On September 2, VICE published a story about PBA courtesy cards, the "I know a cop" cards that can get you off the hook for traffic violations and other infractions, and the police discretion they embody. We asked readers to share their experiences with PBA cards and the kind of uneven policing the cards invite.
A handful of readers questioned why VICE chose to shine the proverbial flashlight on PBA cards. What’s the problem, they argued, with professional courtesy? More readers, however, reached out to share stories of uncles, cousins, exes, and friends in law enforcement handing them PBA cards. In turn, our readers ducked speeding tickets, avoided open container fines, took questionable shortcuts to the highway, and one even dodged a very loaded public urination charge that also involved a pair of brass knuckles.
After sifting through emails, Signal messages and phone calls, we collected nine stories that exemplify the way PBA cards, stickers, and other specialized, police-approved forms of identification have worked, and continue to work, across the country and over the course of decades. These stories have been edited for length, clarity, and names and locations have been removed to obscure identifying information about the people involved.
Are you a PBA cardholder or a cop with opinions on discretion? If you have information you would like to share, you can reach the reporter directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or securely via Signal at +1 (571) 205-0611.
It was September 2008, and I was driving back from my going-away party at one of my favorite bars. I'm pretty sure I was pulled over in Orange, NJ. I was pulled over and an officer came to speak to me on the passenger's side. He asked if I had been drinking, and I answered truthfully (a few beers, over several hours). Honestly, I was petrified. I knew I wasn't drunk, but also… cops.
At the time, I worked at the local coffee shop. When you work at a coffee shop 6-8 shifts a week, you start to know a lot of the cops in town. One of the officers in particular was very friendly with the group of us, so he gave a few of us the PBA cards.
My PBA card was in my wallet. I didn't pull it out, but I guess it was visible in my wallet in the passenger seat. After the officer took my info, he disappeared for a minute. And when he came back, he asked if I had a PBA card. I was confused by what he was asking at first, and then he said the OTHER officer had seen it in my wallet.
I didn't realize there was a second officer scanning my car, while the one on my side distracted me. He had flashed his light in my passenger side while my attention was occupied, saw the card in my open wallet, and I guess told his partner when they huddled up after they took my paperwork.
I took the card from my wallet, and he checked it over and disappeared again for another moment. When the first officer came back, he handed me all of my paperwork with the card on top and said, "Next time you get pulled over, show that first."
The below photos are of a card I received from a friend's father, a wealthy doctor from New York. He receives a number of them through his office every year, because the doctors there do volunteer work with the NYPD.
I've used the card 3 times since 2013—it's never been taken away from me.
All instances happened on the same block in North Clinton Hill, where I previously lived—mixed-race neighborhood, started gentrifying in the early 2000's.
First time, in 2013, [we were] drinking on my friend's stoop—cops pulled up, started lecturing us about it being illegal… showed them the card, their tone changed and they said we should put the beer in cups or go in the backyard.
Second time was in 2014, across the street from my old apartment next to a school/outdoor playground around 9 p.m. with a friend, drinking a beer in folding chairs, three officers pulled up. One was getting surly and pulling out [his] ticket book, asked us for IDs. I remembered I had the card and gave it to him. He looked at it, gave it back and told us to go drink on my stoop.
Third time, block party in 2016. Two young officers came saying the block party was illegal and that it needed to be broken up (it wasn't). The officers weren't speaking directly to me, but I walked over with the card and said that if there were any noise complaints, the block association could take care of it and we appreciated them coming out. They left, but not after getting their cruiser temporarily stuck on the curb after trying to do a U-turn. Everyone laughed at them.
The card never expired. I still have the card, and assume it would still work.
I was leaving the parking area of a Borders Bookstore in the late 90s, and at that time you could hop the curb and drive on a well-traveled dirt road that connected to another parking lot that exits to a road I would take home.
