November 4, 2014

Razzle Dazzle

‘Courtesy’ in a Climate Where Mercy Withers


It was what one cop on a police-oriented website called “the gentlest” of summonses: a ticket for driving with a defective headlight, one that could be wiped out by having the problem corrected within 24 hours.

It turned into a story of considerably greater duration because of those directly involved—most notably the mother of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in mid-July after a confrontation with cops over allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes that led to his being placed in an apparent chokehold—and what looms over it, including the Bronx ticket-fixing scandal and two forces in New York political life which have been known to fan the flames of controversy: the New York Post (which broke the story) and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

While the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Sergeants’ Benevolent Association reacted by tossing a few more logs on the bonfire, the unions representing Lieutenants and Captains—whose members took the actions that stirred the outrage—sought to downplay the incident rather than pointing fingers. It’s not likely to serve as the basis for another Tom Wolfe novel, but the incident shined a light on the tensions between street cops and the de Blasio administration, and what one veteran cop called the “tightrope” that Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has been forced to walk.

Union: ‘Acted With Best of Intentions’

There were even disputes about whether the Assistant Chief Edward Delatorre, the Staten Island Borough Commander who directed subordinates to take care of the ticket by replacing the headlight for Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, did so on his own or took direction from someone higher up in the NYPD.

Asked about the latter possibility, Captains’ Endowment Association President Roy Richter, who represents those in the Assistant Chief rank, said in an Oct. 29 phone interview, “I’m confident that Delatorre acted with nothing but the best of intentions, and he took responsibility for it.”

That comment sidestepped whether he was prodded by a superior, but an official from another union was emphatic that this appeared to be Chief Delatorre’s own call.

One veteran supervisor, who spoke conditioned on anonymity, wasn’t so sure, noting that because of Ms. Carr’s relation to Mr. Garner, the incident would have been the subject of an “unusual occurrence” report, copies of which are sent to top NYPD officials. “Bratton was somewhere in the loop,” he said, along with Philip Banks III, who last week was promoted from Chief of Department to First Deputy Commissioner, only to resign three days later after Mr. Bratton rebuffed his demand for increased power.

“I think panic set in and they made a call to 1 Police Plaza,” he said of the Staten Island command.

Even if that did happen, the politics aren’t quite that simple, this supervisor said.

The Post had cited a source claiming that Chief Delatorre had expressed concern that letting the summons stand could serve as an excuse for Mr. Sharpton to hold another rally in Staten Island after the one two months earlier protesting Mr. Garner’s death. In this case, it would have been based on the claim that Staten Island cops were targeting his mother for punitive treatment at the same time that a Staten Island grand jury was considering criminal action against the cops involved in the July confrontation.

‘Don’t Let Story Get Legs’

“I’m sure Delatorre was well-intentioned—‘Let me kill this before it gets legs,’” the veteran supervisor said, a sentiment that seemed ironic given the media coverage that has followed. “They want to be as nice to the Garner family as they can—they don’t want there to be any more allegations.”

Conversely, rank-and-file cops in the borough don’t necessarily share that sentiment, he continued, and there are some doubts about the claim that the cop who gave Ms. Carr the summons didn’t know who she was. “It’s a small place,” he said of Staten Island.

That point was echoed by Gene O’Donnell, an ex-cop who is a Professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College. “Staten Island has that weird history of people knowing each other,” he said. “I don’t know if [the cop who issued the summons] knew her, but it’s important for the police to repair that relationship.” Mr. Garner may have been a habitual petty criminal, he explained, but the fatal confrontation was “a tragic event, the death of this guy for a nonsense offense.”

His take on that was sharply at odds with an unidentified Staten Island cop whom the Post quoted criticizing the department for having “bent over backwards for this woman whose son died in police custody...Makes us look bad.”

‘Policing a Racial Issue’

But Mr. O’Donnell argued that even though the NYPD’s rank-and-file has become increasingly integrated, “Policing in our city is a racial issue more than anything else” because the great majority of those being arrested or receiving summonses are people of color. “It’s like a competition: the cops vs. the black community. The black community looks at cops as having this reactionary attitude towards them.”

He said of the steps taken to quash the ticket and fix Ms. Carr’s headlight, “In my view this is an effort to try to [redress] that.”

Beyond the racial politics involved, and the invocation of Mr. Sharpton as the silent hand forcing Chief Delatorre to act pre-emptively serving as an irritant to street cops and their unions, the Oct. 21 incident occurred less than a week after Lieut. Jennara Cobb was found guilty in Bronx Supreme Court of criminal misdemeanor charges related to her warning other cops of wiretaps seeking to uncover ticket-fixing activities.

Most of the cops awaiting their days in court are Police Officers, and more than a few are PBA delegates. That helped account for union President Pat Lynch’s angry response to chief de Blasio spokesman Phil Walzak’s defending Chief Delatorre by saying, “If he’s doing a citizen a solid, that’s not a bad thing.”

