NEW YORK — On Labor Day, a 48-year-old retired sergeant with the New York Police Department was found dead in a car on Staten Island, apparently having shot himself. The department has been shaken by a rash of suicides; this case would mark the 10th in 2019 and the eighth since June, already double the number of suicides the department experiences on average each year.
Given that the city has grown ever safer, the cause of the increase is unclear. But Police Commissioner James O’Neill has spoken honestly and compassionately about what he describes as a mental health crisis, the crucial need for peer support among officers and the importance of erasing the stigma of seeking and receiving counseling. Several weeks ago, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the highest-ranked uniformed police officer, said in a radio interview that the force was looking to hire psychologists who could be out in the field, and the department was also working to improve access to mental health professionals through the city’s inadequate insurance system.
Little of this seemed to resonate with Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the biggest police union in the world, and arguably labor’s most bellicose figurehead. In a video he posted on Twitter last month, the day after an officer killed himself in Queens, Lynch delivered his therapeutically dubious message to the union’s more than 20,000 members: “If you’re on the edge and contemplating suicide, don’t [expletive] do it, come on.”
He then called on politicians to end “the demonization and anti-cop rhetoric,” and warned officers that if they did kill themselves, good friends on and off the job would feel “betrayed and abandoned — by you.”
To the extent that the department’s senior management has tried in recent years to align itself more with progressive values, union leadership has pursued a different track altogether, one stuck in outdated ideologies about the preeminent sanctity of police work.
What has emerged is an intensifying cultural conflict. One side envisions officers and communities working in tandem in the pursuit of safety. The other sees the world outside the precinct locker room as a place of ever-present hostility and danger, a world in which an officer’s judgment should virtually never be questioned.
Undone by O’Neill’s recent firing of Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner during an attempted arrest five years ago, the union’s delegate assembly last week unanimously approved resolutions of no confidence in Mayor Bill de Blasio and O’Neill. What this means is that they want the governor to remove the democratically elected mayor, and they want the commissioner to resign because, as Lynch said in a statement, “Both men have displayed an appalling pattern of malfeasance and nonfeasance that disqualifies them from continuing to serve.”
The fact that civic leaders allowed Pantaleo to remain on the force and receive a salary during an interminably long investigation, enraging activists and ordinary people around the country, already seemed like a major concession to the union — to all but the leaders of the union themselves. In their view, anything short of subservience is betrayal.
This was not the first time that a resolution of no confidence was issued under Lynch’s stewardship of the PBA. Fifteen years ago, the union called for the resignation of the commissioner at the time, Raymond Kelly, for “jumping to conclusions” after an unarmed African American teenager was killed by a police officer in a dark stairwell of the Louis Armstrong Houses in Brooklyn. Kelly had merely said that the shooting did not seem justified.
Activists and community organizers have long held that the opinions of union leaders — largely white men in middle age — are out of sync with those in the rank and file. And the administrators of the department, including the commissioner’s office, increasingly agree. The force itself has become more and more diverse over the years: within the department, 155 languages are spoken. Among its uniformed personnel, the number of white male officers has shrunk from just under 16,000 in 1988 to 9,400 today, while the number of Hispanic men has more than doubled.
And yet Lynch’s reign is essentially unchallenged: This summer he was elected to another term as president, running unopposed. After Pantaleo’s firing, he assumed a posture of fatalism, arguing that the department was “rudderless” and that O’Neill would be unable to right things.
Lynch urged officers to proceed cautiously “in this new reality,” when, he believed, operating according to standard protocols could result in dismissals and threats to personal safety. He was, in effect, pushing for a slowdown.
By the end of August, felony arrests rate had fallen which suggested that officers had heeded his call. At the same time, declining arrest rates are just what Lynch’s adversaries among police reform advocates are always seeking.
Lynch’s approach seems engineered to foment anger between police officers and the communities they serve at a time when that anger actually seems to be receding, when neighborhood policing strategies have sought to change the way that beat officers do business, making them look at people as human beings rather than prospective felons.
What does Lynch’s anger ultimately serve?
This article originally appeared in