The most dangerous time on the street is at the end of a shift. Sure, they could do the buy and bust at the beginning of the shift and then spend the rest of their time processing the perps, filling out the reports, waiting for the prints to come back, but that’s not how they roll.
Accusations about the practice — known as “collars for dollars” — have dogged the department for decades. The Mollen Commission’s 1994 report about police corruption, which used the term, detailed the various and devious overtime schemes that have been used.
There are myriad ways in which cops game the system for overtime. The problem is that it means money in their pockets, but it lacks the sizzle of a dead body of an innocent person caught on video.
In one, the police would involve additional officers in making an arrest, maximizing the number of people eligible for overtime. In a typical arrangement, those extra officers might claim to have discovered evidence that the defendant had tried to hide, or in some other way they would enter the case as peripheral witnesses. They would need to be on hand to handle paperwork or be available to testify — so they too would get overtime pay.
In another practice, known as “trading collars,” officers sometimes directed arrests to the member of their team who stood to get the most overtime. Felony arrests are often presented to a grand jury about five days after the incident; but if an officer who took part was scheduled to work on the anticipated grand jury date, he or she might defer to a colleague who was not.
But the most common game is to make the bust at the end of the shift, thus requiring the officers to spend the next eight or so hours on overtime doing their cop duty. It’s not a complicated scheme, as it’s easily explainable. You make the bust after the crime occurs. Is it the cops’ fault the deal went down at 3:45 in the afternoon?
But when they get too greedy, and can’t find someone even arguably engaged in a crime such that they just have to make it up to score the OT, the ugliness comes to the surface.
The notion that police officers have financial incentives in making arrests also emerged at the trial last month of a Queens detective convicted of perjury. The detective, Kevin Desormeau, had arrested a man on drug charges after claiming, falsely it turned out, to have witnessed the suspect dealing drugs. In arguing the case, prosecutors noted that Detective Desormeau had filed for four hours and 24 minutes of overtime for “an arrest that was illegal.”
Big deal, you say. What’s four hours plus for the sake of our boys in blue? Certainly they piss away far more than that regularly, and nobody goes all “corruption” on them, right? Well, that’s usually the case, but Hector Cordero decided not to let it slide when he was the patsy in the scheme.
On Tuesday, four of the officers involved in the arrests will appear in Federal District Court in Brooklyn for the start of an unusual civil-rights trial, facing accusations that they detained one of the men, Hector Cordero, simply to increase their income.
If any of the officers are found liable, another trial will be scheduled, one that could represent the biggest challenge to New York policing practices since stop-and-frisk. The second trial would examine the broader question of whether the city’s police officers habitually use false arrests to bolster their pay.
As unlucky as Cordero was when he was fingered as a drug dealer for the sake of 20 hours of collective overtime, he caught a huge break in having his case assigned to Judge Jack Weinstein.
The lawsuit has accused the officers of concocting the basis of Mr. Cordero’s arrest “in order to obtain overtime for completing the attendant paperwork,” court filings state. The officers, who are being defended by lawyers for the city, have denied the charges. The city’s Law Department said that the arrest was “supported by probable cause.”
The first trial will be about Cordero, whether his constitutional rights were violated by the cops who falsely arrested him. The City’s defense isn’t hard to grasp: so they made a mistake, identified the wrong guy. It happens. Big deal. But if Cordero prevails, what comes next could be huge.
In October, Judge Weinstein issued an order saying that if any officer was found liable, a second trial would explore Mr. Harvis’s theory that “the Police Department has long been aware of a widespread practice of false arrests at the end of tours of duty.” The second trial would be likely to rely on Police Department records about overtime abuse, which the city has filed under seal as part of Mr. Cordero’s case but could become public.
The argument is that there is a pattern and practice of officers manipulating the system for the sake of generating overtime pay. The argument is that the City knows all about this. The argument is that the City, despite knowing all about this, lacks the will to stop it because it will make the cops angry. The City doesn’t want angry cops. Judge Weinstein doesn’t care.
“A reasonable jury may find that this practice is not isolated to a few ‘bad’ police officers,” Judge Weinstein wrote, “but is endemic, that N.Y.P.D. officials are aware this pattern exists and that they have failed to intervene and properly supervise.”
Is there a way to distinguish between the scheme and legitimate busts that just happen during the last hour of a shift? Is there a way to tell when the collar is handed off to the cop who has to come in on his RDO to testify before the grand jury? The explanations for this conduct write themselves, but the amount paid out in overtime, not to mention padding pensions, has to be paid by someone.
The irony is that this isn’t a big secret. It’s nothing new. Everybody knew how the game was played. But it took a greedy cop who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bust an innocent guy to bring this scheme to the surface. It took Hector Cordero to decide he wasn’t going to let it slide. And it took Judge Weinstein to be willing to open this huge can of worms that will piss off every cop and politician in the City.
Update: The verdict is in. The cops won. Hector Cordero did not. And collars for dollars goes on as if it never happened.