‘White-Shirt Immunity’

The PBA leader contrasted this policy of “white-shirt immunity for police bosses in the use of courtesies” with the plight of his own troops. “The PBA has members facing disciplinary and criminal charges for extending lesser courtesies to citizens,” he said in an Oct. 28 statement.

Lieutenants Benevolent Association President Louis Turco, whose members include both Ms. Cobb and Lieut. Anthony Longobardi, who was one of the two supervisors who changed the headlight for Ms. Carr, declined to draw parallels in the ticket-fixing Tale of Two Boroughs. “My Lieutenant was following orders, but I think it should’ve been handled differently,” he said in a phone interview.

SBA President Ed Mullins, the most-vociferous police-union leader on what he claims is the hypocrisy in the ticket-fixing prosecutions and the NYPD’s response to them, wasn’t nearly as restrained. He told the Post that if the Bronx case wasn’t dropped, Chief Delatorre “should be arrested” for doing the same thing as the cops awaiting trial.

Political consultant George Arzt, who as Press Secretary to Mayor Ed Koch dealt with some racially charged police controversies from inside City Hall, said the handling of the Carr incident “just shows a lack of judgment on someone’s part in the NYPD.” While the Mayor was excoriated earlier this year for making a phone call that prevented the arrest of a key black supporter, Bishop Orlando Findlayer, following a traffic violation because he had an outstanding warrant, in this case, Mr. Arzt noted, “The Mayor is not directly involved.”

Guilty by Association

In the eyes of many cops, however, he is guilty by association because of his close relationship with the Reverend Al. They believe—probably justifiably—that it has accounted for the Mayor’s taking no punitive action against Rachel Noerdlinger after it was revealed that she had not reported to the Department of Investigation that she was living with an ex-convict whose rap sheet includes killing another teenager in his youth and has been in trouble with the law as recently as a year ago and made numerous anti-police postings on social media.

Mr. de Blasio didn’t help his cause when his past tendency to pander to his audience resurfaced during Mr. Sharpton’s 60th birthday celebration and he gushed, “The more people want to criticize him, the more I want to hang out with him.”

To understand how foolish that remark sounds coming from a Mayor, imagine the reaction if Mr. de Blasio had substituted “cops” for “him” in that sentence. A Mayor can’t put himself in the position of declaring blind, unwavering loyalty to any individual or group that at some point will inevitably say or do something that creates an uproar in some portion of the city. It is why the police unions reacted so angrily after the mayoral sit-down on the Garner incident at which Mr. de Blasio was flanked by Mr. Bratton and Mr. Sharpton turned into a Reverend Al sideshow when he called out both officials, and Mr. de Blasio’s only response was to quietly, though firmly, defend his Police Commissioner.

The cumulative effect of Mr. de Blasio’s refusal to publicly criticize either Mr. Sharpton or his former spokeswoman, Ms. Noerdlinger, has been to leave cops unloading on him over the special treatment afforded Ms. Carr in contrast to the Bronx ticket-fixing case even though those criminal charges were brought by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson well before he became Mayor.

Obscures Human Issue

And in harping on the inconsistency between the two boroughs in how instances of “courtesy” that police-union leaders have argued were long ingrained in unofficial department policy have been treated, an equally basic human quality of mercy has been overlooked, according to one senior NYPD official who spoke conditioned on anonymity.

Yes, he said, it’s true that it would not have been a major burden for Ms. Carr to have simply gotten the headlight changed and had the ticket settled that way, although he noted that “she claimed ignorance of having [been given] the form” that would expedite the process. But, he added, making the trip to the 120th Precinct that would have been required would have been fraught with emotional pain for obvious reasons.

“The woman lost her son,” he said. “Now you’re gonna ask her to go to the precinct that caused the death of her son and ask her to have them assist her?”

Professor O’Donnell, who is also an ex-prosecutor, said the police unions rather than dwelling at length on the injustice of giving Ms. Carr special treatment would be better off citing her case in arguing that their members should not be prosecuted on the ticket-fixing charges in instances in which their actions did not stem from any payoffs but were rather the granting of favors without conditions attached.

‘Why Not for Us?’

“They would have the moral ground to say the department did it for her, why not do it for us?” by treating it as something other than a crime.

For that to work, the accused cops might need Mr. de Blasio to make clear that he believes Bronx DA Johnson—whose probe actually grew out of an investigation into Police Officer Jose Ramos, whose conviction on other charges last week made clear that his alleged ticket-fixing was the least of his sins—should reconsider the indictments against the other officers and show a little courtesy himself.

It might prove contagious, and serve to ease some of the anger Mr. de Blasio has aroused among cops who aren’t sure he values them as much as he does the Reverend Al.