New York City’s police department has come under criticism in recent days, with some city officials saying NYPD funding should be reduced. But many of the same New York City Council members parroting calls to “defund” the NYPD were just a year ago pushing Mayor Bill de Blasio to give city cops a big pay hike. It’s a reminder that New York’s elected officials, no matter how principled, routinely don’t want to say “no” to public-sector unions.

The New York City Council Progressive Caucus, a faction of members “who self-identify as aligned with progressive community issues,” is poised to endorse activist demands to reduce city spending on the police department.

“The only way forward I see,” caucus co-chairman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) tweeted Saturday night, “is #DefundNYPD.”

Most of the caucus’ 22 members—including Kallos—however struck a different tone last spring as the New York City Police Benevolent Association, the largest NYPD union, sought the council’s support for “market-rate pay.” The PBA’s contract expired in July 2017 (and remains unsettled), and the union asked councilmembers—including many it had helped elect—for support.

Forty-one of the council’s 51 members, including 15 progressive caucus members, signed one of multiple letters to Mayor de Blasio seeking “substantial wage increases” or the like for the PBA. Two caucus members—Andrew Cohen and Justin Brannan—went so far as to speak at a PBA rally in support of the pay raise.

“Don’t tell me you’re a union guy if you don’t support the cops in the PBA,” Brannan thundered.

Councilmembers may be talking tough about the NYPD, the PBA, and police accountability, but city and state officials have helped the PBA use public resources to build the influence that it has today. For one thing, the city collects dues for the union—at city expense—and wires it to the PBA. PBA officials—like other city union members—also get to perform union work on city time. The PBA gets special access to orientation to pressure new patrolmen to join, under measures pushed by Governor Cuomo in 2018 and again this year.

Of course, local and state lawmakers are reluctant to discuss the privileges conferred on police unions because those same privileges are conferred on other public employee organizations, especially teachers unions—and, unlike police unions, lawmakers remain scared of them.

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Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

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