From the September 22, 1997 issue of New York Magazine.
On a dreary January afternoon, two cops were huddled in their radio car, bundled up against the weather and slowly cruising St. Ann’s Avenue in the South Bronx. As the cops eased down the block, one of them saw two young black men coming out of an abandoned building, a known drug location. Before the men noticed the cruiser, they appeared to make an exchange out on the sidewalk. Though it was not the kind of day when either cop was eager to get out of the car, they pulled over and proceeded to question the two men.
When the suspects were asked to turn their pants pockets inside out, a couple of packets of heroin fell to the pavement. The two men were told they were under arrest.
“I had my guy up against the wall and had gotten the cuffs on one of his hands when the other guy suddenly spins, pushes his buddy into me, and starts to run,” one of the cops told me recently. He was recounting the story, several weeks after Abner Louima was allegedly brutalized in the wee hours of the morning at the 70th Precinct station house, to shed some light on how and when cops use force.
“I quickly told my partner to finish cuffing the one still there, and I took off after the cocksucker who ran. I’m screaming at him, ‘Stop, you mother-fucker.’ So I’m chasing this guy through the South Bronx, I’ve got like 45 pounds of clothes and gear on, my heart’s thumping in my mouth, I’m pumped up full of adrenaline, I’m out of breath, I’m scared shit, and I’m screaming at this asshole to stop. I’m also thinking maybe this fuck has a weapon, a knife or something we missed when we searched him. I was in really good shape at the time, but because of the cold and everything, it was like I was running in slow motion.”
They ran for three or four blocks, and the suspect headed into a housing project. “I close the gap between us, and with my nightstick in my hand I dive at him and swing the stick as hard as I can at the same time. I hit him on the side of the leg—I fall to the ground, but he keeps on going. So I start to get up, and—you know when you get a hairline fracture in a baseball bat?—well, the skin of my hand was caught in a crack like this in my nightstick. I peel off the nightstick, he’s about twenty steps ahead, and he finally reacts to the hit on his leg, and he falls,” the cop recalled, pointing out that the guy hadn’t gone down right away because he was cranked up on drugs.
“Well, I stumble over to this mother-fucker, and he tries to tackle me and go for my gun. So now it’s like a schoolyard fight. We’re rolling on the ground, and I suddenly realize that people from the housing project have come out and some of them are hitting me on the back of the head and punching me. Meantime, I’m still trying to subdue this guy. I get up, finally, thinking he’s had it, and he charges at me from one knee. Now I’m whacking him on the back with my flashlight ‘cause I don’t have my nightstick. I’m also trying to call in an 85-forthwith [officer urgently needs assistance] on the radio, but I have no idea of the exact address.
“Finally, I get the guy down, and I’m keeping him down with my foot, but the crowd’s still there. So I pull out my gun, and all the people just fucking scatter. I mean, it was unbelievable. I thought I was gonna get killed. My jaw is on fire from running in the cold. I lost my nightstick; I lost my flashlight; I ripped my pants. You have to understand these are all important things to a cop. The pants alone would cost me 50 bucks, about a week’s spending money.
“When we get to the precinct, I’m bloody, I’m ripped up, and he’s wising off. So I take this motherfucker into a room in the back of the station house, and I start hitting him in the stomach until he goes down. You always try to hit a guy in the stomach because it doesn’t leave marks. Anyway, a detective walks in and sees him balled up on the floor and, without saying a word, turns and walks out. Now, I pick this shithead up, sit him in a chair, and start cleaning myself off. I told him, ‘If you had run and gotten away, that would have been your reward. But I caught you, and that stuff just now was your penalty. From now on, we treat each other like human beings.’ I got him a sandwich, and he was fine the rest of the way.”
The suspect’s family, however, felt differently about it. They filed a civilian complaint against the officer, not for the punches meted out inside the station house but for the fractured leg he got during the chase. At a hearing, the complaint was dismissed as unsubstantiated because the injured man himself refused to give a statement (the cop says this is because he treated him decently once the confrontation was over). So the essential questions remained officially unanswered. Was this reasonable use of force by a police officer? Or was it excessive? And what about the blows in the back of the precinct? Is retaliation by a cop ever justified?
