Scandals in blue

November 2, 2011

Don Lash reports on a series of scandals hitting the New York Police Department--and explains why these aren't simply the work or a few corrupt officers.

GUN-RUNNING. Racial profiling. Planting drugs. Ticket-fixing for friends and family. These are just a few of the scandals that have rocked the New York Police Department recently, culminating in the arrest of several officers.

The city's media establishment is simultaneously trumpeting the headline-grabbing allegations and collectively wringing its hands over the potential for the scandals to undermine public confidence in the NYPD.

The allegations are many. On October 17, NYPD Officer Michael Daragjati was indicted in federal court for violating the civil rights of a Black man on Staten Island, stemming from an apparently baseless arrest made in April 2011. The man had complained about how he had been treated during a routine "stop-and-frisk," which was itself initiated by Daragjati without reasonable suspicion. The officer's racist motivation was revealed in a wiretapped conversation during which he bragged about having "fried another nigger."

In another incident, an ongoing trial of an officer for "flaking"--the practice of planting drugs on innocent suspects in order to up the number of narcotics arrests to meet quotas--included testimony from a former officer that the practice, known to narcotics officers as "connecting bodies" to drugs in the possession of the police, was routine and took place widely.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly at a press conference with Mayor Michael Bloomberg
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly at a press conference with Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Azi Paybarah)

Later, a woman testified that officers demanded sexual favors from her in exchange for drugs, and that she felt she had no choice but to comply with their demands. This scandal, which began with a single detective's admission in 2007 that he had withheld drugs seized during an arrest, has resulted in guilty pleas, command transfers and administrative charges throughout the Brooklyn anti-narcotics enforcement apparatus.

Additionally, on October 25, nine current and former NYPD officers and corrections officers were arrested for trafficking in stolen goods, untaxed cigarettes and firearms. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg has highlighted his policies to supposedly rid the streets of unregistered guns--Bloomberg is the head of the national Mayors Against Illegal Guns--officers in the department were prepared to traffic in untraceable weapons.

In another case, on October 21, two former corrections officers pled guilty to helping operate a savage system in which young defendants on Rikers Island policed themselves. The officers called the system "the Program," but others referred to it as "Gladiator School." The brutality of the Program ultimately resulted in the beating death of an 18-year old at the hands of fellow detainees. The two officers face sentences of one and two years, respectively, for "enterprise corruption."

Almost mundane by comparison, 17 officers have been indicted by a Bronx grand jury for ticket-fixing activities closely connected to the police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA). In addition to fixing tickets for friends and relatives of officers, union officials were allegedly recorded in wiretapped conversations making casual use of racial slurs.

In retaliation for the investigation, the PBA appears to have disclosed actions taken by personnel within the DA's office to shield an assistant district attorney from charges stemming from two drunk driving incidents. Police have also withheld cooperation from the DA's office on prosecutions, jeopardizing the DA's ability to obtain convictions.

AT FIRST blush, the public disclosure of these scandals and the array of prosecutions and career-ending reassignments might appear encouraging. The system can be seen as rooting out corruption and abuse, and the "blue wall of silence" appears to have been cracked by honest testimony from some officers and admissions from some of the offenders.

Some in the media claim the real danger is "overreacting" to the misconduct of a "few bad apples"--that investigating and prosecuting such scandals will undermine effective law enforcement. In an editorial titled "One rotten apple," the New York Daily News argued against initiating a probe of the city's stop-and-frisk program as a result of the Daragjati indictment, claiming that the program has enhanced public safety.

The fact that, by official count, 85 percent of the 700,000 subjects of stop-and-frisk in 2010 were Black or Latino didn't trouble the Daily News editorial board or its billionaire owner Mort Zuckerman.

Commissioner Ray Kelley and Mayor Bloomberg, for their part, have responded to each scandal by minimizing the extent to which it represents systemic failures or abuses, and by issuing platitudes about zero tolerance and the integrity of most NYPD officers.

What's lost in all this is the fact that the exposure of each of these abuses was largely accidental. In the "flaking" scandal, for example, an officer who didn't realize that a wire used in a 2007 sting was still broadcasting was taped saying that he had withheld part of a cache of drugs seized during an arrest.