As soon as I entered the drive alongside the parking lot, I was "lit up" by a Hamilton Township, New Jersey, cop. There was no shoulder on the right so I put on my left signal and pulled into the parking lot thinking it would be safer for the cop than standing in the road.
He was a hostile asshole right from the start. He was screaming at me that when a cop puts on his lights, you are immediately supposed to pull to the right. I explained that my actions were intended for his safety but he was having none of it. He went on to equate my driving on a well traveled dirt road to him coming and destroying my lawn by doing "donuts" on it.
He kept trying to provoke me and escalate the situation. I finally produced my PBA Family Member's Card from my cousin, a police officer in New Jersey. He snatched the card out of my hand and went back to his car. After a bit, he returned with a completely changed demeanor and said "You should have shown me that right from the start!"
When I got home, the phone rang and it was my cousin. The first thing out of his mouth was, "Who in the hell was that asshole cop?"
Long ago, in 1971, I worked in a hamburger joint near the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. The bike cops would routinely stop by for coffee and donuts… on the house, of course. My boss said it was good business to keep them stopping by… to sort of watch out for us, just by being there.
One night, a grateful cop who had been coming in quite frequently gave me his PBA card and said to present it to an officer if I ever got into any sticky situations. It said something like San Francisco Police Motorcycle Association, and then it had the guy's name.
I carried it for years, until one night I had too much to drink and hit a parked car. I was trying very hard to leave a note and get the heck out of there, but the cops showed up before I could get it together–I was very drunk. Long story short… I gave them the card, they called a tow truck for my now u car and then chauffeured me home to boot!
A California police department used to (I don't know if they still do) issue stickers for cars that looked like a mini police shield about two inches tall that you would put on the back of your car.
[The decals] are actually handed to family and friends of police officers. They didn't have the Benevolent Fraternal Order of Police shield… They actually were a department-specific police shield sticker, and to prevent abuse (sic), they would change the color of the sticker every year and you had to be current to get the courtesy extended to you. Ironically enough, I didn't get mine from a police officer, but from a friend of mine who knew a lot of SDPD officers. They were referred to as the new “courtesy cards.”
When I returned from an Iraq contract back in 2005, I relocated my family to South Florida a month later. During that month of getting ready for the move, I had no car, so I borrowed a buddy of mine's car who had one of those stickers on the back window.
Driving in Oceanside, California, where we still resided at the time, my buddy's car was out of date registration-wise by two years. If you're familiar with California vehicle registration stickers, they change color every year so an officer can quickly identify an out of date registration. I passed a stop sign one afternoon and a cop immediately pulled up behind me and turned on his overheads. I immediately got nervous, [but] as soon as the cop got close enough to see the SDPD sticker, he turned off his overheads and pulled over… letting me go on my way.
Every year since I turned 17, a distant cousin [of mine] who works in New Jersey, and is a member of the NJSPBA came to my house and handed out these “Gold Cards” to my brother and me. The response [from my father] felt both racist and unethical: ‘If you get pulled over, you already look the part, now use this and you’ve got your get-out-of-jail free card.’
Needless to say, 17-year-old me kept this card in my wallet, but between my levels of anxiety and genuinely mixed feelings about using it, I never presented it to any of the officers who pulled me over. Of these encounters, most resulted in minor tickets ($55 here, $75 there), and I felt it was just—I did, in fact, break the law, so I should pay.
Last year, at 23, I brought up these incidents to my cousin, who ascended to a detective-level position in his precinct. His response caught me off guard, as it was filled with rage and hostility towards me for not using the card… If anything, I thought using it too much would’ve caused an inconvenience for him, but the opposite was true. I pressed the issue and he explained that ‘giving out too many cards and not seeing them used is a problem in some officers’ minds.’ He didn’t seem to flinch at the notion of how absurd this is…. Was he hoping the card holders break the law? Shouldn’t all officers strive to achieve the opposite?
