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NYPD’s Culture of Abuse Thriving Despite Assurances from New Commissioner

Bill Bratton from Twitter feed

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton in 2014 (Via Twitter: @CommissBratton)

If you’ve been watching the closing darkness around the New York City Police Department, chances are you’ve caught this one ray of sunshine: Commissioner William Bratton is mad.

This much was clear when, at an executive workshop for precinct commanders and other top brass earlier this month, he screened a nasty video montage of police abuse and misuse of force—including the tackling of a pregnant woman and the kicking of a street vender.

Afterwards, Bratton (ever the politician) offered the rolling cameras a nice soundbite. These bad cops, he said, “They don’t understand that when they take that oath of office and put that shield on…they commit to constitutional policing, respectful policing, compassionate policing.”

Compassionate, respectful, and constitutional? The media lapped it up.

And Bratton should be mad. It’s been ten months since he stepped into office as the Man Who Would End Stop-and-Frisk. Since then, it’s been one awful episode after another, a downward spiral that seemed to reach its nadir with the choking death of Eric Garner in July.

But as Bratton has now recognized, the sickness in the department runs deep, and it’s continued to rage well into the latter half of 2014. Earlier this week, a bystander captured a somewhat minor abuse that neatly encapsulates the sense of confused entitlement that has seeped into the department’s marrow. After accidentally admitting that he had no legal basis for arresting a subway busker, one humiliated cop went ahead and did it anyway—violently.

How did we get here?

A fair share of blame rests with Bratton’s predecessor, Ray Kelly, the man who took stop-and-frisk (a standard policing tool) and souped it up into a citywide policy of unconstitutional racial bullying. Meanwhile, his department embarked on a dragnet spying program that targeted the city’s Muslim community as well as a host of political groups (in almost all cases without prior suspicion of criminal activity), curtailed the access of reporters to NYPD sources (which has continued under de Blasio), ignored Freedom of Information requests, and routinely rejected the majority of recommendations made by the Civilian Complaint Review Board—even while the city was paying hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements related to police abuse.

This sorry state of affairs was not easy to achieve. It took twelve years of unregulated policing by a heedless commissioner whose one boss—the mayor—wanted nothing to do with the ugly business of law enforcement and counterterrorism himself. Michael Bloomberg’s data-driven approach to nearly every aspect of city management led him to believe that as long as Kelly put up good statistics, like the ever-declining (but still mysterious) homicide rate, he could operate with a blank mandate and the longest tenure in NYPD history. With all that time and power, Kelly’s policies and whims were able to harden into a new departmental culture, one characterized not just by secrecy and unaccountability (those are new only in degree and sheer chutzpah) but by a doggedly self-serving narrative of heroics.

No one, it seemed, knew better than NYPD when it came to what was best for them. Not Muslims. Not minorities. Not victims of police abuse. Not journalists.

Twelve years: That’s a long time. Long enough for an entire class of raw cadets to become a corps of veterans and high-ranking staff, never glimpsing the light of day outside of one man and his shadow.

This culture of entitlement and secrecy—of preening before the cameras while giving investigative reporters the stiff arm of the law—will take just as many years, if not more, to change.

Now, as police reporter Len Levitt has pointed out, New York City has its first chief executive in decades who isn’t obsessed with street crime. Instead, Mayor Bill de Blasio practically won the election on the promise that he would scale back the excesses of the Ray Kelly era and heal a wounded relationship between police, community, and press. Perhaps to show that he hasn’t completely forgotten about crime, he appointed Bratton, whose effectiveness at driving down New York’s out-of-control homicide rate made him—and Rudy Giuliani—the most famous city officials in America during the mid-1990s when he served as commissioner for two years.

So, what’s changed?

It’s hard to say. For the first time since the 1990s, the NYPD has serious outside oversight, in the form of newly appointed federal monitor Peter Zimroth and inspector general Philip Eure.

Both are lawyers with storied histories in police oversight: Zimroth represented prominent whistle-blower cop David Durk, who teamed up with detective Frank Serpico in their campaign to expose corruption within the ranks; and Eure bit at the ankles of the Washington, D.C., police for years as the head of its Office of Police Complaints.

