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Friday, May 9, 2014

Leading by Example

Recent news has been worrisome:
Clearly there are some problems in the NYPD. Apologists will claim that these are just "a few bad apples." They're right, too, as far as that goes. These certainly are outliers, and the extreme hazards they pose to public safety are not characteristic of the vast majority of the men and women who serve in the NYPD. Nevertheless, they are a product of a culture of corruption that permeates the department.

In rare cases, there are people who suddenly go nuts without warning. More often, there are warning signs that have been ignored. If the NYPD had any basic level of discipline to hold its personnel responsible for obeying the law, many of these "bad apples" would be removed before their reckless behaviors escalated to a level that poses a serious risk to public safety. Increasingly, it appears that the failure to police the police is becoming a larger threat to safety and quality of life in the city.

As dire as all these news stories sound, there may be a reason for optimism. These problems are not really new. Cops have been getting drunk and driving for a very long time, so the fact these incidents are now making the news indicates progress in solving the problem. Instead of automatically driving the drunk drivers home after stopping them, more officers are now doing the right thing and arresting the criminals, even if they have a badge. Rather than trying to hide these incidents to protect the department's image, it appears the NYPD brass is releasing details to make an example and improve the department's integrity.

Commissioner Bratton has even voiced his concern publicly“I personally am very disturbed about the number of incidents in recent weeks that are part of a longer-term problem of inappropriate use of alcohol by members of the department.”

Hopefully there is a genuine desire to address the problems with the NYPD's culture. Changing deeply ingrained habits and attitudes will not come easily, and even with a real effort, Bratton may have his work cut out for him. At the same time, the problems are so severe, there is a need for outside intervention. There must be a backstop to ensure that illegal activities do not continue to run rampant through the department entrusted with such great powers. 

To be successful, though, it is not enough to focus on the extreme cases like drunk driving, major theft, etc. Commissioner Bratton has been a strong proponent of "Broken Windows" policing, and if there is any place that it is truly necessary, it is the internal discipline of the police. When illegal activities are tolerated among the police, the impression that they don't have to obey the law quickly sets in. The petty forms of corruption open the door to attitudes that result in abusing prisoners, brutalizing civilians who challenge authority, and driving drunk.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Bratton has any inclination of extending his "Broken Windows" zeal to policing his own department. His own history on the issue of illegal parking is not positive, and the uncontested stories that circulated when he changed command at the Internal Affairs Bureau suggest he is even reducing enforcement of petty corruption within his department. If nothing else, there is a real problem when the NYPD starts aggressively pursuing the churros lady in the subway while ignoring the fact their own personnel create serious safety hazards on our streets.

So let's take a little closer look at how the NYPD does sledding down the slippery slope. Officers come to believe they can get away with breaking the law because of something they call "professional courtesy." While they complain about the lack of cooperation from communities with a "no snitching" ethic, the NYPD has developed the same culture of maintaining silence about the illegal activities of their own. 

From the time they join the force, their daily experience demonstrates that they can break the law and their fellow officers will go out of their way to cover it up. Consider illegal parking. Off-duty officers throughout the city park not only in NO PARKING zones, but also at fire hydrants and in hazardous NO STANDING zones. Traffic Enforcement Agents aggressively ticket neighborhood residents for minor violations, yet neglect their duties by passing over these dangerous conditions all the time. Precincts receive complaints and file false reports to cover up the illegal activities.

This practice seeks to downplay the significance of parking violations by referring to them as "placard abuse." It is much more than a minor paperwork no-no. It entails hazardous conditions, diverting resources from real police work, theft, and filing false reports.

Let's look at specifics. Below are photos of vehicles parked in a zone signed NO STANDING ANYTIME. It could not be any more obvious with the quickest glance from across the street, what with the red sign and pavements markings and all. There is an important reason standing is prohibited at this location; the Department of Transportation didn't put up the sign and paint the pavement as a neighborhood beautification project. When a vehicle stands in this location, it obstructs the view of the intersection, so DOT removed some parking to "daylight" the intersection. It doesn't matter who owns the vehicle. Whether it is a school janitor or a police inspector who parks here, the danger to drivers and pedestrians traversing the intersection is the same.

