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What’s Eating the NYPD?

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The officers pictured here were photographed at random in public places in the city. None of them were interviewed by New York Magazine or have any connection to the officers quoted in this article.  

Kelly says the department’s Quality Assurance Division is constantly examining crime reports, and any fudging is swiftly punished. Internal statistical audits, say NYPD insiders, are regular and rigorous, though no one will ever claim perfection. “Is it a cop in a radio car who is too lazy to take a report? Or is it something more systematic, where people are told, ‘Listen, don’t show up here with these type of complaint reports’?” Timlin says. “All those things can occur. I’m not naïve. But it’s very, very rare.” In January 2011, Kelly appointed a three-member panel to investigate whether crime-downgrading exists, and promised a report within six months. One panel member has since died, and the report is still in the works.

The newspapers were full of NYPD news on February 1. Most of it was topped by large headlines: In East Williamsburg, Officer Kevin Brennan had been shot in the head by a man wanted for questioning in connection to a homicide and miraculously survived. In the University Heights section of the Bronx, four cops were captured on cell-phone video pummeling a 19-year-old suspect. And seven alleged members of a violent gang that had terrorized the Ebbets Field housing project for years were indicted, thanks to the work of the NYPD.

Yet as Eugene O’Donnell flipped through the tabloids that morning, he stopped at a smaller item: “No Shirt, Sherlock—Cops barred from wearing NYPD gear.” Apparently Commissioner Kelly had spotted officers wearing gallows-humor T-shirts that bore an unapproved Police Department logo. Kelly issued an order declaring that all NYPD personnel, on and off duty, were forbidden from wearing unlicensed T-shirts. “Compared to the other stuff in the papers today, this seems silly,” O’Donnell says, “but it’s not silly to cops. None of them would ever trivialize the shooting of a fellow officer. But to the rank and file, the T-shirt thing is much more relevant and annoying, because it’s emblematic of what day-to-day life in the department has become.”

O’Donnell worked as a cop in Brooklyn, then became a prosecutor; he now teaches criminal-law courses to aspiring cops at John Jay College. “The NYPD is an agency of extremes. It can disappoint you beyond belief, and then it can do something incredible, like the hostage team or the anti-terrorism stuff,” he says. “The T-shirt thing, there’s other approaches besides taking the hammer to everybody and saying they can’t wear anything with the NYPD on it. How about a letter from Kelly that says, ‘Dear colleague, is this the image we want to portray?’ Instead there’s a top-down, blanket order that allows them to catch anyone who slips up. You create a culture that says, ‘If we’re all co-defendants, I’m going to join hands with the knucklehead.’ That’s what you saw at the ticket-fixing case: ‘I don’t fix tickets, but if everybody’s going to be blanketly indicted, then we have to protect ourselves.’ ”

The case began with allegations that Jose Ramos, an officer in the 40th Precinct, was working with a reputed drug dealer. After a three-year investigation, Ramos was charged with dozens of crimes, including attempted grand larceny and transporting what he believed to be heroin. But wiretaps of Ramos led to 1,600 other criminal counts, most of them misdemeanors related to officers overheard allegedly arranging to make tickets disappear. Whether rightly or wrongly, cops howled, claiming the practice had long been accepted and was now being criminalized for the sake of the department’s image. Roughly a hundred off-duty officers showed up on a day when sixteen of their colleagues were being indicted on charges of fixing tickets and chanted, “Ray Kelly, hypocrite!”

Perez wasn’t at the profane protest, but he’s similarly disgusted. “They want to make it sound like it was something more than it was, but it’s a courtesy that’s gone on since the first cop walked the beat,” he says. “It’s something that develops goodwill in the neighborhood, not bribes. Besides, you get calls from commanding officers, state senators, everybody, asking you to tear up tickets. And now you’re gonna punch these cops because someone asked for a favor?”

Richie Cameron applied to the NYPD out of patriotism after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Assigned to housing projects, he set about protecting his hometown from everyday criminals. “Not to puff my chest out, but the bosses saw me in a positive light,” he says. “I brought in seven or eight arrests a month. Other cops were pissed off at that: They’ll toss your locker upside down, pee in your shoes, because you’re making them look bad. There really aren’t quotas, and the numbers game only affects people who are neglecting their duties. But the department is all about retribution, from the high-level politics to the low-level precinct relationships. It’s how they keep guys in check.”


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