The Police Police

From the September 22, 1997 issue of New York Magazine.

Internal Affairs?” the detective said with a huff of pure derision. “They couldn’t find Mickey Mouse in Disneyland.”

Four years ago, the Mollen Commission hearings produced graphic and detailed evidence to justify that cop’s contempt. Under the name Internal Affairs Division, the NYPD’s in-house monitor had failed to detect dozens of abusive, thieving cops rampaging through Harlem in what became known as the “Dirty 30” scandal. Michael Dowd, stationed in East New York, snorted cocaine off the dashboard of his police car. Why worry? Internal Affairs had been receiving complaints about Dowd since 1986, to no effect.

Today, Internal Affairs works far better than it did prior to the Mollen Commission—which is like saying the weather improved for Noah on the forty-first day. In the spotlight cast by Mollen, police commissioners Raymond Kelly and William Bratton promised reform. IAD became IAB, the Internal Affairs Bureau, with a bigger budget, more sophisticated electronic gadgets, and a larger staff of investigators. Under Howard Safir, IAB’s methods are largely unchanged—except for a new blanket of secrecy covering even rudimentary information about the place.

Charles Campisi, the current IAB chief, is a career bureaucrat, and he has his hands full as IAB investigates the alleged torture of Abner Louima. Much has been made of the way an inexperienced cop at IAB’s action desk handled a phone call from a nurse treating the horribly wounded Louima: Reporters routinely refer to the cop’s apparent failure to log the call as “bungling.”

Bungling would actually be reassuring. What’s unnerving is that even when calls are logged according to regulations, IAB has set up a system that tacitly encourages exactly the kind of delay that may have allowed evidence to be destroyed in the Louima case.

“We don’t get a case until it’s a good few days old,” says an IAB veteran. “And if you’re working on anything good, they don’t want to take action without the approval of the IAB steering committee.”

The committee, composed of NYPD brass and a handful of civilian observers from the mayor’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption, reviews the most severe allegations. “Things get sloooowed down sooo much. You’ll be doing some observations of a person, running all kinds of checks, but you certainly won’t put any handcuffs on anybody. Until it comes from on high. It’s micro-micro-micro management.”

Investigations should be painstaking. But layers of bureaucracy suggest that the IAB is creeping back to its old motivating principle: embarrassment avoidance.

Fans and foes of IAB, both inside and outside the NYPD, begin any discussion of corruption with the assertion that the vast majority of cops are honest. That is true. And the new IAB has done some diligent and creative work nailing suspect cops. Thomas Leahy, head of the rackets-investigation unit in the Bronx D.A.’s office, points to the 1995 arrest of officer Henry Pelayo III, of the 41st Precinct, who allegedly jailed an innocent man on a phony gun rap. Leahy also cites the 1996 IAB sting in which officers Mark Scott and Jorge Crespo, of the 42nd Precinct, allegedly pocketed $4,500 (though the Feds, months earlier, spotted the pair allegedly ripping off a drug dealer in Washington Heights). “There’s little mercy for misconduct under Safir,” Leahy says. “This particular P.C. fires people.”

Indeed, 26 cops have been dismissed in the past year. There’s a different statistic, though, that the NYPD cites as proof of the bureau’s improvement: The astonishing passing rate on IAB’s random integrity tests.

The tests are a prime part of IAB’s anti-corruption strategy. IAB testers, in civilian clothes, will approach a beat cop and hand over a wallet that’s been “found.” The wallet contains cash. If the cop vouchers the money, he passes. This and similar random tests were done on 762 cops in the first six months of 1996—the last period for which the department released statistics. No one flunked.

The results may be deceiving, however. “They are designing the tests in a way that they know they’re gonna get good stats,” says a law-enforcement official.

The volume of integrity tests is supposed to have a deterrent effect, by creating the impression of an omnipresent IAB. Any fear is undercut, though, by the comical transparency of many of the tests. “Some of these testers are sergeants who have been using police jargon for fifteen years,” says an IAB cop. “So they say, ‘Officer, I saw a male black drop this on the street.’ Fifteen years of saying ‘male black,’ ‘male white,’ as opposed to ‘a black guy’—it just slips out.”

More alarming is the failure rate of IAB’s targeted integrity tests. When complaints merit running a more elaborate ruse, IAB will, for instance, concoct a phony brothel, then lure a cop who is suspected of being dirty. During the first six months of 1996, 64 targeted tests snared twelve officers.

Safir has pushed to dispose of bad cops quickly, through departmental charges instead of criminal prosecution, which saves the NYPD money, the risk of a bad cop’s poisoning the force, and ugly publicity. The worry among prosecutors is that the opportunity to find larger patterns of corruption, through flipped cops, may be lost in the bargain. “IAB may be more willing to pick off an individual dirty cop,” says Joseph Armao, the Mollen Commission’s chief counsel, who is now at the law firm Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent & Sheinfeld. “But if anybody took any lesson from the Mollen Commission, it is that the nature of police corruption is conspiratorial. They act in groups, for self-preservation. Why haven’t we seen more group prosecution?”

“Will we be able to prevent what happened in the three-oh, a whole precinct going rogue?” Bratton says, sounding as if he’s still in charge. “I think we will. Much as I’m comfortable saying crime’s not going to go back up in this city.”

Federal law-enforcement officials praise IAB’s efforts, but they aren’t quite so confident. They’re in the delicate first stages of building a broad corruption inquiry from tips provided by an undercover informant. “There’s a couple things,” one Fed says ominously, “that the office is looking at right now.”

Flawed procedures and hardware—such as the three-years-overdue-and-counting installation of a computer system to track corruption allegations—handicap even the dedicated cops in IAB. But the will to hunt down misdeeds is equally important. And morale inside IAB is terrible.

One pillar of the Kelly reforms was allowing IAB to “draft,” for a two-year tour, any officers on a career path to sergeant or lieutenant; the cop is required to accept the assignment. The theory: New blood boosts the bureau’s energy, and the more people who pass through IAB, the less hated the place becomes within the NYPD.

It’s a nice theory. But in practice under Safir, the two-year tours are not exactly distributed equally. “Special qualifications” allow cops to skip straight to the detective bureau. “What it means is, your special qualification is you were born into a family who has a deputy inspector in it,” says one cop. “People who have no hooks, politically or by blood, have to do two years. The department publishes these things called personnel orders—transfers and promotions—so you see who’s getting around it. The mood of the people who are here is absolute misery and noncooperation. You’re constantly having your nose rubbed in the dirt of the fact that the reason you’re here is that you don’t know anybody, kid! So you’re gonna sit outside that restaurant for the next six nights making sure those cops pay for that meal!”

Combine the resentment of younger cops with the lassitude of many of IAB’s holdovers, and the mood is resoundingly glum. Phones at the action desk have been ringing wildly since Abner Louima hit the headlines. One sergeant is responsible for judging whether each of the thousands of allegations goes into the pile labeled CORRUPTION or the one labeled MISCONDUCT. Four years after Internal Affairs was supposed to be fixed, the path from action desk to action remains treacherously potholed.

The Police Police