In fact, in the real world of police work, these are the kinds of use-of-force issues that need to be dealt with. Rarely, despite the handful of highly publicized cases, are severe beatings, shootings, or sickening acts like the violation of Abner Louima a significant factor in the interactions between cops and civilians. (In 1996, there were 5,596 civilian complaints, but according to one former insider, fewer than 100 in any given year involve a claim that any substantive medical attention was needed.)
“Look, I talked to every single cop I know,” says one former high-level member of the department, “to try and find out if anyone had ever heard of anything like this plunger attack. And I assure you that if it was the kind of thing that cops called a No. 63 or something, and it was done twice a year, I would’ve been told.”
But while the savage attack on Abner Louima was an aberration, it has focused intense attention from all quarters on the way cops do their job. In my conversations with current and former police officers, both those on patrol and those at the highest levels of command, police brutality tended to be divided into two categories, each raising complex and disturbing issues.
“If someone disses you, you take him in an alley and slap him. If it’s known in the street you can be stepped on, you’ve got a problem.”
One is the everyday, run-of-the-mill use of force—like the beating doled out by the cop in the Bronx—that cops truly believe is necessary to control their environment. The other is a culture of more extreme brutality that seems to exist in some precincts, like the 70th. Born of an us-versus-them attitude, it can, where supervision is weak, fester and become impacted, allowing a horror like the Louima case to happen. It is a deeper, darker, more inaccessible problem than “tactical” beatings. And left unattended, it periodically produces—whether in “Giuliani Time” or Dinkins Time or Koch Time—acts of outrageous brutality (the stun-gun case in 1985, and Officer Bernard Cawley, “the Mechanic,” made famous during the Mollen Commission hearings, who had a reputation for beating people with lead-lined gloves).
The critical question for the mayor’s task force is not the plunger attack per se; this will be dealt with in the courts. Instead, the commission needs to look at the pathologies in the 70th Precinct and throughout the department that allowed a few cops to think they could do such a thing and get away with it.
A good place to start would be with the general hostility toward the police felt in some communities, which is most often the result of smaller, less epic confrontations. It’s an angry cop losing sight of where to draw that thin blue line between reasonable and excessive force. It’s the extra one or two or three whacks beyond what’s needed to control a situation. It’s callously tightening down the cuffs to intentionally cause pain and injury to show who’s boss (one expert estimates that as many as 20 percent of all force complaints involve the use of handcuffs). It’s hitting a suspect after he’s cuffed and restrained, when he no longer poses a threat. Though some cops told me the rule of the street is that once the cuffs are on it’s over, others disagreed. “He’s yours until he’s standing in front of the desk sergeant,” one cop told me, “and believe me, that includes the ride to the station.”
It’s a cop pushing, poking, or grabbing someone too aggressively. It’s cursing, using racial epithets, or engaging in any form of serious verbal disrespect. These are the sorts of indignities that minority communities most often suffer at the hands of the police.
In the street, cops view intimidation and retaliation as critical parts of their arsenal, no less important than their nightstick, their radio, or their gun. A cop with more than twenty years on the force before he retired put it this way: “If you work in an A-house [a high-crime, high-activity precinct], it’s the rules of the jungle. If someone disses you, you take him in an alley, slap him in the mouth, and tell him, ‘Hey, fucko, don’t you ever talk to me like that again in public.’ If it’s known in the street that you can be stepped on, you’ve got a big problem.”
A committed young cop with twelve years on the force told me it’s all about establishing your territory, about setting the rules. “I know we’re supposed to be society’s peacekeepers,” he said, “but it’s not exactly civilized out there most of the time. So perps have to know that if they give a cop a hard time—if they run or if they take a swing—they’re gonna pay for it. It’s that simple. I don’t want to sound dramatic,” said the cop, who’s a sergeant, “but a guy in the street’s gotta know the rules. He’s gotta know if he touches me, he’s gonna get lumped up. Because he’ll be back. That’s one thing you can count on—they all come back. Five times, six times, some of them even fifteen or twenty times. And if he goes unpunished physically, maybe next time he ups the ante. Maybe next time he uses a pipe or a knife or something.”
