Philip Caruso, the former union president of the New York City Police Department, who once said “anybody can be president of the United States, but it takes somebody who has some guts to stand on a stage in front of 15,000 people and get that kind of a response,” died on Friday at a hospital in New Jersey after a long battle with heart disease. He was 86.
Mr. Caruso went to police academy training while a student at Hunter College, where he eventually met his future wife, Justine Vinciguerra, and both became officers. He, like many other police officers in the early 20th century, sought greater liberty — especially politically — in his work, his daughters said. But he saw police officers serving as a duty to keep society safe, and therefore wanted to harness his power for the good of the public.
“If police officers are wrong, then government is wrong, and government must be changed,” he told The New York Times in 1985. “But we have other responsibilities. Police officers have to do the best they can with what they have.”
Mr. Caruso began his 14-year tenure as union president in 1981. While he was unquestionably a powerful leader at the department, he was viewed with a high degree of suspicion by many within the force. He rebelled against the quota system, in which officers were required to meet a quota for traffic stops, arrests, seizures and the number of gun cases they opened. In fact, he was the mastermind behind the landmark “Bronx Policy,” named after one of his former precinct captains, which phased out quotas for officers assigned to patrol the Bronx.
“Everyone’s talking about quotas and all that, but you have to realize that that was within the rules of the union,” he said. “We weren’t pressuring the cops to be there. We just wanted to make sure it was the appropriate time and we weren’t too inflexible.”
He also fought for police to be included in the mayor’s controversial pilot program that offered municipal identification cards to undocumented immigrants. After watching a colleague get attacked on his force for refusing to serve in a marching band, he changed the city’s policy to allow officers to accept money for unused badges, car stickers and city ID cards.
“When things became so suspicious, when the cops were losing faith in the department, he became the force of credibility,” said a fellow union leader, Mickey Osterreicher. “That was a very effective way to take the fear out of the cops.”
“I’m going to go to jail for the cops,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “I’m going to keep giving people their rights — whether you’re white, black, Asian, whatever — so you’re not afraid.”