NYPD copes with spate of corruption allegationsJames A. Cohen in The Wall Street Journal, November 09, 2011
NEW YORK — Police officers accused of making traffic tickets disappear for friends. Cops arrested in a gun-running sting. An officer convicted of planting drugs on innocent people.
The unusual spate of corruption and misconduct allegations at the New York Police Department is prompting cries for an investigation into whether there is an endemic problem or a few bad apples, drawing comparisons to past scandals and renewing questions about whether the police department can effectively police itself.
"It's a lot of scandal hitting in a short period of time," said Fordham Law School professor James Cohen, who studies police activity. "One could draw the inference that there's more out there. I think no one would think we've cleaned all that up."
The biggest blow in terms of numbers came late last month when 16 officers were accused of corruption and other charges in the Bronx ticket-fixing scandal. The officers include an Internal Affairs Bureau lieutenant who is accused of tipping off the targets of the investigation, and union delegates charged with helping friends and family avoid paying tickets. Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said the actions cost the city up to $2 million in revenue.
The day of their arraignments where they all pleaded not guilty, hundreds of police officers stood outside, calling Commissioner Raymond Kelly a hypocrite, heckling residents and blocking journalists from getting inside. The cops held signs that read: "It's a courtesy, not a crime," and union officials said the longtime practice was not criminal.
Just days before the scandal broke, five officers were arrested in a gun-running sting. And later, Brooklyn South Narcotics officer Jason Arbeeny was found guilty of misconduct for planting drugs on two innocent people.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach bashed the department after the Arbeeny trial exposed corruption and talk of downgrading crime at police precincts.
"I thought I was not naive regarding the reality of narcotics enforcement, but even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct, but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is deployed," Reichbach said.
Separately, the cases could be dismissed as examples of a few rogue cops, or in the ticket-fixing case, minor infractions blown out of proportion. But taken together, lawmakers say, the accusations seem to indicate an alarming trend. They urged Mayor Michael Bloomberg to form a commission to investigate the NYPD, pointing to past investigations decades ago that inspired some change.
"The outbreak of corruption is staggering," said State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from Brooklyn. "The mayor can no longer ignore it."
Part of the issue, though, is that politicians and citizens have short memories — and the problems of the past have never been fully addressed, experts say.
"As we pointed out ..., unfortunately history has shown about every 20 years a new police scandal erupts," said Justice Milton Mollen, a former deputy mayor and longtime judge who explored police corruption two decades ago. "It's almost exactly 20 years from our report."
And almost exactly 20 years before Mollen's commission was the Knapp Commission, which unearthed how plainclothes officers systematically collected protection money from gamblers and prostitutes. It was formed to look into the allegations of Frank Serpico, New York City's most famous cop whistleblower.
Mollen's 1994 report covered the so-called "Dirty 30" scandal at the NYPD, where cops were accused of stealing cash from drug dealers, taking bribes, beating suspects and lying under oath to cover their tracks.
The commission detailed a series of changes within the department that included an increased command responsibility, training and supervision.
Many of the internal changes were implemented, but it also recommended the creation of an independent commission that would investigate corruption and have subpoena power. The Commission to Combat Police Corruption was created and still exists, but it lacks any power — and investigations are done only when the department asks for them.
Mollen said he didn't know enough about the current-day cases and couldn't comment on them. But he said he believes Kelly has worked hard to combat corruption.
Under Kelly's watch, the department has probed allegations of downgraded crimes, changed its system for logging parking tickets, and beefed up the internal affairs bureau.
Kelly said it was "difficult" to announce so many misconduct charges. "These misdeeds tarnish the good name and reputation of the vast majority of police officers who perform their duties honestly," he said.
Despite all the bad news, the commissioner remains popular. He's consistently considered the top candidate to succeed Bloomberg in 2013, though he has said he has no plans to run for office.
But some of Kelly's policies are also under fire, and that threatens to shift his image, Cohen said.
"He's Teflon, but I do think this is tarnishing him," he said. "There are too many incidents and criticisms coming from different areas."
Renewed calls by lawmakers to curb the city's stop, question and frisk tactics came in recent weeks after the arrest of Officer Michael Daragjati on federal civil rights charges accusing him of casually using a racial slur in recounting the false stop and arrest of a black man.
The 31-year-old man who was stopped is among hundreds of thousands of people who have been stopped, questioned and frisked by police. In the past three years, more than 1 million have been stopped in New York — and only about 10 percent of those stops have resulted in arrests.
Daragjati has pleaded not guilty, but critics say the case is proof of what they have been arguing for years: The policy unfairly singles out black and Hispanic men.
Department officials say the policy is essential for taking guns off the street and preventing crime in neighborhoods where men of color make up the vast majority of murder and shooting victims.
Some city council members are seeking more oversight over the department because they felt left in the dark about intelligence programs that subjected Muslim neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny — revealed by an Associated Press investigation showing the police monitored Muslim communities for reasons of ethnicity. The department says it only follows leads about allegations of potential wrongdoing.
The cases brought against a couple dozen officers need to be put in perspective, experts said. Mollen added he did not want to pass judgment on any of the officers in the current cases, because they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
"These are isolated individuals. The vast majority of police are not corrupt," he said. "If you have 35,000 police officers ... think 35,000 clergymen, 35,000 lawyers, 35,000 ditch-diggers, you're going to find X percent are going to be corrupt."