Like every cop I spoke to, the sergeant agreed to talk only if guaranteed anonymity. Now is a particularly sensitive time for a cop to say publicly that he’s hit a suspect. And it’s Rudy Giuliani’s Police Department, in which promising careers have been derailed when officers speak publicly about almost anything without permission—and permission is rarely granted. “Look,” the sergeant continued, perhaps thinking about his kids, “the name of the game every day for a cop is to sign out. You gotta get home. You wanna do your job, make your collars, and go back to your family.
“We have no interest in extended contacts or confrontations. But you have to remember, even though most arrests are uneventful because most perps know they’re never gonna win the war, there’s still that 5 to 10 percent that’re a problem. And if the department is making over 300,000 arrests a year, like it is now, that’s at least 40 problems every day.
“Okay,” he said with a significant sigh, “have I laid hands on people? Sure, absolutely. But this thing in the Seven-oh … man, I don’t know anyone in the department who knows what the fuck that’s all about. Punching a guy’s lights out is one thing, but this is just sick. And now, because of this, it’s like racism against the cops. We’re all guilty, we all get painted with the same brush.”
The mayor and the police commissioner need to take a long, hard look at the factors that created the environment in which an incident like the one at the 70th Precinct could take place, factors that directly relate to the way cops are trained, broken in, and managed. For while the particular kind of violence inflicted on Abner Louima was extraordinary, the events surrounding it—from the alleged blows he took before he got to the precinct to the light supervision at the Seven-oh that night—were not. Consider how many boundaries had to be crossed, not only by the cops directly involved but by others as well.
“The cops who committed the act clearly believed they could tell some bogus story and get away with it,” one NYPD veteran says. “They weren’t worried about the desk sergeant, who was the ranking officer on duty that night. Then the relief cops believed they could walk into the hospital and tell a bogus story. And it appears that reports were even written to cover up what happened, which indicates that supervisors were somehow involved. People want to say the act was an aberration, but everything about it seems to involve the abuse of authority as well as brutality. So clearly there’s something more going on here. It certainly looks like cowboy conditions existed at the Seven-oh on the midnight-to-eight tour.”
In fact, the late tour has been a chronic problem not only at the 70th Precinct but everywhere. Three years ago, former first deputy commissioner John Timoney fought a bitter, protracted battle with the union to get a rogue cop named Tony Abbate dismissed from the force. Abbate, who worked the late tour and had managed to accumulate 30 civilian complaints and numerous departmental charges in his eleven years on the force, also happened to be the 70th Precinct’s union rep. It is no small irony that when Abbate was finally kicked off the force, he was replaced as the Seven-oh’s union rep by Damian Volpe, Justin’s brother.
Through most of the eighties, all cops worked what’s called a three-squad chart, which means they rotated their shifts; they’d work a week of days, a week of four-to-twelves, and a week of midnight-to-eights. However, for at least the past decade, cops with seniority have been able to work one shift regularly. As a result, each shift is now like a different clan.
And the late tour, which has its own rules and its own style, is like a separate department within the department. One that doesn’t, according to a 30-year veteran, always attract the best people. “I remember I walked into a station house really late one night with Jack Maple [former deputy police commissioner and the architect of the department’s highly effective crime strategies]. And I looked at the cops,” a former member of the department says. “Well, New York cops usually look pretty sharp, for the most part. But these guys, their coats were dirty, their shirts were dirty, their holsters were all worn down, their shoes weren’t shined. So I looked at them and I said to Jack, ‘Pretty scruffy precinct.’ And Jack looked at me and smiled. ‘Ahhh,’ he said, ‘you’ll learn very quickly that the cops of the night are very different from the cops of the day. They don’t get all dressed up for anybody. At this hour, they’re not gonna be meeting the Astors or the Vanderbilts, and if they do, they’re gonna be dead already anyway.’ “
Cops on the late shift also have more free time to get into trouble. They are not given directed patrol—what territory to cover at what time—and the radio usually goes dead, depending on the precinct, somewhere around 2 A.M. And, of course, for a cop who’s even tempted to smack somebody around, it’s a lot easier to pull into an alley at three in the morning to work somebody over than it is during the day. It’s no accident that practically every major cop scandal of the past ten years has occurred on the late tour—from Harlem’s “Dirty 30” in 1994 to the 1995 disgrace at the 48th Precinct in the Bronx, when sixteen cops were indicted for robbing drug dealers, beating people, and abusing the public.