Forced to deal with the recorded admission, Internal Affairs began an investigation into what had become of the withheld narcotics. What resulted was the exposure of a supply of drugs maintained to plant on innocent individuals to bolster arrest totals, reward informants and be exchanged for sexual favors.

Similarly, Daragjati was being investigated by federal authorities for insurance fraud and extortion related to a business he operated apart from his police duties, which led to his boast about "frying a nigger" with a false arrest being captured on tape.

The arrest had been witnessed by other officers, but none had come forward to prevent the baseless prosecution--and Daragjati's victim had actually pled guilty to reduced charges to avoid a trial where it would be his word against the officer's. The other officers only came clean after they learned that Daragjati had been caught on tape describing his misconduct.

In the Rikers Island scandal, the savage "Lord of the Flies" environment encouraged by officers to maintain control over inmates was exposed only because some participants in "the Program" beat a young man to death.

The stolen goods and guns ring was exposed only because one officer volunteered information about it during a conversation with a federal informant seeking to have a ticket quashed. The inadvertent nature of the exposure in all these cases makes it clear that the conduct of these officer is not a "few bad apples" exposed by vigilant self-policing, but systematic misconduct on the part of the police.

ANOTHER ISSUE barely commented on in the media is the fact that the penalties for these officers have been so light.

Most of the convictions and administrative findings to date in the flaking scandal have related to a variety of official misconduct violations, such as failure to properly voucher seized narcotics. Meanwhile, systematic frame-ups have gone unpunished. Some officers involved have faced only administrative penalties, and commanders have been transferred.

In the Rikers Island case, corrections officers were not held directly responsible for the death of the 18-year old killed as a result of the abuse they orchestrated. The young inmates they recruited to brutalize their peers faced much stiffer sentences, ranging up to 10 years.

In some of these cases, allegations had previously been made against officers, who were then cleared by Internal Affairs. At least three civil suits were filed for false arrest prior to exposure, and at least two were settled by the city. The NYPD cannot credibly claim to have had no prior notice of the practices and abuses at issue in the scandals.

The scandals potentially jeopardize the ability of district attorneys to generate convictions, which is how prosecutors measure their effectiveness. This is either because police testimony is discredited, or because the PBA may direct retaliation against a district attorney who shows "too much enthusiasm" for prosecuting police misconduct.

There is a powerful incentive, in other words, for prosecutors to limit investigations and ensure lenient treatment for offending officers. As the Bronx ticket-fixing case shows, another incentive is the fact that the police may be able to incriminate prosecutors for their own abuses of power.

The national and international attention directed at the NYPD because of one inspector's unjustified use of pepper spray at an Occupy Wall Street march has highlighted the lack of police accountability.

After a knee-jerk defense of the inspector's actions by Commissioner Kelly and his spokesman, the department grudgingly undertook a review, which resulted in a recommendation that the inspector lose 10 vacation days for violating departmental guidelines on the use of pepper spray--as if the true victim was the department, and not the protesters he assaulted.

Moreover, the routine use of racial slurs during conversations taped as part of the ticket-fixing scandal demonstrates that racist officers feel they risk no disapproval from other officers by expressing themselves in this manner. The flaws in the Internal Affairs division and Civilian Complaints Board processes, the willingness of departmental higher-ups to ignore red flags, and the dependence of prosecutors on cooperative police are all barriers to real reform.

The persistence of One Police Plaza and City Hall in using the "bad apple" theory to explain each new scandal--and the uncritical acceptance by the city's media establishment--make it impossible for the cops to reform themselves.

Activists and citizens will need to move beyond the specific allegations against individual officers to demand exposure of the systemic patterns and institutional practices that are responsible for these cases. Beyond that, we need to demand the end of aggressive stop-and-frisk policies aimed at young people of color, other profiling practices and a corrupt internal investigations apparatus under the department's control.

While the violence and baseless arrests perpetrated against Occupy Wall Street protesters has been relatively mild in comparison to what has historically occurred in the city's Black and Latino communities, the fact that they have occurred under the gaze of the media--both mainstream and grassroots--has created the opportunity to focus attention on police abuse.

We have just seen the horrendous violence against Occupy protesters in Oakland--and the potential for attacks on movement protesters elsewhere in the nation is real. The struggle against police brutality and abuse must become part of the struggle of the Occupy movement.

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