Police Badger

The 411 on sleazy law-enforcement solicitations.

About a month ago, I received a phone call from an organization that claimed to represent New York cops. The man on the phone asked me for a contribution for the widows and orphans of slain police officers. As a cop, I am particularly sympathetic to the needs of that group. On the other hand, as a cop, I know that the unions and charities that represent members of the NYPD do not solicit funds by telephone. So I tried to get the fellow on the other end of the line to tell me more. I asked if he was a police officer. No. Could he tell me the address of his organization? It was in Brooklyn. The exact address? No. His name? The name of the group’s president? He hung up.

I reported the incident to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau Impersonation Unit. But since the caller did not say he was a police officer and nothing else about the call was illegal, they wouldn’t take down the details. Besides, there were no details: I didn’t even have the name of the alleged charity.

Since Sept. 11, friends have reported an increase in these kinds of phone calls. The next time you get one, remember that there are only two common types of legitimate police charities. Some help individual police officers and their families—these include general “widows and orphans” funds and individual funds such as the one set up for Jim Leahy, a police officer with whom I worked, who was killed Sept. 11. The other type is set up to support actual police work. For instance, the New York City Police Foundation is the official charity of the department, dedicated to keeping us safe and well equipped. (They buy us bulletproof vests, for one thing.)

You also may hear from your local police unions, more commonly known as policeman’s benevolent associations. The main task of these organizations is to represent police officers for the purposes of collective bargaining. Some PBAs also run charities that buy equipment for the police, and some have “widows and orphans” funds of their own. And some PBAs do use telephone solicitation. But not all of them: Several states prohibit police-related charities from doing any phone solicitation, and some groups refrain from it by choice. For example, the union to which I belong, the Detective’s Endowment Association, doesn’t do phone solicitation, and neither does the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. This skittishness is probably left over from a time when it was widely alleged that the police solicited funds for their own direct enrichment. Other departments never went through New York City-type corruption scandals, and as a result are more tolerant toward pushy police charities.

Definitely check out these callers with your local department before handing over your credit-card number. And if you hesitate, consider this: The state of Ohio estimates that between 1995 and 2000, police and firefighting charities received a lousy 20 percent of the funds collected by professional fund-raising companies on their behalf. In November of 2000, charities allegedly representing police officers and state troopers were indicted in New Jersey. Representatives had told potential donors that they were cops and troopers, and that the money was going to widows and orphans and toward the purchase of bulletproof vests. It turns out no cops or troopers were involved; the charities actually represented corrections officers, and, again, most of the money went to the phone solicitors. The telemarketing was done by a company called Community Affairs Inc., which did solicitations for over 32 organizations that allegedly supported law enforcement.

It’s hard to say no to someone who claims to be collecting on behalf of cops. For one thing, since you’re being called at home, the organization obviously knows where you live. Refuse the solicitation and you may worry that you’ll suffer the next time you try calling 911. But rest assured that there’s no penalty for not giving. In fact, even the most famed benefit of PBA donation—the sticker or card they send you as a thank you for your donation—is of dubious value. I asked a cop who works in the Highway Unit of the NYPD how he responds to traffic violators who display such stickers. He answered that there are so many stickers of indeterminate legitimacy that if he gave the displayers a free ride, he’d wind up without any enforcement activity. He added that such a sticker would probably do more for a driver than a “Fuck the Police” bumper sticker.

A friend of mine who is a police officer in rural Massachusetts was a little cagier. He told me that while his union does not sell stickers, he tries to take everything he can into account during a traffic stop. He wouldn’t say that he gives a break to those who do contribute to a police charity. But he did say that if someone is a contributor to, say, the National Police Memorial, it does seem less likely that the person will be looking to take a shot at him, and therefore he feels safer. He told me that he generally feels kinder when he is feeling safe.

Cops have good reason to be cagey about whether they yield to these stickers and cards; the more supernatural power attributed to these trinkets, the more PBA donations rise. Moreover, officers have near total discretion over ticketing for traffic violations, but no decal is going to save you from an officer who’s seen you flagrantly violate traffic rules. Sure, your PBA sticker can’t hurt, but the cop behind you doesn’t know if you donated $10 or $10,000, if you bought the card on eBay (which hosts a healthy trade in them), or if it was on your car when you bought it. By all means, donate to the police charity of your choice but also take off your sunglasses, roll down your window, and put your hands on the wheel.

Personally, I’d be glad if this kind of fund raising was banned entirely. Phone solicitation is invasive. To imbue the callers with police authority, either real or imagined, is not only invasive but also unethical. The protection that the police provide is not for sale. And given the disparity between what phone solicitors typically collect and what the beneficiaries actually receive, avoiding charities that do phone solicitation is practically a charitable act in and of itself. If you really want to make a donation to law enforcement, try Concerns of Police Survivors, which provides money and counseling to the families and co-workers of police killed in the line of duty and is a commendable, non-phone-soliciting organization. They will even send you a sticker.