Unfortunately, the NYPD as an organization enables its personnel to use locations like this as though they were private parking spaces. This vehicle and another couple have been reported many times at this single location throughout the past month. Despite the frequent 311 complaints that detail the exact location and description of the vehicles, including license plate numbers, the precinct has closed out the complaints with statements that they were unable to find the vehicles when they arrived. The fact they are there at the same time everyday did nothing to help the precinct find "those responsible for the condition." Somehow, the Traffic Enforcement Agents who hover over the block, rigorously ticketing regular citizens for any minor violation, can't seem to see these vehicles either. Moreover, complaints to the Internal Affairs Bureau are now going unanswered. The time the precinct spends preparing its bogus responses to the same complaints over and over again, which would not be necessary if they simply addressed the conditions, diverts resources from real police work. 

When officers use their placard to park at metered spaces without paying, it is theft. "Placard abuse" does not convey the fact that the officers are robbing the City. There are taking the parking space without paying for it, and the City does not get the revenue it should from that use or that it would get if somebody else were able to park there. There really is nothing other name for it than theft when somebody takes something without paying for it.

I raised this issue at a recent town hall meeting about Vision Zero (New York City's campaign to reduce fatalities on our streets). I described the current culture that prevails on our streets: an absence of respect for the law and an ethic of getting away with whatever you can. Instead of protecting us, some officers are making our streets more dangerous. How can we expect the general public to respect the law when those who have sworn to uphold it show so little regard? We need the police to lead by example.

The officers representing the NYPD at the meeting weren't moved. There was a clear, smug attitude that mere civilians could do nothing to stop them. Their visible irritation about having to entertain any such criticism felt a lot like the scene in "A Few Good Men," while the tension was still building before the ultimate "You can't handle the truth!" outburst.

Nobody would expect a statement at a meeting to change decades of bad habits. Yet citizens who continue to speak up will move their politicians and start to shift the expectations about what police conduct is acceptable. That is how we got to a real Vision Zero program in the first place, and it will continue to motivate change. The change won't be all voluntary by the police, so we need to discuss legislative remedies and oversight.

We need to demand a complete end to the practice of so-called "professional courtesy." Such "courtesy" is corruption. Let's consider just how it corrupts. Passing over illegally parked vehicles is not an unimportant wink and a nod, but rather the beginning of a pattern of abusing the power they have been granted and developing an attitude of superiority over the communities they police. It is easy to see how quickly it escalates, as well. They start by parking in NO PARKING zones. Then they move on to more hazardous locations like fire hydrants, bus stops, and NO STANDING zones. Soon there are conditions like I recently noticed outside the 34th Precinct, with a vehicle blocking the sidewalk a mere feet from the front door. It had a reflective license plate cover, which is illegal. The only purpose for those covers is to avoid enforcement by red light cameras. There is a clear epidemic of traffic violence within the NYPD when a private vehicle deliberately equipped to be driven dangerously is ignored by the Commanding Officer and the Integrity Control Officer when they walk past it to get in and out of their station house.

The law needs to be explicit that any favorable enforcement action for the same objective conditions will be punishable as a clearly defined form of corruption as a felony. When the police exhibit a public pattern of dishonesty, it erodes the trust of the public. It undermines their credibility in court, which may result in juries allowing criminals to go free. It may create a habit of dishonesty that enables officers to feel comfortable embellishing their testimony, sending innocent people to prison.

Drunk driving must also be handled more directly, with zero tolerance. For example, almost every drunk-driving story reported in the news indicates that the officer refused a breathalyzer. There is no reason to continue tolerating this manipulation of the system. While it is not legally possible to compel anybody to submit to the test as a matter of criminal law, as an employer, the NYPD could terminate the employment of any officer who fails to cooperate. They may have some ability to evade criminal prosecution, but the consequences to their employment should serve the greatest deterrence possible.

Drunk driving cannot result in anything less than immediate termination. It is unbelievable that "disciplinary action" allows these dangerous people to seek treatment and remain on the force! Anybody who has exercised such poor judgement simply should never be trusted with a gun (and the recent incidents that escalated with the gun couldn't make this point any more clear!).

Moreover, the police who see officers at a bar consuming drink after drink before getting behind the wheel without intervening need to be held accountable. This is, after all, just the next step in the progression of the police allowing illegal activities by their fellow officers.

All these visible signs of disorder, which are created by the police themselves, communicate a tremendous tolerance for traffic violence and other crimes. The image of the streets in New York City is one of danger and disrespect, because that is the image that the NYPD maintains. It is time for that to change. Really, though, this is all just common sense. We won't have safe streets until we have police officers who care about safety, rather than promoting a culture of lawlessness by flaunting their ability to park wherever they want, run red lights, and drive after they've been drinking.

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