Inside the 8-1

From the outside, we have visions of life inside the Blue Wall.  We believe what we see from the outside.  We believe what we’re told by our police officer friends (and enemies).  But we don’t exactly know, because we’re not on the inside.  Graham Rayman at the Village Voice  gives us a peak inside.

Police Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD, surreptitiously recorded more than a year of sounds within the 81st  Precinct in Bed-Stuy.

He recorded precinct roll calls. He recorded his precinct commander and other supervisors. He recorded street encounters. He recorded small talk and stationhouse banter. In all, he surreptitiously collected hundreds of hours of cops talking about their jobs.

They reveal that precinct bosses threaten street cops if they don’t make their quotas of arrests and stop-and-frisks, but also tell them not to take certain robbery reports in order to manipulate crime statistics. The tapes also refer to command officers calling crime victims directly to intimidate them about their complaints.

As a result, the tapes show, the rank-and-file NYPD street cop experiences enormous pressure in a strange catch-22: He or she is expected to maintain high “activity”—including stop-and-frisks—but, paradoxically, to record fewer actual crimes.

Not at all what you were expecting?  Me either.

This pressure was accompanied by paranoia—from the precinct commander to the lieutenants to the sergeants to the line officers—of violating any of the seemingly endless bureaucratic rules and regulations that would bring in outside supervision.

The tapes also reveal the locker-room environment at the precinct. On a recording made in September, the subject being discussed at roll call is stationhouse graffiti (done by the cops themselves) and something called “cocking the memo book,” a practical joke in which officers draw penises in each other’s daily notebooks.

Most striking about Rayman’s article is the mundane nature of the recordings.  Petty office politics, stupid school-boy pranks, are the norm, rather than the complex conspiracies to harm the public that paranoia suggests.  But despite its pedestrian appearance, the pressure to write tickets and “stop and frisk” is precisely the low level fraud that implicates the cops in a rampant disregard for civil rights and undermines the integrity of the process.

“You’re not working in Midtown Manhattan, where people are walking around, smiling and being happy,” a lieutenant tells officers in a November 1, 2008, roll call. “You’re working in Bed-Stuy, where everyone’s probably got a warrant.”

That’s the message, that everyone in Bed-Stuy is a perp, even if they haven’t quite figured out why just yet.  And shockingly, they don’t tend to be white-skinned executives either.  But this way, nobody loses sleep over it. Go figure.

Command often set up special summons duty to artificially increase the numbers of tickets issued. On December 13, 2008, there was this from a Sergeant E.: “In order to increase the amount of C summonses patrol is writing, they are going to try to, when they can, put out a quality-of-life auto. Your goal is to write C summonses, all right?”

A “C summons” requires a warrant check and covers a wide range of offenses, like public drinking, disorderly conduct, littering, blocking the sidewalk, and graffiti. An “A summons” is for illegal parking, and a “B summons” is for traffic violations like running a red light or using a cell phone while driving.

It’s not that cops have any particularly problem with any particular person.  It’s just that they have to meet their quota to keep their boss from coming down on them, so their boss’ boss doesn’t come down on him.  It’s just office politics.

For years, decades even, the argument has been made by prosecutor after prosecutor that there’s no reason for a cop to lie; “Why would he have anything against the defendant.  He doesn’t even know the defendant. There’s no reason for him to lie.”  Well, there is.  The officer was behind on writing, and had to write a few more summons.  The defendant just happened to be standing there.  If the officer failed to make his quota, he would be subject to discipline (because he obviously wasn’t being productive), and shift changes to give him the undesirable shifts.  That could interfere with his day job.

The article is at the same time fascinating and pathetic.  It reduces cops to sad little ants scurrying around to please their bosses, only coincidentally at our expense.  As significant as an interaction with police may be to us, to them it may just be a matter of avoiding a shift change.

How many hundreds of thousand of young men and women who grew up in the wrong neighborhoods are saddled with low-rent criminal records because of years of police being compelled to write crap summons to prove they’re being productive?  How many judges refused to believe a defendant when he said in never happened.  Cops wouldn’t lie.

6 comments on “Inside the 8-1

  1. Laura from Cabo

    I agree with everything, except NY perspective that is big and narrow at the same time. Out in Cali. and in Colorado, cops are equal opportunity jerks. The very wealthy types may ultimately get off, but the exact type of harassment you speak of that lays off mid-town, is not my experience at all.

    Middle age and 60-something pillars of the community get five cop cars for having no registration in possession. What’s documented here is indifference. I think there is a lot of malevolance, though. A diffuse, Us vs. Them malevolance. And of course it varies from department to department. Out west, we have lots and lots of different LE agencies in a relatively small geographic areas.

  2. Shawn McManus

    I’m not saying that you’re wrong but isn’t it a leap in logic to say that since cops are being pressured to increase stops and issuance of summons that they are therefore lying about those that they have charged?

  3. SHG

    There’s no question that some are legit. The problem arises when the driving force for the issuance of summonses isn’t the occurrence of crime but the demand to issue summonses.  Invariably, they will be issued just to be issued, like when the end of the month comes and you’re down 10. Next 10 people you see get sommonsed.

  4. The Notwithstanding Blog

    Around the Mediverse: May 13, 2010

    Fun tidbits, health-related and otherwise, from around the ‘tubes: Unconfirmed:  15th century world maps labeled the location of what would later be called “America” with the warning “Here There Be Litigiousness.”  WhiteCoat lin…

  5. The Notwithstanding Blog

    Around the Mediverse: May 13, 2010

    Fun tidbits, health-related and otherwise, from around the ‘tubes: Unconfirmed:  15th century world maps labeled the location of what would later be called “America” with the warning “Here There Be Litigiousness.”  WhiteCoat lin…

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