New York City cops are mad that their biggest union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has stopped them from handing out 30 PBA cards (often called “get out of jail free” cards) to friends and family every year. Instead they can only hand out 20 a year. Retired cops get 10.
PBA cards, common in New York and New Jersey, work very simply: If you’re pulled over or otherwise approached by a cop, you can hand your card over along with your license, and they might let you off. If you’d never heard of them before, they might strike you as a flagrant abuse of power, because they are.
The cards aren’t officially recognized by any government body. The NYPD’s official stance is that their officers aren’t allowed to show favoritism. When reporter Kevin Manahan tried to confirm whether the cards work, most cops simply hung up on him. But four anonymous officers told him that a PBA card can often get you excused for a minor offense like speeding.
The cards won’t save you from a more serious charge, and some cops disregard them. They will absolutely not get you out of jail. But in a 2004 Newsday article hosted on the official NYCPBA site, PBA head of PR Al O’Leary said outright, “This union encourages its members not to write a ticket over a card.” The article includes instructions for using your PBA card:
Hand over the card along with your driver’s license, and casually mention the name of the person who issued you the card.
In 2006, former NYPD officer Eric Sanders gave further instructions in the New York Times:
When shown during a police stop, a union card usually “initiates a conversation,” said Eric Sanders, a former New York police officer who is now a lawyer in Lake Success, N.Y.
“An officer will typically say, ‘How did you get the card?’ “ he explained. “Or if there’s a shield number on the card, he might say, ‘So where does this officer work?’ But if you have a card illegitimately and you pull it out, it’s just going to annoy the officer.”
The reason cops won’t get as many cards now, according to the New York Post, isn’t to discourage this preferential treatment, but to make sure the rest of us can’t get our hands on the cards. Because (as the Times reported back in 2006) you can just buy one on eBay.
Cards currently sell for $50-$150, issued from multiple police organizations, with multiple levels of personalization. Some are signed by officers or include an ID number; others are gold “family member” cards that reportedly carry more persuasive weight. (Craigslist has just one relevant, but sketchy, listing.) There are also various stickers and donation-based cards, but there’s less evidence that they’re effective.
Be careful when buying one. Some might be fake or useless, and you definitely can’t ask an official source to check over a card before you buy it. Selling the cards isn’t illegal, but it’s condemned by the union, who have been trying to stop the eBay sales for years. After all, what if a citizen were to get a little leniency without buttering up a cop?