The Little Cards That Tell Police ‘Let’s Forget This Ever Happened’
Mike, a white man in his 50s, was in a bad spot: He was stuck idling in traffic on New York City’s Riverside Drive, running late for a meeting, and he needed to get to the Upper East Side pronto. Hopping on the shoulder to bypass the other cars wasn’t the right thing to do, he told VICE, but he’d seen other people get away with it before.
Mike, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, said he knew it was risky—especially because the borrowed car he was driving didn’t have a license plate, let alone a registration under his name. He decided to roll the dice anyway. Right away, bad news: a traffic checkpoint, and cops pulling people over.
“That was probably the tightest spot I could’ve been in,” Mike said. “Because [the offense] could’ve been ‘driving without a plate,’ ‘driving with no registration…’” By driving on the shoulder, too, Mike was driving illegally in at least three different ways.
Despite that, he felt confident as the cop approached his car and told him to roll down his window. Instead of pulling out his driver’s license, Mike simply introduced himself and produced something better. “I just basically happened to have one of their PBA cards on me,” he said, referring to the small, plastic “courtesy” cards issued by the Police Benevolent Association, which usually have an officer’s name, phone number, and signature on the back.
The cards are designed to be presented in a low-stakes police encounter, like a traffic stop, as a laminated wink-and-nudge between officers that says, “Hey, would you mind going a little easy on this one?” When a cop is handed a PBA card, they can call the number on it to verify the relationship between the cardholder and the issuer, then decide whether it means they should give the cardholder a break.
According to Mike, the officer looked at the card, then let him go without asking for ID or the car’s registration. “By knowing somebody and having that connection, it worked,” Mike said. …
Though Mike’s story may seem like it comes from a less-scrutinized, outdated era of law enforcement, PBA cards are still used and accepted in the present, without much oversight. They serve as a physical example of how cops are able to exercise the law largely as they feel, personally, is right.
According to John Driscoll, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, PBA cards aren’t quite carte blanche to flout the law. Driscoll, a former NYPD officer himself, told VICE that, in his experience, the cards are most likely to work in one’s favor during traffic stops for minor infractions, like speeding or a busted tail light—and not in more serious cases, like drunk driving.
When a PBA card is presented, it’s up to the officer how they want to factor it into a stop. “Some officers, I think they’d summons their own mother,” Driscoll said. “The card doesn’t mean anything to them. Other people [are less that way]; we have wide discretion when it comes to issuing summonses, so officers exercise that all the time,” he said, in order to let PBA cardholders off the hook for minor infractions if they so choose.
…But because cops can also use discretion to over-apply the law violently to vulnerable populations, PBA cards and the privileges they confer are darkly emblematic of how certain people are favored in situations in which others are endangered or hurt by police.
The existence of these cards is a concrete example of a larger, often more insidious problem in American policing: Discretionary decision-making allows police to pick and choose who the law really applies to—and who gets a pass.
…Black Americans have filed lawsuits against police officers in Aurora, Colorado, and Shreveport, Louisiana, alleging discriminatory and violent treatment during broken taillight stops, fortunately without deadly consequences.
In 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Texas, for failing to signal while changing lanes; after a state trooper threatened her with a stun gun, Bland was taken into custody, where she was found dead three days later. There are many other accounts of police choosing violence against the people they pull over for minor traffic infractions, particularly if they aren’t white.
To illustrate how discretion permeates issues of policing large and small, David Correia, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and co-author of Police: A Field Guide, also pointed to over-policing in the “crime-infested” neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by Black and brown people living at or below the poverty line; and the proven inability of so-called “chokehold bans” to curb the police use of chokeholds.
In practice, Correia and Wall said those who are able to “get off easy” from an encounter with the police typically look and act a lot like Mike, an affable white person who respects police authority and is careful to address them with friendly deference—to act the part of the sheepish, apologetic innocent who understands that the cop is “just doing their job.” (And, given the publicly available data on the demographics of the NYPD and New Jersey state police, the majority of police issuing cards are likely white officers.)
…Officer discretion is at the core of modern policing—it vests cops with the power to choose if, when, how, to whom, and to what extent they will apply the law. The school resource officers who handcuff disabled children for acting out in class are free to do so because they’ve determined, using discretion, that it is necessary. The cop who returned a scared, naked teenager to Jeffrey Dahmer after the 14-year-old boy escaped the murderer’s house? Also exercising discretion.
Literature on discretion that’s favorable to the police effectively states that this decision-making power can’t be limited, because to do so would curb their ability to react in the moment and enforce the law. …
Kelling goes on to advocate for training that teaches cops about how to think, rather than how to act, in the field—how to identify disorder and criminal potential, without placing firm limits on how to act once a supposed threat is identified. This mindset has unsurprisingly been linked to racial profiling and the criminalization of unhoused populations, something Kelling himself expressed concerns about.
Cops have serious social incentives to respect PBA cards—the way they handle being presented with one reflects the respect they have for a fellow officer. This dynamic is demonstrated with surprising accuracy, Driscoll said, in a storyline of The Sopranos.
In the 2001 episode “Another Toothpick,” Tony Soprano brandishes a New Jersey State PBA card when a Black police officer pulls him over for speeding. “I think I had dinner with your boss last week,” Soprano says slyly as he flashes the card (which bears the name of real-life former PBA president Michael J. Madonna).
After a tense exchange, the officer tickets Soprano anyway. A few scenes later, Soprano runs into the cop working at a garden supply store: Once word of his refusal to let Soprano off the hook got back to his superiors, the cop’s hours were cut and he was forced to get a second job to recoup the lost income.
“I love The Sopranos,” Driscoll said. “I laughed at that one!” But he said the potential disrespect communicated by ignoring a fellow cop’s PBA card was no joke.
Police unions tend to be tight-lipped when it comes to discussing PBA cards. The phenomenon is mentioned in the media as early as 1936, in a profile of a former police commissioner in the New Yorker, and references to PBA cards continued to crop up in New York–area newspapers throughout the 20th century, generally in connection with forgery and extortion. One motorcycle patrolman died by suicide after he was found guilty of distributing fraudulent courtesy cards. But for the most part, you’d be hard pressed to get a cop (or even a PBA cardholder) to discuss the custom in detail.
Because of this silence, it’s tough to get a read on how many PBA cards there are in circulation, and who exactly is holding them.
To Wall, though, courtesy cards are just the opposite: They’re “a window into the larger maze” of the foundational principles of policing, like discretion, that make the entire institution so unreformable. He believes they reflect the biases, prejudices, and institutionally supported pecking order of policing on the whole.
“Policing was never meant to be held accountable in the first place, not in a meaningful, substantial way,” Wall said. He cautioned against focusing too much on the injustice of PBA cards. “Be careful that the outrage [doesn’t] become directed in too narrow a way. The real outrage should be directed at the nature of policing itself.”
Correction: This story originally stated that David Correia is an associate professor at the University of Mexico. He is actually an associate professor at the University of New Mexico. We regret the error.
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