My article on Pat Lynch and Quentin Tarantino appeared in the November 11, 2105 edition of Newsweek. The text is reprinted below for non-Newsweek subscribers.
Patrick Lynch has a problem.
When first elected head of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association union in 1999, Lynch was, at 35, the youngest PBA president ever, and he was seen as a force of reform in an ossified union that had gone years without pay raises.
But he immediately took on the role he has played ever since: chief defender of police officers who kill civilians. It served him well for over a decade, but recent events suggest that the shtick is getting old.
In 2004, when Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the shooting of Timothy Stansbury in a Brooklyn housing project stairwell “appeared unjustified,” Lynch and the PBA issued a vote of no-confidence in Kelly, demanding that the “anti-cop” commissioner resign.
After the detectives in the shooting that killed Sean Bell were acquitted, Lynch took the lead in defending the verdict—never mind the fact that his union doesn’t represent detectives. Ousmane Zongo, Gidone Busch, Khiel Coppin—whenever there was a cop standing over a corpse, there was Lynch in his pompadour, tie and windbreaker telling us all to move along, nothing to see here.
And for years everyone believed him. I should know. From 2001 through 2008, I served at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city agency charged with investigating complaints of officer misconduct. We investigated thousands of complaints a year. We issued recommendations regarding the use of pepper spray, policing demonstrations and executing search warrants.
And every time we tried to draw attention to the issue of police misconduct, there was Lynch standing in our way, reminding everyone that crime was down. And every time he seemed to win.
I went to forums all around the city after Bell was killed and spoke at the community council meetings after Stansbury was shot. There were always a vocal few who complained about racial profiling, over-policing and violence, but most people shrugged and moved on.
When we gave our budget testimony before the New York City Council every year, we were conveniently scheduled just after the police commissioner’s morning testimony and just before the afternoon statements of the district attorneys, so the council members could go get lunch while we spoke to an empty chamber.
But in the last two years, all that has changed. After the shooting of Michael Brown and the death of Eric Garner, just about any violent arrest can land a cop in the paper. And there have been dozens of rallies, marches, protests and seminars calling for police reform. Lynch can’t keep the lid on everyone.
But that hasn’t stopped him from trying. At a rally two weeks ago—one that wasn’t very large and would likely have been quickly forgotten—filmmakerQuentin Tarantino said that if “there’s murder going on, then you need to rise up and stand up against it. I’m here to say I’m on the side of the murdered.”
Unable to resist, Lynch frothed up his membership and called for a police boycott of Tarantino’s latest film. Wrapped up in his latest media battle, Lynch has been alarmingly silent on the news that came out a week later and is much more important to his membership: On October 25, a neutral arbitrator charged with approving a new contract for the PBA presented Lynch with a draft that limits raises to 1 percent a year. The PBA has been without a contract since 2010.
While other unions held talks with the city, winning concessions for their members, Lynch has held fast, defending cops accused of wrongdoing rather than entering the negotiating room.
Right now, Lynch resembles no one so much as Randi Weingarten, the teachers union chief who spent much of her time rallying against charter schools and teacher accountability rather than negotiating for member benefits.
Her successor, Michael Mulgrew, agreed to accountability measures that allow the city to remove problem teachers and reaped tremendous reward, including 18 percent raises, new leadership posts and fellowship tracks for outstanding teachers.
It’s true to a point that Tarantino stuck his foot in his mouth. The legally precise definition of “murder” includes a degree of intent to kill that doesn't apply to most of the police-involved shootings of the past year. Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder, however, in the shooting of Walter Scott.
But a drunk driver who runs over a 3-year-old on a tricycle hasn’t committed murder in the legal sense either, and we still want to see him punished. If Lynch is rallying the troops because Tarantino didn’t say that he stands with “the victims of criminally negligent homicide,” then he is resting his legitimacy on a thin reed.
And now that his membership is starting to see where all this posturing has got them in terms of a contract, Lynch’s post may be far from secure. He survived a weak challenge to his leadership this summer—three of the insurgent trustees were under indictment for allegedly fixing traffic tickets—but that was before the arbitrator released his findings.
In a department that is now 46 percent minority, where most officers are justifiably proud of the fact that they don’t engage in misconduct, a union boss who tells you what movies to see rather than getting you a raise may find that his time is limited.
The Mulgrew model offers a blueprint for what a legitimate challenger to Lynch may look like. Increase accountability and allow the department to fire problematic officers, and in exchange provide for real wage increases and better career paths for the rank and file.
New York Police Department officers read the papers, and they know which way the wind is blowing. If Lynch keeps singing the only tune he seems to know, his days appear numbered.