April 4, 2016

Razzle Dazzle

Watchwords for Cops: ‘Do We Need This?’


‘WHEN DID COMMON SENSE DEPART OUR JOB?’: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (left) accused four cops of trumping up a case against a postal worker to ‘show who’s the biggest and baddest’ and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said he had ‘strong concerns’ about their handling of the incident. While Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch (right) cautioned against a ‘rush to judgment’ and defended the resisting-arrest charge, a surprising number of posters on a pro-police website sharply questioned the decision to arrest ‘a working man.’

“Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect” is emblazoned on all NYPD patrol cars, but for those officers who find it hard to obey those commandments, perhaps another credo would work better: “Do We Need This?”

That thought came to mind in the wake of the recent instance of cops literally making a Federal case out of an angry but justifiable remark by a mailman after their speeding vehicle came a bit too close to his postal truck on a Crown Heights street. It’s not clear what he yelled at them, but it’s a good bet that it wasn’t “May The Force Be With You.”

It’s a routine response to an overly-aggressive driver or one who’s simply being careless. A driver who realizes he or she is at fault is likely to acknowledge by putting a hand up in the air, no fingers extended. Someone with a greater sense of entitlement may instead offer a different, less-civil response.

That is apparently what happened March 17 when the Letter Carrier, Glen Grays, expressed his displeasure at an unmarked police car having come uncomfortably close to his truck while allegedly traveling at a high rate of speed. Rather than just driving on, or shouting something back that would probably not sound like “Have a nice day,” the driver of the unmarked car put it in reverse and the four officers inside—Lieut. Luis Machado and Police Officers Lazo Lluka, Miguel Rodriguez and David Savella—decided to confront Mr. Grays.

Arrested, But for What?

A shaky video of what transpired that wound up on YouTube showed the cops demanding identification and Mr. Grays saying it was in his postal truck. One of the cops then attempted to handcuff him, and more than one of them was heard yelling “stop resisting,” although the resistance, judging by the video, seemed to consist of nothing more than Mr. Grays not placing his hands behind his back as quickly as they wanted.

A crowd had gathered, with some people objecting to what was happening, and a couple of them taunted the cops, with one crying “lawsuit!” The officers put the cuffed Mr. Grays into their vehicle, according to his account, without attaching a seatbelt, which meant that when their unmarked car struck another vehicle en route to the 71st Precinct, he took the worst of the minor collision.

It is the cops who could be feeling career whiplash for some time to come. Five days after the incident, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD Captain who antagonized colleagues and Police Commissioners alike with his criticism of excessive force used by officers in some cases, called a press conference at which he showed the video, decried the arrest, and labeled the incident a case of cops trying to show “who’s the biggest and the baddest.”

He also called for Lieutenant Machado to be interviewed by the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau, and said the primary question he should be made to answer was, “Why did he allow that arrest to take place?”

The incident and the press conference received relatively little local media coverage initially, although by March 26 it had prompted a number of posts on Thee Rant, a website used primarily by law-enforcement personnel to air their gripes. In this case, atypically, the sentiments expressed ran pretty strongly against the cops, with one, under the moniker “woodshampu,” decrying their doing this to “a working man” rather than “a [condom].”

Bratton Not Happy

But the posting of the video online, even though it didn’t show the precipitating incident or record whatever Mr. Grays said that got the cops so lathered up, produced enough of a national reaction that on March 29 Police Commissioner Bill Bratton addressed it with clear unhappiness. The fact that he emphasized what the ordinary citizen would consider least important about the cops’ comportment—that they were in plainclothes in an assignment for which they were supposed to be wearing their uniforms—gave some indication of the trouble they had bought for themselves. The four cops have been removed from their duties with the Conditions Unit and returned to regular patrols while the internal probe proceeds; by the end of last week Lieutenant Machado had been stripped of his badge and gun.

The Commissioner also declared that he had “strong concerns” about the disorderly conduct charge against Mr. Grays, citing what he called additional footage of the arrest that the Police Department had secured. “For what purpose? Who authorized it?” Mr. Bratton said of the arrest.

If it turned out that the only justification was whatever Mr. Grays had shouted, it would represent a corruption more pernicious than stealing: nothing unsettles ordinary citizens or undermines public confidence in the police more than a cop willing to blatantly trump up charges to satisfy his pique.

An NYPD supervisor a few weeks ago told me that the arrests most likely to get cops in trouble fell under the heading of what he called “the trifecta,” referring to disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration, particularly if there was no other criminal charge being made against the person arrested. “I tell my cops don’t get into unnecessary arguments—it isn’t worth it,” because top NYPD officials, as well as lawyers for the accused, have become accustomed to those charges being made to either manufacture a case or inoculate the cops involved against charges that they used unnecessary force.

Postal Service Probe

In this case, if “obstructing governmental administration” enters the picture, it is likely to be used against the cops themselves. Because the cops took away Mr. Grays without ensuring that his postal truck was secured, The New York Times reported last week that the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service was investigating the incident.

Mr. Bratton said the failure to safeguard the mail truck while leaving it double-parked on an active street “would be a significant issue of concern in terms of the investigation going forward.” It also means the possibility of a Federal prosecution in addition to any departmental charges against the officers.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch issued a statement March 30 that said, “Video-taping police encounters usually results in a rush to judgment by people who have no first-hand information about what transpired. Everyone, including the Police Commissioner, should withhold public comment until all the facts are in. That being said, no one ever has the right to resist arrest. Regardless of how one feels about being stopped, once told that they are being placed under arrest, they must comply with the officer’s orders. If you try, in any way, to prevent the officer from placing handcuffs on you, then you are resisting arrest and can be charged with that crime.”

