

Last winter, protesting police staged a slowdown in which they cut the amount of parking tickets and other summonses by more than 90 percent. The action had more of an impact on city revenue than on crime, said Richard Aborn, executive director of the Citizens Crime Commission, a business-funded group. So far this year, the police protests haven’t had any impact on public safety, he said.

“It’s a sliding scale running from discontent with pay all the way up to open rebellion, and I don’t see it going that far right now,” Aborn said. “The department’s leadership is watching this closely now, and if there’s another slowdown like we experienced last year, we can expect it to respond quickly.”

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