At N.Y.C. Police Union, Will the New Boss Be a Lot Like the Old Boss?

Patrick Hendry, the new boss of New York City’s police officers’ union, has much in common with his predecessor: Their mothers are from Ireland. They grew up in Queens, the sons of union men. And they believe a police union must defend officers, even those accused of wrongdoing.

Mr. Hendry and Patrick J. Lynch, the former president of the Police Benevolent Association, say officers must make split-second decisions that carry uniquely high stakes for union members, for the city and within the 50,500-employee Police Department — the nation’s largest.

For nearly a quarter century, the booming voice of Mr. Lynch, who stepped down June 30, made the union a key player in New York politics. He was a take-it-or-leave-it megaphone for 21,000 active members. He battled Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani over wage freezes; accused Mayor Bill de Blasio after the assassination of two officers of stirring up anti-police sentiment; and led the union when it endorsed Donald J. Trump for president in 2020.

Now Mr. Hendry, 51, who is untested as a public figure, must decide whether he will deviate from that path. He says that his plans are straightforward: Get more officers longer shifts in exchange for more days off, fend off watchdogs who he says seek to discipline officers over minor complaints and build on the diverse team he has assembled to serve a younger, majority-minority force.

He also wants to retain officers being wooed by other law enforcement agencies offering more money and less big-city stress. Thanks to a union contract signed in April, officers starting next year will earn about $56,000 annually in their first year and just over $65,000 by their fifth year — far lower than elsewhere in the country.

“Our members are still leaving. We are understaffed and overworked. We made progress on the contract, but we still believe we’re underpaid,” Mr. Hendry said during a recent interview at Police Benevolent Association headquarters in Lower Manhattan. “We are the biggest force in the country, and we should be paid the highest in the country.”

Mr. Hendry himself is expected to earn about $218,000 annually, half from his police salary and half from the union; union leaders are excused from city work in order to perform union business full time.

He was quick to take up his ceremonial duties. On Wednesday, he went to the northeast side of Central Park where, in 1986, a 15-year-old boy shot Detective Steven McDonald. In 2019, the detective, who had forgiven the boy who left him paralyzed, died from his injuries.

Mr. Hendry gave a brief speech before a small group gathered there, 37 years to the day of the shooting. “Everyone here has a Steven McDonald story,” he said. “Those stories made us better police officers, made us better people.” After he finished, he embraced Detective McDonald’s widow and son.

The timing of Mr. Hendry’s ascension coincides with a turning point for the Police Department. Edward Caban was named acting commissioner this month after the abrupt resignation of Keechant Sewell. Ms. Sewell, Mr. Lynch and the city negotiated a long-awaited contract that gives officers’ better pay and schedule flexibility, work that Mr. Hendry wants to continue with Mr. Caban, who is the son of a transit cop from the Bronx.

Mr. Hendry, the son of a carpenter and waitress who immigrated from Ireland, grew up in Queens Village, the youngest of four children. He was an Eagle Scout and an altar boy at a Roman Catholic parish before he joined the department in 1993 at age 21. Nine years later, while working at the 103rd Precinct in Queens, he became a union delegate.

Back then, Mr. Lynch was a new leader who quickly made the Police Benevolent Association a powerful voice in the city and on the national stage.

Mr. Lynch gave voice to police officers’ anger following a two-year wage freeze during the Giuliani administration, with officers protesting from precincts to the State Capitol. The union made an unsuccessful appeal of a 2013 ruling that ended the department’s use of stop-and-frisk — a police tactic defended by mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that unfairly targeted Black and brown men.

In 2014, after Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who was incensed over killings by the police, shot two officers dead, Mr. Lynch cast blame on Mr. de Blasio. At Woodhull Hospital in Queens that night, Mr. Lynch said, “There’s blood on many hands” and added: “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Days later, at the funeral of one of the slain officers, police officers turned their backs on the mayor as he spoke.

Six years later, Mr. Lynch was again at war with Mr. de Blasio as racial-justice protests and calls to defund the police swept the country. The union endorsed Mr. Trump, putting Mr. Lynch in the national spotlight.

Mr. Lynch appeared to have a better rapport with Mayor Eric Adams, a former officer who agreed to the more generous contract, and who has said he sees the police as an extension of himself.

Mr. Lynch, 59, did not want to try for a new five-year term because he would have reached the mandatory retirement age for a police officer before the term ended. When he announced he would not seek re-election, Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, said in a phone interview that his departure was long overdue, calling him the “most obstructive voice to having a real conversation around public safety.”

“I don’t think he was ever interested in doing anything that was about addressing accountability and transparency in policing,” he said.

“You have to speak up for your members, be it working conditions, pay, protection against undo discipline,” he added. “But he spoke for them as loud as possible, even when they were wrong.”

Mr. Hendry has already made moves that reflect the modern makeup of the department, whose uniformed work force is now 58 percent nonwhite. He has selected two women of color to be among the union’s top six leaders. One, Betty Carradero, who is Latina, will be the union secretary; the other, Lethimyle Cleveland, who is Black and Vietnamese, will be the first openly gay board member. Although most of the organization’s 369 delegates are white, 40 percent are now people of color.

“I’ve put a team together that truly reflects our members,” Mr. Hendry said.

Still, changes in leadership might make little difference in the public perception of a Police Department with a history of high-profile killings of Black and brown New Yorkers, said Lee Adler, a labor studies professor at Cornell University and an expert in law enforcement unions.

When federal prosecutors declined to charge an officer who fatally shot Ramarley Graham, an unarmed Black teenager, in the bathroom of his Bronx home in 2012, Mr. Lynch said there was a “scourge of guns and drugs in the community” and that the officer’s “good faith effort to combat those ills brought us to this tragedy.” After the firing of the officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death in 2014, Mr. Lynch said his members should “proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job.”

Union leaders have been driven “to defend, explain and rationalize” bad actors, Professor Adler said. “They may have private moments where their conscience rings as clear as a bell. But those thoughts don’t become part of their own operating systems from which they make decisions — even if it’s real, and even if it’s powerful, and even if it seems right.”

To that, Mr. Lynch asks: If Mr. Hendry and the union do not stand behind police officers, whose every move is subject to intense scrutiny by the Police Department, politicians and the public, who will?

“Sometimes the other side is just wrong, and someone has to tell them. It’s not always comfortable, but that’s the job,” Mr. Lynch said.

“How you get there may vary with time. It may vary with the issue.” And, Mr. Lynch added: “It may vary with the person in charge.”

Chelsia Rose Marcius covers breaking news and criminal justice for the Metro desk, with a focus on the New York City Police Department. More about Chelsia Rose Marcius

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