Philip Caruso, an NYPD beat cop who rose to lead the city’s largest police union during a time of intense contract negotiations and fiscal problems in the 1980s, has died.
The Aug. 8 death of Caruso, 86, of Sayville, received scant publicity and surprised some of his former colleagues and associates who were told in recent days of his passing. According to an obituary published on the website of Raynor & D’Andrea Funeral Home in West Sayville, which handled the arrangements, Caruso died after a six-year battle with cancer.
The son of Italian immigrants, Caruso grew up in Brooklyn and found his calling in the NYPD after serving as a military police officer with the U.S. Army during the Korean War, according to his obituary. As a city cop, Caruso became involved in union politics.
In 1980, he won the presidency of what was then known as the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association in a close election, beating out rival Charles Peterson by some 177 votes. Three years earlier, Caruso lost a bid for the top job to Sam DeMilia by 198 votes.
But despite a relatively slim voting margin in his successful 1980 campaign, Caruso and other uniformed union leaders forged a coalition, and that year they were able to get a two-year contract from New York City, which gave union members raises of 8% and 9% at an additional cost to the city of $1.62 billion. At the time, the contract was said to be twice what then-Mayor Edward I. Koch wanted. Although Caruso rattled the saber about a possible strike, the contract was completed with no labor stoppage.
"Even tempered, spoke well," attorney Philip Seelig of Caruso on Monday. "He was capable of articulating the issues for [union] members."
One newspaper report from the time characterized him as even-tempered during labor negotiations, with darting eyes giving him an enigmatic presence.
When Caruso had to, he would fight very hard for his members, said Seelig, who in 1980 was a leading member of the labor coalition.
"He knew when to bite and when to smile," Seelig said with a laugh.
Former NYPD Commissioner Robert J. McGuire said Monday that Caruso always acted responsibly in an area of labor relations that could at times become very contentious and acrimonious.
"We had a friendship. We understood each other, and I had great deal of respect for him," McGuire said. "He was very aggressive about what he did for his constituents, but always aware of the larger issues that police labor leaders had to deal with."
In recounting how Caruso negotiated a cost-of-living benefit for retirees, the current president of the city Sergeants Benevolent Association, Ed Mullins, said the benefit has continued ever since.
"Phil didn’t back down on things," Mullins said. "He demanded the respect for New York City cops which ultimately he did get."
Sometimes his defense of cops could seem too strident. During an unruly 1992 rally of cops at City Hall against empowering a civilian review board, Caruso’s defense of officers, and criticism of then-Mayor David Dinkins, reportedly undermined his credibility to some.
In 1995, Caruso announced that he was retiring after 15 years at the helm of the union. Over the next four years, leadership of the PBA, now known as the Police Benevolent Association, changed hands three times until current president Patrick Lynch won election in 1999.
"On behalf of the PBA and its members, we extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of former PBA president Phil Caruso," Lynch said in a statement Monday. "Please keep them in your prayers."
Caruso was married for 62 years to his wife, Joanne. The couple had two daughters, Lynda and Angela, the latter who predeceased her father, Mullins said. Neither Joanne Caruso nor her daughter Lynda could be reached for comment Monday. Philip Caruso also is survived by several grandchildren.
According to the funeral home's website, a service for Caruso was held at the funeral home's chapel on Aug. 21 with entombment later at Pinelawn Memorial Park.