Mathew Bianchi became a Staten Island traffic cop in 2017, two years after joining the New York police department, assigned to enforcing traffic violations and issuing tickets. In the first two years on that beat, he received stellar performance evaluations.
But in November 2018 – a year into his career in the traffic unit – Bianchi issued a ticket to a civilian who held a New York City police department laminated courtesy card, an unofficial credential issued to NYPD officers based on their union affiliation that can then be distributed to family members and friends to carry with them.
What happened next is the subject of a lawsuit against the city and a police captain. According to Bianchi, who is Cuban-American, courtesy cards are used to maintain a system of impunity – a “get-of-jail-free card” for families and friends of NYPD officers to avoid traffic tickets, a growing source of revenue for the city.
Bianchi claims his superiors retaliated against him for his stance against the “corrupt” cards after he was warned by an official with the Police Benevolent Association, New York City’s largest police union, that he would not be protected by his union if he wrote tickets for people with cards. And if he continued, he’d be reassigned.
In some instances, the complaint said, Bianchi was reprimanded for writing a ticket to a relative or parent of an officer; in others, his commanding officer reviewed body-camera footage to see if he was giving motorists with cards a “hard time”.
“I see card after card. You’re not allowed to write any of them [up],” he told the Associated Press. “We’re not supposed to be showing favoritism when we do car stops, and we shouldn’t be giving them out because the guy mows my lawn.”
Bianchi told his precinct commander that he did not agree with the courtesy card policy and claims he was told: “Is it better to be right or better to be on patrol?” The lawsuit cites several instances where his NYPD colleagues complained about his ticket-writing, including on Facebook.
Still, Bianchi continued, ultimately writing up traffic stops in which he in effect ignored or questioned courtesy cards carried by fellow cops’ family members and friends. In one instance, he issued a ticket for speeding to a woman who’d blown through a red light. She still complained about the speeding ticket despite being given a break on the light as a result of her PBA card.
In the complaint, Bianchi claims the NYPD violated his first amendment right to speak out as a citizen regarding a matter of extreme public concern, “namely widespread corruption, illegal practices and the manipulation of issuance” of traffic tickets due to courtesy cards.
Bianchi’s service as a traffic cop ended last summer when he wrote a ticket to a friend of the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Chief Jeffrey Maddrey, the lawsuit states. The woman never mentioned to Bianchi that she knew Maddrey, and the stop was “unremarkable”, according to the lawsuit.
Bianchi claims he was later warned by a lieutenant that the stop “pissed off someone very high up”, and that Maddrey had called the precinct commander to demand that Bianchi be punished. Three days later, he claims, he was off traffic duty and on a night patrol shift.
Bianchi filed an anonymous complaint with the city’s department of investigation but withdrew it when he claims he was told it would have to be on the record. He then filed with the NYPD internal affairs bureau.
“Even though my car stop was a standard stop with no confrontation I am still being retaliated against solely because the motorist I summonsed knows a chief and that chief is now mad at me,” he wrote in a complaint quoted in the suit. “This is not only corrupt but it’s a safety issue.”
He claimed that the practice of selective law enforcement, including giving the cards away in exchange for a discount on a meal or a home improvement job, comes with a component of racial bias.
Staten Island, where Bianchi patrolled, is predominantly white. White drivers in the borough, the complaint said, “are significantly more likely to have courtesy cards than minority drivers”. As a result of a ticketing quota system, this means “police officers are forced to disproportionately ticket minority drivers”.
A spokesperson for the Police Benevolent Association said it did “not set policies regarding the way that police officers perform their duties. The law and NYPD policies afford police officers discretion in taking enforcement action.
“Each police officer determines how to exercise that discretion based on the specifics of each case. Likewise, the PBA does not determine where or how the NYPD deploys its personnel. That is the sole prerogative of NYPD management,” the PBA said.
A spokesperson for the NYPD said the department would review the lawsuit if and when they are served.
Ronnie Dunn, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University who has written a number of academic papers on structural racism in traffic ticketing practices, said that what Bianchi is alleging is a form of bias.
“It’s not only racial bias, because minorities are less likely to be given courtesy cards based on the demographics of the police, but also creates a status bias, because courtesy cards give impunity to violate traffic laws to family and friends of law enforcement and predominantly European-Americans,” Dunn said.
Traffic stops resulting in deadly use of force by police against Black Americans and minorities is one issue beneath the surface of the courtesy card issue because “it further perpetuates an uneven justice system which unfortunately falls along racial lines. Once again, Black and racial minorities are unlikely to be the recipients of these cards and given a pass of traffic stops and violations.”
The nationwide practice of giving out courtesy cards was one that reflects biases and prejudices and was as such “a very serious problem that needs to be done away with”, he added.
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