Technically and officially, the cards have no power. But at one time, police said, displaying them could have meant the difference between getting a ticket and getting off scot-free.
Courtesy cards have existed for decades in most police departments across the country. The cards were originally meant to distinguish the card-carrier as someone with a close personal connection to law enforcement, and who therefore should perhaps be given the benefit of the doubt when it came to a minor offense.
Now, at least in Philadelphia, the cards are basically worthless, said John McNesby, president of the FOP.
"I think, years ago, if you showed one you might get a free pass from a ticket," he said. "But it's an antiquated tradition. These days I think officers use a lot of discretion with people in general. If you get pulled over for something, you have your license, registration, a clean record, the officer might let you go with a warning. That's a courtesy they show to a lot of folks."
Police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore agreed.
"I haven't seen someone use one of those in a long time," he said. "I honestly don't think they mean anything."
Elsewhere in the state, the cards are similarly useless, according to Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood. "I've not seen where they make a difference," he said. "There was certainly never any directive as to what the cards should mean. Officers have a lot of autonomy on the streets, and my hope is that everyone gets treated the same, with or without a courtesy card."
Several Philadelphia officers who spoke anonymously said they almost never saw the cards used. Others said they don't give the cards out for fear a friend or relative will misuse them. In the words of one sergeant, "I don't want to be responsible for someone else being a jerk to a cop, then they start dropping my name."
In New York City, however, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association still encourages officers to overlook or reduce minor infractions committed by cardholders.
"It's a time-honored tradition," said Albert O'Leary, spokesman for the PBA, the NYPD's largest union. "But it depends on the situation. Say you're driving 110 miles per hour, that card's not going to help you. But if you're doing 45 in a 40, you present your card, you're a friend of the PBA . . . you might be told to go along on your way."
With that directive, however, comes a responsibility to choose carefully when handing the cards out.
"The unwritten rule is that you don't give it to someone who's unworthy," O'Leary said. "The officer is essentially vouching for that person, and saying that person is on the right side of the law."
Ethics professors and the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the NYPD's cards in particular, saying they condone the old-school practice of showing officers and their families preferential treatment.
O'Leary acknowledged the cards are controversial, but emphasized that they aren't meant to excuse serious offenses.
"We believe our family and our loved ones, who lie awake at night and worry about the dangers our officers face and who support our officers as they serve and protect the rest of us, we believe they deserve to be shown extra courtesy," he said.
Current and older versions of the NYPD cards also have popped up for sale on sites like eBay.com, which advertise them as memorabilia and price them anywhere from $15 to $50. The sale of the cards is not sanctioned by the department, and officials believe selling the cards might contribute to the idea that the cards confer "get out of jail free" privileges.
Other departments have done away with the cards, sometimes as a result of a scandal. The police department in Toledo, Ohio, ended them in 1990, after a local newspaper uncovered that friends and family of police officers often used the cards to get breaks on tickets. The Cleveland Police Department followed suit in 1999.
Some Philadelphia officers think a better way to help friends and relatives is to give out business cards with the officer's cell phone number on them.
Useless or not, mailing out the cards each year is a time-honored tradition that most departments want to continue.
Chitwood said the cards function largely as public relations tools, particularly among police families. Some family members use the cards to get into the FOP building and shop at the store, McNesby said. Relatives enjoy that privilege, and to children, the cards are almost like getting a small set of wings from an airline pilot.
"I know a lot of little kids who like them," McNesby said. "To them it can be a cool thing to have."
As for so-called get-out-of-jail-free cards?
"I've never heard of one of those," McNesby said and laughed. "If you broke the law, you broke the law. There's no getting out of jail free."
Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or firstname.lastname@example.org.