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PBA Cards and the Problem with Police Discretion


by Jayson Hawkins

Police officers have recently been under fire for excessive or even deadly force being used in routine arrests and traffic stops, but some critics have begun to draw attention to a different police behavior that involves how and when officers let people go free.

This criticism covers a broad range of behavior, but some of the most vocal protests concern PBA cards. These cards get their name from the Police Benevolent Association, which is the largest police union in New York City and a major issuer of cards. The cards carry the union logo, along with the name and phone number of the officer it was issued to. PBA members get up to 20 cards each year, and they may give them to any friend or family member. 

These civilians can then present the card when stopped by police for minor infractions, thus earning the cards their nickname: “get out of jail free cards.” The idea is that when an officer sees that the person he has stopped has some personal connection with a fellow officer, then he will be inclined to be lenient. 

There is no data on how effective the cards are, but reporters at spoke with multiple men who described how they had used the PBA cards issued to them by friends to get out of routine traffic violations. These men, not surprisingly, wished to remain anonymous.

There is no way to track how many cards have been issued or who has them, but some critics charge that the cards magnify already existing biases in policing. David Correia, co-author of Police: A Field Guide, emphasizes that the people who are given cards typically reflect the demographics of the police who issue them – White, male, and middle class. These are not the people, according to Correia, who need assistance when dealing with police in routine encounters. 

There are no guarantees with PBA cards, but according to John Driscoll, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, officers are subject to unofficial pressure to let card holders off with a warning. More than professional courtesy, this peer pressure is in some ways emblematic of police solidarity.

PBA cards are only part of what critics see as the larger problem of police discretion. The way police handle a traffic stop, for example, can hinge on things that have nothing to do with the violation at hand, like whether the person has a PBA card or what race they are. There are many well-documented cases of police brutality against people of color that began as the type of routine traffic stop PBA cards are meant to smooth over. Minneapolis police killed Philando Castile after they pulled him over for a busted tail light in 2016, and Blacks in Colorado and Louisiana have filed lawsuits against police alleging discriminatory and violent treatment during routine traffic stops. 

The idea of discretion is inherent in how police go about their jobs. Criminologist George Kelling, an advocate of broad police discretion, argues that police must be able to identify disorder and criminal potential without being hindered by firm limits on how they respond to these potential threats. 

Critics counter that by asserting the unfettered discretion police usually enjoy is actually the problem rather than the solution. It is this discretion, or at least the idea of it, that has led to racial profiling and the stark differences in how communities of color are policed. 

Tyler Wall, the other co-author of Police: A Field Guide, believes that this discretion, whether it means honoring a PBA card or using a chokehold, is at the heart of what makes the maze of institutional bias and cultural arrogance of policing so unreformable. He says the cards are just a single example of the reality that “Policing was never meant to be held accountable in the first place, not in a meaningful, substantial way.” 



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