The Louima case underscores the supervision problems on the late tour. On the night of the incident, for example, there were two sergeants in charge, one on the desk and one on patrol, each with less than two years’ experience at that post. The lieutenant who normally would have been in charge had taken the night off. (The chain of command in a station house goes like this: commander, who could be a deputy inspector or a captain; executive officer, always a captain; lieutenants; and sergeants.) The 1994 Mollen Commission Report on police violence and corruption found that in every precinct where cops got out of control, there was either too little leadership, leadership that was ineffective, or leadership that was, by virtue of its silence, complicit in whatever mayhem the cops were engaged in.
“People want to say the act was an aberration, but everything about it seems to involve the abuse of authority as well as brutality.”
“Nobody ever gets hurt in a precinct where the sergeant’s a scumbag,” says a former precinct commander who several years ago was brought in to try to reorder a notoriously difficult and problematic station house. “I took charge of a bunch of really nasty cops, really negative, surly guys. And they were not happy with my command. On the first day, I moved my desk from an office on the second floor to a room on the first floor, right next to the desk sergeant. In the 70th, I wouldn’t be surprised if the CO’s desk is on the second floor.
“It’s an image thing, and it’s a reality thing. The cops gotta know you’re right on top of them. You gotta make them feel uncomfortable, let them know, ‘I’m in your face.’ If somebody comes through the door, they better not be bleeding, or I’m gonna be out asking questions. The cops have to know that the commander will walk through the station house unannounced and that no areas are sacrosanct, not even the lounge or the dormitory, which are traditionally considered areas that belong to the cops. So on the first day, I found the beer stash on the roof, where they had their parties. I locked the roof and told them it was over,” says the former commander, who admits he was ultimately frustrated in his attempts at reform.
A lot of commanders feel the same way about things, he says, but often they are, like he was, unable to get their support supervisors to buy into the program. Among cops, peer approval is the most important thing after safety. “Everybody wants to be liked,” he says, “and that’s true in any work situation. But with cops, because of their insularity and the degree to which they depend on one another, everybody really wants to be a good guy. It’s like, ‘Oh, the sarge? He’s a good guy. He’s a real stand-up guy.’ Well, I don’t know exactly what a good guy is, but it sounds like somebody who won’t report me when I do something wrong.”
The commander says that to understand cop culture and the station-house rules that cops live by and judge one another by, you should think of the Rodney King video. That grainy image, which has been shown thousands of times and seared into the contemporary psyche, is of several cops beating King while a larger group of cops stands around watching. Though they would never beat King, or anyone else, themselves, they made no attempt to stop what they saw or to report it.
“The cops who do their job professionally and don’t walk around with an attitude are silent,” the former commander says, sitting in a plush conference room at the Manhattan company where he now works. “They’re silenced in precinct station houses everywhere. They never speak up. Whenever there’s a discussion about any issue, you’ll never hear the voice of restraint, you’ll never hear the positive voices about police work or about the community. That cop has got to remain silent. To do otherwise would mean he becomes a danger to his fellow cops. Then he’s ostracized. ‘If he can think that way,’ cops believe, ‘he can go against us.’
“You can, however, do your job without violence,” he continues, “just like all the cops standing around in the Rodney King video. They don’t need you to participate. But you’ve got to be perceived as somebody who’s on the team. When you go out on patrol, you’re gonna be involved in situations where you’re gonna call for assistance, and you want to know people are gonna come. Believe me,” he says, “the insularity at the Seven-oh will get deeper now. The cops are gonna become even more concerned about being one.”
These station-house rules are, of course, the foundation for the famed—and, judging by the lack of witnesses at the 70th Precinct, still largely impenetrable—blue wall of silence. Though many people, including the mayor and Police Commissioner Howard Safir, were quick in the days immediately following the attack on Abner Louima to proclaim that the blue wall had finally been cracked, it was not true. Only two cops came forward—and none since—and the wall has remained intact.
“If I were Turetzky [the first of the two cops to give a statement], I’d be afraid of what the future holds,” says the sergeant, more in sympathy than in anger. “There’s no way he could ever be a street cop again. No matter how right it was to come forward, he’s still a rat. You gotta have trust. What should’ve happened is that someone in the precinct should’ve stopped it. If it was Volpe, one of the other guys on duty that night should’ve stopped him. Someone should’ve taken the prisoner away from him. They should’ve realized what was happening. But they probably thought he was just gonna lay some hands on the guy,” he says.
