January 14, 2013


Razzle Dazzle

In ‘Frisk’ Case, Stop And Question Mayor

By Richard Steier

Amid the angry bombast from the tabloid editorial pages and the premature celebration from civil-liberties advocates responding to U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin’s Jan. 8 ruling on a portion of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, the most interesting reaction came from Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch.

The Judge ordered the department to “cease performing trespass stops” at private buildings in The Bronx after finding that it had “systematically crossed” the line into unconstitutional behavior in conducting them.

The Daily News grumbled that her “preordained conclusions... put unnecessary training and paperwork burdens on the NYPD,” and the Post thundered, “How much blood will [Judge Scheindlin] have on her hands when she finishes dismantling the most effective anti-gun-violence program in urban America?”

In contrast, Mr. Lynch’s statement stopped just short of saying, “Justice prevailed.”

‘Fault Lies in Low Staffing’

“When left to the discretion of a police officer,” he said, “stop-and-frisk is a lawful and essential tool to ensure the safety of the public and the police alike. But the actions at issue are part of a Department program specifically designed to compensate for the dangerously low staffing levels imposed on the NYPD by the city’s misguided budget priorities. We welcome any training that will allow our members to better perform their jobs, but reject efforts to hold our members responsible for management’s poorly conceived programs.”

It’s conceivable that those remarks could be read as the self-serving attempt of a union leader to make the case for the hiring of more dues-paying members. But there is at least as strong a pull in the opposite direction from the basic culture of the NYPD: the tendency, more often than not, when the department is facing heat from outsiders for allegedly overzealous enforcement is for union leaders to close ranks behind management and lash out at the critics.

Inheriting Mayor’s Mess?

If there is a political motive behind the PBA leader’s position, it is less likely to be to bolster his ranks than to ensure that his members aren’t suffering the impact of new restrictions that are being considered right now in the City Council that could make their jobs more difficult long after Mayor Bloomberg is gone from office. Because what was crystal-clear in Mr. Lynch’s statement was that he believes the problems that have bubbled to a courtroom boil in the stop-and-frisk program are the result of the Mayor having let the NYPD’s patrol force drop far too low while demanding that the agency not only hold the line but continue improving its anti-crime numbers.

The same point was being made shortly before Judge Scheindlin’s ruling was handed up by Roy Richter, the president of the Captains’ Endowment Association. And because his union represents NYPD commanders all the way up to the title of Deputy Chief, he ordinarily would be even less likely than Mr. Lynch to break ranks.

But during a general discussion of stop-and-frisk and the impact the NYPD’s Compstat program had in swelling the number of them to 685,000 in 2011, Mr. Richter cited two factors: the use of stop-and-frisk as a “performance indicator”—which the PBA and other critics translate to mean quota—and the unusual circumstance under which two Police Academy classes were graduated at the same time and more than 2,200 rookie officers were assigned to Impact Zones for a six-month period.

“Who’s the contributor to the major numbers for the stop-and-frisks?” Mr. Richter said during an extended interview. “The Impact Zones.” The streets of high-crime neighborhoods were flooded two years ago with rookie officers not yet experienced enough to be able to consistently distinguish between shady characters and neighborhood residents with no bad intentions, sending stop-and-frisk numbers that had been steadily rising during the Bloomberg administration into the stratosphere.

Stops Kept OT Rolling

And the designation of stop numbers as a performance indicator, Mr. Richter said, meant that cops working overtime tours who had hopes of getting more of them would often use a high volume of stops as their ticket to ride.

“You shouldn’t be rewarding ‘suspicious’ people,” he said, referring to officers who “say, ‘You look suspicious; let me stop you.’ You should be rewarding people who actually see crimes,” and produce results.

As complaints about the way the stop-and-frisk program intensified once the chart-busting 2011 numbers surfaced, he said, there was no official statement issued by the NYPD ordering a change in how the program was carried out. Instead, “the word that went out through the Compstat program was that they wanted to see quality stops, rather than quantity stops.”

And while the stops have remained a performance indicator for both cops and their commanders, they are no longer primary ones, he said.

There have been charges made, particularly in the wake of the revelations in the 81st Precinct by Police Officer Adrian Schoolcraft about manipulation of crime statistics by his superiors, that street cops were ordered to make unjustified stops to spare their commanders from being berated at Compstat meetings if they fell below their targets. Mr. Richter, who represents two of the commanders at the center of the Schoolcraft case, has a nuanced view of the program, having been involved with it since its inception early in the Giuliani administration nearly two decades ago, when he was the Sergeant in Midtown North who was given the responsibility for putting together the precinct’s presentation to top NYPD officials.

A Roast Without Rebuttal

In those days, the sessions were presided over by Louis Anemone, who would later become the NYPD’s top uniformed officer, and some reporters who were invited to sit in on early sessions compared his lacing into commanders who had fallen short of targets or failed to address crime problems to the fun moments of the Spanish Inquisition. Mr. Richter remembers the sessions as less-confrontational, featuring constructive criticism and sometimes praise in addition to occasional scalding.