Then there’s the training overhaul, part of Bratton’s “re-engineering” of the department, which he’s brought in his old colleague John Linder to orchestrate. Linder was on Bratton’s staff during his two-year stint as Giuliani’s top cop; when Giuliani sacked Bratton, he kept Linder on to fix up the city’s Child Services Agency. After that, Linder founded a consulting firm with another mythic Bratton-era cop-consultant, Jack Maple. Together, they traveled the country, “retooling” police departments in violence-ridden cities like New Orleans, Atlanta, and Baltimore, usually pocketing privately funded contracts that ran up to $400,000.

It can’t be said that Linder lacks experience. He has made a (very profitable) career out of attacking brittle, self-centered, and lazy bureaucracies. In a 1994 report for the NYPD, Linder wrote: “The highest levels of the organization have been primarily concerned with avoiding criticism from the media, politicians, and citizen groups,” rather than getting results.

It seems like Bratton, by bringing in Linder, is hoping for another miracle. But Linder’s success with the NYPD was, essentially, a tale of departmental discipline. The Linder-Bratton model operated like a kind of punitive Rube Goldberg machine: Everyone, from precinct commanders down to patrolmen, had a superior officer breathing down his neck, ready to bang his head against the wall if something ever went wrong. (At least in theory.)

Now, Linder is expected to be act as one cog in a very different machine: civilian oversight. The stakes, as well, have changed: The issue is no longer a catastrophic level of street violence, but the civil rights abuses of an out-of-control police force. Linder’s strategies may have worked to stop the bleeding back in 1994, but it’s unclear whether they can help to create (in Bratton’s words) a more “compassionate, respectful, and constitutional” culture.

There’s also Bratton’s appointments to the Civilian Complaint Review Board: former Transit Police chief Michael O’Connor, who headed that agency when it was still independent of the NYPD at the same time that Bratton was Giuliani’s top cop; and Lindsay Eason, the one-time New York City sheriff who served as a sergeant in the Intelligence Division.

Are both of them just yes-men? Unlikely. O’Connor butted heads with Bratton during one of the larger scandals of their careers. Following an ugly friendly-fire shootout in 1994, when a white undercover cop with the NYPD mistook a black plainclothes Transit officer for an armed criminal and shot him four times, O’Connor was outspoken about what he saw as a botched investigation.

The NYPD had foolishly put the Detective Division on the case, when it should have been Internal Affairs. Evidence was mishandled, leaving it very uncertain how the shooting went down, while then-Commissioner Bratton was accused of tainting the investigation when he prematurely blabbed to the press that the incident was nothing more than the result of a tragic misunderstanding.

O’Connor, who put the Transit Police’s own Internal Affairs team on the case, was blunt: “The detectives don’t want to find the officer guilty of wrongdoing.”

If things haven’t changed, O’Connor is a good cop who’s impatient with politics and committed to an investigation done right, but he’s territorial, and his loyalty to his own men may lead to obstructionism on the board. To his credit, he’s from an older era (like Bratton). His perspective on what the NYPD was like before it became an inscrutable Star Chamber may help the cause of effective oversight.

Eason is harder to pin down, though his association with the now-besmirched Intelligence Division (or Intel) is troublesome. As of now, the extent and nature of Eason’s involvement with the unit are unknowns. Still, it’s not a good sign that one of Bratton’s point-men on public accountability made his career in one of the most secretive affairs in departmental history.

More intriguing is the new chair of the board, Richard Emery, who’s recently called for a COMPSTAT-like database of civilian complaints.

Statistics are a double-edged sword: They have been used to great effect in cutting violent crime and saving lives, but they can also blind officials to the human toll of certain policing strategies (like stop-and-frisk). Hopefully, a database of civilian complaints—including from reporters and civilian witnesses of police abuse—would put the fear of God in the department’s laziest and most vicious officers. Otherwise, it might just be a smokescreen, a fancy data-studded demonstration that produces few results.

These changes are barely out of the gate. It will take years of patient and thorough execution, led by committed reformers within the department and monitored by an ever-watchful press and citizenry, to make them work.

The question is: Will de Blasio remember his anti-abuse platform as time goes on?

Haru Coryne is a writer based in New Orleans who has worked as a journalist in Chicago and New York City. 

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