“I mean, it happens in the street all the time. You know you got a cop who’s pulse is at 120, his blood’s pounding, his adrenal glands all swelled up, and he’s on overdrive from the pressure. So he gets his two shots in, but by the third there’ll be someone there telling him it’s over, putting an arm around him and telling him to relax. Sometimes it’s not easy. The cop’s so torqued up he doesn’t even hear you or recognize you. And you’re there like, ‘Hey, it’s me, Frankie. It’s over, all right?’ And you’ve got to say it a few times and maybe even shake ‘em a little before it connects.”
The sense almost all cops share that they’re out there all alone every day and have only one another to depend on is what breeds the us-versus-them attitude that many cops wear like protective armor and that is so corrosive to their relationships with the communities they work in. It enables the cops to dehumanize the people they come into contact with, and once that happens—as the worst cases of police abuse always demonstrate—just about anything is possible. But cops don’t develop this attitude in a vacuum, and despite what many people choose to believe, most of them don’t arrive with it when they enter the police academy. It develops over time, in the street and in the station house.
Cops are not taught at the academy how to respond to the negative aspects of policing. No one prepares them for the most difficult situations they’ll actually confront when they’re on the street. “The academy doesn’t do this,” says the former precinct commander, “because it would be difficult to teach cops about the ineffectiveness of the criminal-justice system. It would also be difficult to teach them that there are members of the community who will attack them verbally and physically and even on occasion try to frame them when they’re trying to do their job. The academy doesn’t teach the negative realities that every cop will face because they’re so afraid of the race card and they’re afraid to talk to cops candidly about what actually goes on in a precinct.”
Consequently, cops hit the streets woefully unprepared for much of what they’ll find. How they learn to deal with it depends on a combination of luck and character. “A strong upbringing helps,” he says, “and so does getting paired with the right partner, somebody who can teach you how to get through it all without resorting to violence or corruption or crippling cynicism. Those cops who aren’t lucky find out how to respond to the difficulties of policing in the back of the station house. And that’s ‘Fuck ‘em.’ You take on a bunker mentality and you shut the community and everyone else out.”
This attitude can be exacerbated by the personality of the individual precinct, which is shaped by history, myth, and the dominant cops who work there. At the 70th Precinct, there have been a number of cop shootings in recent years that have undoubtedly had an effect on the psyche of the place. Last year, Freddy Narvaez, a 40-year-old lieutenant, was gunned down in Flatbush, the first supervisor killed in many years. Eight years ago, Officer Bobby Machate was killed on Newkirk Avenue; and ten years ago, Detective Louis Miller, one of the most popular cops in Brooklyn, was killed on Ocean Parkway.
Four and a half years ago, at 6:34 in the evening, officers Bobby Noblin and Mary Capotosto were shot in the same bathroom inside the 70th Precinct where Abner Louima was allegedly attacked. Noblin had taken a six-foot-four, 240-pound suspect arrested for heroin and crack possession into the bathroom to let him urinate. With one cuff off, he attacked Noblin, took his gun, and shot him four times. Capotosto, who was outside the bathroom, heard the commotion and rushed in. She was shot once in the head. The suspect then killed himself. Despite being critically wounded, both Noblin and Capotosto survived.
“You can be sure that even the cops who weren’t there at the time know all the details of these shootings,” one officer told me. “And it’s certainly the kind of thing that contributes to the bunker mentality. By the way, I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I’d like to know if the mayor’s commission is gonna look into the kind of turnout there was in the community for each of these cops. Because there wasn’t any. None. The community doesn’t care.”
“Cops who do their jobs professionally are silenced in station houses everywhere. You’ll never hear the positive voices.”
Twenty sergeants are gathered in a room for a training exercise. The instructor tells them, “Let’s say you get a radio call that a male black in a red shirt has just robbed a store and he’s armed. You pull up to the corner and there’s a black guy in a red shirt. You get out of the car and throw him against the wall. He says, ‘Hey, I didn’t do anything—what’re you hassling me for?’ But you toss [frisk and search] him anyway, because he fits the description. At that moment, a call comes over the radio that they got the guy. You have the wrong person. What do you do?”
