By Alan Bean
Check out the New York Times index of recent NYPD stories and you will be amazed (and hopefully troubled) by what you find. Today, defendant, Jason Arbeeny, a 14-year Police Department veteran who worked in the Brooklyn South unit, was convicted for planting drugs on innocent people. But it isn’t just one bad apple cop. Trial testimony suggests that NYPD narcotics cops frequently resort to faking cases when the end of the month finds them under quota. It’s called “flaking”.
In related cases, eight other narcotics officers have been arrested, hundreds of drug cases have been dismissed, and over $1million has been paid out to settle false arrest lawsuits. If these officers were accused by their victims there would be no consequences (cop vs. accused swearing matches always end badly for the accused), but in this case, the perpetrators were unfortunate enough to get caught up in an internal investigation.
And then there’s the story about the sixteen NYPD cops recently indicted for allegedly fixing thousands of tickets for high-profile clients (for a fee, of course). Apparently this too was standard practice and, if the allegations hold up in court, several officers appear to have spent most of their working hours tracking down tickets at the behest of well-heeled customers. The practice is so widespread that over 100 fellow officers crowded the State Supreme Court in the Bronx to protest the sixteen indictments. “Just following orders” the placards read. Officers allegedly manhandled media people attempting to cover the story.
Do they really think this stuff is okay? So it would appear.
If ticket-fixing was such a widespread practice, you may wonder, how were the sixteen defendants indicted? It all started with Jose R. Ramos, an officer in the 40th Precinct “accused of two dozen crimes, including attempted robbery, attempted grand larceny, transporting what he thought was heroin for drug dealers and revealing the identity of a confidential informant.” A straight arrow officer who got wind of this activity decided to investigate.
But it doesn’t stop.
In late October, several NYPD officers went on trial in connection with the 2006 killing of Sean Bell outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens. Over fifty shots were fired in an incident that left two unarmed passengers seriously wounded. Officers claim they thought Bell was armed. He wasn’t.
And then there is the October 25 story about the eight NYPD officers arrested for allegedly smuggling automatic weapons into the city. An officer who was merely accused of smuggling cigarettes across the state line, said on tape that he was down with cigarettes, but drew the line at smuggling drugs and guns.
Everybody’s got standards, right?
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is offering the usual explanation–there’s a few bad apples in every bunch. But, as Kelly explained, even if we’re only talking about a 1% corruption rate, that’s 500 bad officers on a force of 50,000.
Five hundred rogue cops is a scary thought, but I don’t buy the “bad apples” theory, and neither should you. If internal investigations were randomly conducted in police departments across the country, would this level of corruption be exposed everywhere? I don’t think so. In some departments, you would find NYPD style corruption or worse. When illegal acts are tolerated at the upper levels of the chain of command things rapidly get out of hand.
But when high ethical standards are enforced from the chief of police on down, corruption is held in check. In well-run departments, police corruption really is restricted to the occasional bad apple.
It ain’t just bad apples in the Big Apple; we’re talking institutionalized corruption. The off-duty officers holding the “Just following orders” placards may have a point.
Police officers are human beings, no better and no worse than the rest of the citizenry. When they are respected, well paid, and held to high ethical standards, they function with restraint, common sense and good humor. But when cynical scam artists are tolerated, the institutional culture disintegrates with alarming speed.
In his wonderful new book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, the late William Stuntz argues that more police officers on the ground means fewer prisoners behind bars. (I’ll be reviewing Stuntz’s book in the near future–stay posted.) Criminal justice reformers shouldn’t be anti-police; like everyone else, we look to these men and women for protection and social stability. They work hard and dangerous jobs and deserve our respect and gratitude.
But the motto “to protect and to serve” has got to mean something.