I haven’t spoken to him since and I do not have the physical card anymore. It was a thick, clunky piece of metal that barely fit in my wallet, so when I decided to no longer carry the card, I threw it away.
I told this story to a few of my friends and they chided me for my decision to abandon this “ticket evader” card, saying I’m helping no one by doing this. I guess that’s true… It’s not like I’m saying, Hey officer, I have a PBA card but I’m not gonna use it because I think this is a giant crock of shit and you should be ashamed, and the officer sees the errors of his ways and fucks off. That doesn’t happen.
I worked at three different Starbucks locations in Suffolk County, New York, over the course of a decade. It was common practice to give out free drinks to police. The cops would come back and hand out PBA cards to those who took care of them. I’ve probably gotten anywhere between four and five.
I’ve used them twice, both times in Nassau County, New York, around 2018. One time, the officer threw it back at me because he was angry. I was speeding, apparently, and he was like, ‘This isn’t an excuse to speed,’ or something along those lines. The other time, the officer just said, ‘Have a nice day.’
I’m a professional musician, but there was a period in my life where I was bartending when I wasn’t playing music. I was bartending in what used to be a rougher section of the West Village between 2000 and 2004. In that job, I got to know a lot of cops.
One incident, after a shift, I was walking to the subway at five in the morning, drunk out of my mind. I had about $500 on me in small bills from work, I just stuffed all my ones and tens and fives into my bag. I was walking home and had to pee, and I just peed on the street. A couple of officers picked me up and brought me to the precinct.
I used to carry a “day bag” with me, for everything I’d need to have with me after work. I would regularly carry brass knuckles, I always had a switchblade knife, and I would carry a cop’s flashlight, the big, four-D-cell battery flashlight, because you could beat the everliving piss out of somebody with that. I also had drugs on me, marijuana and cocaine.
As the desk sergeant was going through my stuff, he’s like ‘Oh, so you have a switchblade? Oh, so you have brass knuckles?’ And he’s taking all this contraband out and laying it on the desk. Then he was like, ‘What do you have all this money for? Are you selling drugs? You have these little baggies of drugs and all these small bills…’ All the other cops were laughing, like, ‘Oh my fucking God, this guy is going away for good.’ Every other thing that gets pulled out of the bag is some kind of misdemeanor, at least.
Then he pulls my ID and sees the PBA card and says ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And I say, ‘Oh, I know so-and-so, he gave me that card.’ He goes, ‘So if I call this guy, he’s gonna be OK with you?’ And I said, yeah, of course, he gave me the card. So he said OK, and then they took my shoelaces and put me in the holding cell for like 25 minutes. Then they came and got me and let me go.
I even asked for my weapons back, and they said no, but they giggled when I asked for them back, like I was so, in their eyes, non-threatening. The fact that I would ask for my weapons back was comical to them—it’s fucking bananas!
My cousin, who is a corrections officer in New Jersey, is given a handful of the "family member" PBA cards and would give them to me, and my aunt’s stepson (who I’ve never even met) was the head of the PBA organization in his township that he was a cop in, so he had the super special cards that were given out to whoever, basically a “gold level” card. It had his name on it, and his phone number. I would never use the gold level card, because I barely even knew who the guy was.
In my hometown that I grew up in, Sayreville, New Jersey, the community was just kind of middle class, Catholic school, going to Knights of Columbus events and all that. There was just a PBA presence—there were PBA picnics in our town every summer.
I would say I’ve been pulled over about four or five times and used it, and four out of those five times I got out of it. There’s a stop sign [in Sayreville] that [the police] would just pull people over all the time for rolling through. One time I did, and I pulled out [my cousin’s card], and the cop didn’t even acknowledge it. He just came back with the ticket and the court date, just for rolling through the stop sign, and that was that.
In what is already a nerve racking experience, having to talk to an officer about a cousin you don't even like just adds a whole different level of anxiety to the affair. I'm happy to not have had a card for several years.
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