One cop says you fill out a stop-and-frisk report, and a few of the others go through the rest of the formal procedures. Only one cop out of the twenty—the only black in the group—says you explain what happened and apologize. The other nineteen say there’s no need. You’re a cop and you’re doing your job.
“Cops need to learn how to explain and apologize—they need to learn that they have to show people respect,” says a cop who attended the training session. “There are going to be times when they toss the wrong person or they’re in a crowd and they hit the wrong person. They have to learn how far saying you’re sorry goes.”
It has been argued that the current strategy of assertive policing has set cops free to go out and kick some ass, and that the mayor’s tough posture on crime has sent tacit signals to the cops that led to the Abner Louima nightmare. Though it fits nicely into a neat little argument, it is not true that when police are out doing their job, issuing summonses, arresting people, and generally maintaining order, there will necessarily be more brutality and more civilian complaints. (At every roll call in every station house where Bratton spoke, he used to say: “This is not ‘get tough’ policing, this is ‘get smart’ policing.”) If this were true, then how would one account for the horrific cases of police abuse of the past two decades? Cases that occurred under Ben Ward and Lee Brown, when the department was, by and large, in a comparatively passive mode?
“If the problem is today’s assertive policing,” says former deputy commissioner Jack Maple, “then how did the Mollen Commission happen beforehand? There’s a history of atrocious police behavior even when the department was in a lot of ways not assertive at all.”
One of the cops told me, “Every cop I know believes Louima got violated, but not one believes that shit about Giuliani Time.”
“Cops think about who the fuck is on the desk tonight,” says Maple. “They think about the captain and is he the kind of guy who says, ‘Take care, I’m going home.’ And all of a sudden he’s sneaking around checking up on them. The leadership that really affects the cop is the captain, the lieutenant, and the sergeant of the precinct. That’s his whole world. The mayor is somebody they see on TV.”
It is true, however, that young black men in this city have a legitimate grievance about being harassed. Cops spend a lot more time and energy hassling, and stopping and searching, young black males than they do anyone else. “I’m just playing the numbers,” one cop told me. “It’s just mathematics. If I see three young black guys with their baseball caps turned sideways in a Lexus or a BMW, is it possible that the black kids are just out for the evening in their father’s car and not guilty of anything? Sure, but it’s a lot more likely they’re gonna be involved in something than a couple of white kids in a Honda Civic. The fact is that young black males and Hispanics commit most of the crime in the city.”
Though it is never easy to be a police officer in New York City, a cop’s life is more complicated, more frustrating, and more precarious right now than it has been in a long while. The Louima case has ruined what should have been a sustained moment of triumph for the Police Department. New York is officially the safest big city in America. There are enough would’ve-been-dead people walking around—if the murder rate had not been cut by 60 percent over four years— to nearly fill Carnegie Hall. Yet there is no warm public embrace for a police force that has had greater success in reducing crime than any force in any city in modern history. Rather, the department’s reputation, which had already frayed in some communities over charges of brutality, is now seriously shredded as a result of the Louima case.
Morale is probably the lowest it’s been since the Dinkins years—when cops felt they didn’t have the mayor’s support—and some of the satisfaction has been stripped from the job, cops say. One potential danger is a police slowdown. Not an organized, politically motivated kind of action but one born of each individual cop’s concern for his own well-being. The active cop might now think twice before making an arrest: Well, the guy’s black; is he going to resist, am I going to have to hit him, will he say I called him a nigger, and is this going to be a CCRB complaint while they’re looking to hang people?
“When cops begin their shift,” one says, “we often say to each other, ‘Don’t get hurt—either way.’ This means physically or getting jammed up because of complications. It’s something that’s always on a cop’s mind, even when things are more or less normal.”
Cops see the debacle at the Seven-oh as merely the latest, albeit the most severe, blow struck against them. Ironically, the other blows have come at the hands of Mayor Giuliani. Despite the fact that Giuliani is regularly criticized for his unflinching support of the police, the overwhelming sentiment among the cops I talked to is that they will still vote for him—who else could they support?—but not happily.
The police are angry because they believe they put out for Giuliani, both during the last election and in reducing crime; yet when it has really counted, he’s let them down: on their new contract (no raise for two years); on overtime (it’s been drastically cut); on promotions (cops doing investigative work for months are not made detectives because it would mean giving them a raise). And on the way the mayor has reached down through the department for appointments all the way to the detective level (it’s all about who you know who knows the mayor, many officers told me).