The statement did not, however, address the circumstances that led the cops to put Mr. Grays in cuffs. That was what prompted most of the commentary on Thee Rant, which was uncharacteristically harsh toward the officers involved.

‘Not Remotely a Good Idea’

“woodshampu,” a screen name that suggests a cop with a fondness for using his baton, wrote, “I don’t know why locking the mailman up for a traffic violation even begins to remotely look like a good idea. Top charge being resisting arrest without any underlying crime tells me this was stupidity.”

Another poster under the nickname “beachwear” asked, “When did Common Sense depart our Job?”

A regular on the board who uses the handle “King of Queens” wrote, “in the [era] of everyone filming anything and everything involving the police, WTF were they all doing. He screamed at them for going [too] fast and maybe almost clippin him or truck? SO WHAT…How about just telling him to go f----himself old school. I gave a few tongue lashings to a bus driver or two and even a mailman once…but arresting one? Come on.”

And a poster known as “NYPD to FAM” stated, “An old Captain used to tell us at roll call, ‘if you are going to get off your ass and do something today, be right—not emotional, commit 100% and do it by the book—you will prevent a problem for all of us.”

Lieutenant Faulted

A couple of the posters faulted the Lieutenant, with “King of Queens” writing, “Your #1 job as a GOOD boss is to keep cops out of trouble.”

Mr. Adams invoked a case that became a far-bigger and continuing mess for the department, saying, “This could have been another Eric Garner situation if Glen had not responded as calmly as he did.”

The “do we need this?” mantra could have a dual applicability in the Garner case. The obvious one concerns Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s decision to try to cuff Mr. Garner while he was still arguing with another cop and then, when the man tried to brush off his hand, escalating matters and, when unable to execute a “seat-belt” hold because of Mr. Garner’s girth, resorting to the chokehold that probably contributed to his death.

But the decision to make arrests for selling untaxed cigarettes originated much higher up in the NYPD chain of command—then-Chief of Department Philip Banks III—based on complaints by local merchants. The wisdom of handling it this way, rather than leaving it to enforcement personnel from the Department of Consumer Affairs, obviously looks especially bad in hindsight, but it’s hard to mount a convincing argument for having cops make arrests for such a petty crime even if this hadn’t turned into a horror story for all concerned.

Evokes Livoti Blow-Up

An even-more-apt comparison exists between this case and the fatal confrontation that caused the death of Anthony Baez on a Bronx street 22 years ago and sent Officer Francis Livoti to Federal prison for 7½ years on a civil-rights conviction.

In that case, the triggering event was not an angry scream but the funny bounce of a football. Officer Livoti was a known hothead whose commanding officer had advised him to either get psychological counseling or a transfer out of the 46th Precinct to a quieter area, something he was able to resist because of his juice as a PBA delegate.

On the night of his fatal encounter with Mr. Baez, Mr. Livoti was in a parked patrol car along with a Sergeant who was riding with him under orders to make sure he didn’t get into unnecessary confrontations. Mr. Baez and his brothers were tossing a football around outside their house when it accidentally struck the patrol car. Mr. Livoti angrily told them to take the football and play someplace else. It didn’t matter to him that he and the Sergeant at this point were no longer engaged in police business on the street and that the brothers actually lived there.

The Baez brothers moved their game a bit further up the block to avoid having the ball strike the patrol car a second time, but oblong spheroids sometimes take funny bounces, and when the football hit the patrol car again, Mr. Livoti came charging out looking to make arrests, and wound up helping to end a man’s life and changing his own drastically.

Pressures Cop Feel

Being a cop is a difficult, often-thankless job. Enforcing the law means officers will encounter some static even when they are acting appropriately and fairly. Sometimes it will come from individuals, sometimes from a community, and sometimes from their bosses because orders from above wound up having an unanticipated consequence.

If a recent PBA survey of its rank and file, and statements by cops including Edwin Raymond—a veteran officer who is part of a lawsuit claiming the NYPD is enforcing illegal quotas—are any indication, more than a few are being pressured by their supervisors into keeping enforcement activity high despite Mr. Bratton’s strenuous insistence that he is concerned with quality work rather than quantity.

The union survey, which was actually released two days before the incident with Mr. Grays, indicated that nearly all the respondents believed that taking enforcement action could unfairly subject them to lawsuits or internal discipline, which they often felt was capricious.

Don’t Look for Trouble

But being a good cop is about using discretion and, as one of the posters on Thee Rant noted in capital letters, common sense. There are enough pitfalls inherent in the job that you shouldn’t go searching for trouble gratuitously or escalating confrontations in situations that, in retrospect at least, look positively piddling.

A football accidentally striking a patrol car, someone selling loose cigarettes, a man understandably venting because a fast-moving car came a bit too close to his vehicle—these are not situations demanding forceful intervention. Discretion is always the better part of valor when valor should not even be an issue that enters the conversation, or the thought process.

The days when cops could count on their word prevailing against civilian complainants or witnesses are fading fast with the proliferation of surveillance cameras and cell-phones. And the increasing exposure of improper behavior, in New York as well as in other urban areas, has placed police actions under sharper public scrutiny.

Perhaps the only really surprising—and reassuring—finding of the PBA survey was that 70 percent of the union members who responded were in favor of wearing body cameras, believing they would show that more often than not, charges of abusive behavior against them were unfounded.

Amid the growing use of technology and the greater complexity of policing a city like New York, there will often be moments in which cops should ask themselves a simple four-word question before doing something they’ll wind up regretting.