Told to focus on crime patterns and changes in conditions, he recalled, cops at Midtown North trained their sights on pickpockets and known associates and tracked which of them had recently been released from prison. Once they were pinpointed, he said, “We were very effective at arresting persons in the act of committing a grand larceny.” When they reported their response to what had emerged as a problem in the precinct during a Compstat meeting, “You’d get a ‘good job’ and an ‘attaboy,’ and that is a good thing.”

Mr. Anemone’s style bruised more than a few egos, and some Captains were known to dread having to account for problems that had cropped up in their precincts, but over the years, Mr. Richter said, “The general tone of the Compstat meetings has remained the same. The personalities have changed: some are very rough and some are effective.”

‘Put Cops on the Dots’

Asked whether he believed that embarrassment had its use as a motivational tool, he said, “Absolutely not,” but that the pressure the meetings placed on commanders to be accountable was “a very effective tool for addressing crime in the city. It’s not necessary that they have to meet certain targets, but they have to show that they addressed certain crimes in their precincts.” Whether it’s a new pattern of burglaries or narcotics-related offenses, he said, referring to Compstat’s theme, “You put cops on the dots” until the perpetrators are caught.

When he has complained to Commissioner Kelly or Chief of Department Joe Esposito about the tone of some Compstat sessions becoming oppressive, “They’re generally responsive,” even if they make no promises. As he put it, in future sessions, “The givers of the abuse generally get a little more mild-mannered.”

Hurt feelings are not the primary concern right now, he said. “I think the big challenge that the commanders and the people on the street face is the reduced head-count. And,” Mr. Richter said, “It’s gonna get worse.”

He cited numbers that bridge the end of David Dinkins’s administration and the beginning of Rudy Giuliani’s, when the stepped-up NYPD hiring under the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program began to really kick in. From August 1993 to February of the following year, he said, 5,342 cops were hired, an astounding total for a six-month period.

About 85 percent of cops who stay long enough to qualify for a full pension after 20 years’ service retire shortly after reaching that threshold, Mr. Richter said.

In recent years, the NYPD because of city budget problems has not always replaced all the cops who left service with new officers, although during the past calendar year, he said, the 1,900 retirements were matched by an equal number of hirings.

Retirement Tidal Wave?

But the attrition numbers figure to be far worse between now and early next year, prompting him to refer to the 830 new recruits who were inducted into the Police Academy two days after the interview and say that the department should have been hiring 1,000 more than that to begin preparing for the massive departures he believes will begin seven months from now. Then consider that the NYPD is roughly 6,000 officers below its level of nearly 41,000 a dozen years ago.

“When you deplete the Detective Bureau, when you deplete Narcotics and replace them with brand-new officers, there’s going to be a vacuum,” Mr. Richter said. “You’re going to have the new officers, but they’re not going to have the training” to make up for the loss of experience of those who retired.

He noted that former City Comptroller Bill Thompson had said recently that if elected Mayor, he would boost the NYPD’s headcount at least 2,000 above the current level, and wondered why Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who reportedly wants to retain Mr. Kelly as Police Commissioner if she’s elected, has made no similar commitment.

One likely explanation is Ms. Quinn’s role in shaping the city budget combined with political reality: her campaign would get a lot more impact in June from a sudden influx of new cops than it would by making a mere pledge in January.

But the numbers presented by Mr. Richter make clear the urgency behind Mr. Lynch’s arguments. Mr. Bloomberg, one eye on his legacy, can argue that he has not only kept the city safe but reduced crime without needing the kind of income-tax surcharge that paid for “Safe Streets, Safe City.” But that fiscal magic has come with a cost: programs that have short-changed civil liberties in parts of New York’s minority communities, using the rationale that this has helped keep them safe.

An Invisible Price

Tabloid critics of Judge Scheindlin’s ruling argued that she gave too much credence to a relatively small number of minority men who spoke of being unjustly stopped and in some cases arrested on specious charges. But when an arrest record is created out of dubious busts—with the most-shameful ones involving marijuana-possession charges prompted only because those stopped were asked to empty their pockets—the loss of job and career opportunities that results for young men in chronically underemployed parts of the city is hardly a trivial matter.

It is one thing for the New York Civil Liberties Union to argue that the NYPD is using dubious tactics. When the head of the city’s largest police union is hinting at the same thing, and the leader of the organization representing most of the NYPD’s top commanders is warning of problems to come because there’s only so long you can pretend there’s adequate police coverage to do the job without questionable short-cuts, it’s a very different story.

Those who are overly anxious to berate a Federal Judge for trying to—as the News editorial put it—“hobble” the NYPD might better ask whether Mr. Bloomberg is unintentionally achieving that impact with a budget that asks more of the department than it can ethically do while working so shorthanded.