The cops see Giuliani as a kind of George Steinbrenner figure: a man who has to make every decision and who by forcing out Commissioner William Bratton, an independent, popular-with-the-players, Billy Martin kind of guy, signaled that it wasn’t enough to have a winning team; it had to be his team.
“There’s all this lip service from City Hall,” one longtime veteran of the department says, “all this we-love-the-cops stuff. But that’s just what it is, lip service. From 1974 to 1979, there was a freeze and nobody got hired. So there’s a whole group of people hired after the freeze who’re coming up on twenty years, and many of them are just waiting now to get out. There’s a real brain drain coming if things don’t change.”
And finally, and perhaps most disturbing of all to the cops, is the belief that despite the drop in crime, they’ve never gotten the emotional support from the mayor they deserve. “It’s always ‘More, more, more,’ ” one high-level member of the department says. In fact, the numbers are starting to slip. For the past two months, crime has been up in nearly a third of the city’s 76 precincts. Clearly, double-digit reductions couldn’t go on forever, especially without some major new strategies or initiatives. But with the election coming and the mayor hungry to make new crime-reduction announcements to pump up his margin of victory, the pressure’s on.
“Captains are going to Compstat [the weekly accountability sessions for precinct commanders] and getting killed,” says the veteran. “They have been told that if the numbers start to slip, examples are going to be made, and people are going to be hurt.
“What the department needs right now is some healing. Somebody’s gotta take the reins and say, ‘Look, we’ve done a remarkable job with crime; now it’s time to do some other things. Fighting crime is only part of what the Police Department is supposed to do. Let’s work on a lot of the stuff that’s been given short shrift over the past couple of years, the things that help build ties between the community and the police.’ “
If there were a real mayoral campaign going on right now—the Messinger-Sharpton distraction notwithstanding—then police brutality would be a real campaign issue. As things stand, however, it will likely be just so much political background noise. But substantive reform of the Police Department is something Mayor Giuliani should make a priority in his second term. Unlike any other mayor in recent memory, he has both the moral authority and the credibility on cops and crime to effect sweeping changes in the department. In the same way that he took office determined to bring crime down with smarter, more effective policing—and by shattering deeply held, decades-old beliefs about what cops could and couldn’t achieve— he can now apply his implacable strengths to cop behavior. By demonstrating that violence and corruption are not endemic to police work, he could once again prove he’s capable of destroying the conventional wisdom.
But this will require the same kind of leadership and determination he showed on crime. Commissioner Safir’s program of “Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect” is not going to get it done. Known as CPR—snide cops are already referring to it as Certified Plunger Removers—the program is little more than a year-old public-relations campaign, and a weak one at that.
Reform ought to begin at the police academy. Recruits should be taught about the negative side of policing. Suggestions have been made that high-performing department veterans be brought in on a rotating basis—with a financial incentive—to have frank sessions with the recruits. It has also been suggested that rookies go back to the academy for a month or two after they’ve spent time on the street. This would give them a chance to get help understanding and dealing with the real world of the cop.
The mayor also needs to change the review process for cops accused of misbehaving. One way or the other, justice needs to be swift. Right now, it takes the CCRB at least eight months to issue any kind of finding on complaints. And if it rules that a case has merit, the Police Department can then take up to another year to make its judgment. Instead of allocating $15 million for his new commission, the mayor might have given some of that money to the CCRB to hire experienced investigators (right now it hires kids just out of college for $26,000 a year). The mayor also might have given some of it to the Police Department to hire trial judges to hear these cases.
Because the one factor that works best to control cop behavior is fear. It’s important to train cops properly, and it’s important to teach them history so they know that juries often acquit blatantly guilty people—even cop killers—when they believe that cops got out of control. And it’s important that they know that between 1994 and 1996, the city paid $70 million to settle lawsuits resulting from police-abuse complaints.
But in the final analysis, punishment remains the best safeguard. “If cops fear that they can be caught, that they’ll be fired, and that they’ll be arrested and put into prison, they’ll control their behavior,” says the former precinct commander. “You may not change their attitude, but you can deal with that once the behavior is no longer a problem.”