Book Review: The NYPD Tapes by Graham Rayman

When the story broke in the Village Voice in May, 2010, it was less revelation than confirmation. Police Officer Adrian Schoolcraft had recorded more than 1000 hours of roll calls, locker room discussion and lectures inside Bed-Stuy’s 81st Precinct, and it was no longer what people thought or remembered, but the actual damning words of his department superiors.

Graham Rayman, who wrote the series of articles for the Voice, has produced a book, published by Palgrave Macmillan, that would appear from a distance to be about the “shocking” revelations of what Schoolcraft uncovered. At least that was what the title suggested to me, when I was offered a free review copy. 

But Rayman saddled himself with a somewhat different burden, and one that was not going to be easy no matter how hard he tried. This is less a book about the bad things that Adrian Schoolcraft found happening inside the NYPD, than a book about Schoolcraft, the whistleblower.  That’s a problem.

First, Schoolcraft may have done something extraordinary, but he’s just a pretty ordinary guy, neither particularly heroic nor, truth be told, particularly interesting.  Well, I may be overstating the case. Schoolcraft turns out to be a crashing bore, and reading a book about a crashing bore is, sadly, boring.

Second, there were a great many things that happened during the course of Schoolcraft’s years on the job that cause one to question his judgment. Schoolcraft, with the advice of his former cop father, Larry, was a bit of a teacup, partially moved by the wrongfulness of the way in which his superiors were demanding “numbers” of pointless stop and frisks, while making complaints of real crimes “disappear” for the purpose of pleasing Ray Kelly’s CompStat gods.

Rayman does a Herculean job of trying to rehabilitate Schoolcraft throughout the book, make him look less of a whiner and rationalize his conduct. If this was a book about the tapes Schoolcraft recorded, it wouldn’t matter whether he was a strange guy who made dubious decisions, but since this is more about the person behind the tapes, Rayman is compelled to make his protagonist less odd and more likeable. As much as he tries, over and over, to make the reader care about Schoolcraft, however, it quickly reaches the point where he protests too much and, unfortunately, the reader has had enough spin.

Much as I can appreciate what Adrian Schoolcraft did, and despite my natural inclination to believe that the police department was engaging in malevolence toward him, I couldn’t muster enough feeling toward Schoolcraft to work up much concern.  Schoolcraft just wasn’t sympathetic, even as he ended up in the Psych ER at Jamaica Hospital so the NYPD could destroy his credibility as a whistleblower.  I couldn’t help but think that Schoolcraft could have avoided it had he made different choices, and that he contributed to much of what happened to him, though it was certainly wrong.

So is this just a boring book to avoid like the plague? Not so fast. Woven within the story of Adrian Schoolcraft is a great story of how the New York Police Department really “happens.” I hesitate to use the word “works,” because it’s not a word properly associated with anything that comes of Kelly or his white-shirted sycophants. It’s a tale of misguided ideas gone bad, and of a small army dedicated to forcing round pegs into square holes to sell the sham to a naïve public.

The tone of the book is straightforward and clear when it comes to the banal failure of the NYPD to do what New Yorkers think it’s there to do. Got robbed? Not in the 8-1, where they can’t take another robbery stat without a Deputy Chief ripping the precinct commander a new one. So your robbery complaint disappears. And if you’re bold enough to return to the precinct to find out why, expect to be interrogated and accused of being the criminal filing a false report. And if robbery doesn’t get you going, rape doesn’t fare any better.

Rayman’s story is infused with a healthy dose of cop culture, where it quickly becomes clear that, in the NYPD at least, it’s not so much about “getting” minorities as that they are just fodder for the statistics machine. The supervisors don’t hate black men, but just couldn’t care enough to treat them as human beings, instead commanding patrol officers to shake ‘em up, throw them in a holding cell for a few hours if they don’t jump high enough, and write up the critical “250’s” to show they did a hard day’s work.

Rayman tries to generate “shock” over the NYPD’s treatment of Schoolcraft. In a day when wrong-door SWAT raids end with innocent people dead in their homes, shock is a scarce commodity. Despite my best efforts, there was a greater sense of schadenfreude than shock, not the least because of Schoolcraft’s often bizarre and inexplicable choices (including those involving his lawyers toward the end of the book).

But if you want to learn how the NYPD looks from the inside, the culture of “us against them,” the near-total lack of concern for the job they’re supposed to do and the callousness with which they view everyone without a shield, Rayman’s book provides plenty of solid meat.  You just have to skip over the day-by-day, minute-by-minute descriptions of the pedestrian life of Adrian Schoolcraft to find it.

What Adrian Schoolcraft did may have been remarkable and important, but that doesn’t make him a person whose life is interesting or who, aside from his tapes, you want to root for.  He’s just an odd guy with a working tape recorder, and that should have been enough.