Opinion: New York's Finest Fall From Grace - What Happened Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Timothy Dillon

By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

New York’s law enforcement officers are not immune to their own humanity, and recently we have seen the city’s finest and bravest plagued with issues. These problems span from the controversial stop-and-frisk policy to blatantly racist and discriminatory EMS workers. It has repeatedly been suggested that these government services need more oversight, yet Mayor Bloomberg’s office and even some mayoral hopefuls, are saying that increased jurisdiction would simply be a waste of resources.

Undoubtedly, the call for more oversight comes from an age where transparency can be summoned by simply pulling out your phone. Evidence (audio, video, and pictures) can go viral before police have even had time to properly assess what they are dealing with. With all this increased visibility, people are no longer naive to the details of law enforcement’s misdeeds, even the smallest ones.

Christine Quinn, city council member and mayoral candidate, has been the voice of increased oversight of the NYPD with her support of a bill that would introduce more supervision by appointing an inspector general with an office right outside of the department. They would not dictate policy or direct the department; this office would be charged with maintaining the order of the department in a retrospective manner. Also seen in federal law enforcement agencies, this type of regulation has been an effective form of checks and balances, but what seems like common sense to City Council Speaker Quinn is just bad politics for Mayor Bloomberg and fellow Mayoral hopeful John Liu.

Bloomberg issued a statement in March insisting that he would veto any bill that calls for increased oversight of the city’s police force. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have both been adamant on this topic, arguing that increased regulation would create a dangerous situation for the citizens of New York by hindering officers’ ability to do their job; the ethos seems to be, “don’t fix what isn’t broken.” Is this just fear mongering or could oversight really bring dangers to the department?

Considering the controversies that the department has been weathering, the truth may fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Stop-and-frisk

Stop, Question, and Frisk, (usually referred to without the “question”), is defined by an officer’s suspicion that a person has, is committing, or is going to commit a crime. Once an officer has that suspicion and some sort of reason to support it, they may approach, detain, question, and search the suspicious character. Concerns such as bias, racism, and discriminatory behavior are immediately called into consideration when interpreting stop-and-frisk data. Afterall, 90 percent of those stopped were Black or Latino despite the fact they make up only 52 percent of the city’s population.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the law has a number of “myths” or rather misconceptions about its fairness and effectiveness. The policy is, of course, controversial, but any law that allows for more proactive policing of citizens in public is going to seem invasive, especially when the basis of this inspection is left solely on the officer’s personal discretion. But, beyond this breach of privacy, there is also evidence of racial bias where the department is either completely naive on the issue, or in denial about how to amend policy appropriately.

Former Police Chief Joseph Esposito spoke outside after giving testimony for the stop and frisk trail. There, Esposito defended his use of stop and frisk to reporters, a policy that increased 600 percent during his tenure.

It’s about crime. If we stop a person who is looking in a car and we don’t have probable cause to make an arrest, by stopping him because we had reasonable suspicion, to talk to him about breaking into that car, now he doesn’t commit that crime. How many crimes have we prevented with the stop and frisk program, it’s just impossible to determine.

Esposito sees the correlation of a fall in crime to many policies of the Bloomberg-Kelly run department, and yes, to stop and frisk. Of course there is no way to demonstrate the effectiveness of crime prevention. Perhaps the biggest controversy of this policy is that it already puts citizens on the defense against an officer. There is the assumption that all people, civilian or criminal, are able to handle such an encounter calmly with dignity; that proving innocence comes easily to the innocent. However, for some stop and frisk can be quite dramatic:

Adrian Schoolcraft

Adrian Schoolcraft is a former officer of the 81st precinct in Brooklyn, NY, and has commanded the most powerful voice on police corruption since Frank Serpico. Schoolcraft spent a large portion of his time as an officer recording his day-to-day experiences and claims to have evidence of police corruption and manipulation of crime stats.

After leaving a shift early in his last days at the department, Schoolcraft was confronted by several officers who had gained access to his home without his permission. They demanded he return to his shift, and when he refused to leave his home he was declared to be an emotional disturbed person and was taken into custody by force. Schoolcraft was then transported to the hospital where he was admitted to a psychiatric ward for several days. He was only released after his father came and demanded they release his son. After all, they had no reason to actually hold him.

Last March, Schoolcraft won a personal victory with a report substantiating virtually every bit of his testimony. Perhaps he will see some return on the $50 million lawsuit he filed back in 2010, but more importantly, Schoolcraft managed to demonstrate the fallibility of the department, showing the need for guidelines like quotas and statistics.

Schoolcraft continues to fight police corruption and advocates increased visibility in the day-to-day operations of the department, seeking to serve the good of New York’s citizens, rather than solely the police department. This sentiment could be considered counterintuitive to an organization with a thoroughly installed sense of brotherhood, but the fundamental function of the department is ultimately to uphold the law and Schoolcraft was a police officer at one point after all.

If Schoolcraft accomplished nothing else (unlikely, given his case’s momentum) he has gone to great lengths to provide a human face to a mismanaged department.

Conduct Unbecoming

One thing that is always the most reprehensible and most volatile to the NYPD’s image are officers conducting themselves in a way opposed to policy. Sometimes these indiscretions are as minor as a simple traffic accident, like hitting a cyclist with their patrol car and then sending them a bill for repair to the car. Backwards? Perhaps. The NYPD has sent people unjustified bills when the officer was at fault on more than one occasion . Sometimes though, the error and aftermath are so traumatic and terribly mishandled that there is no excuse.

Ryo Oyamada was a student and musician living in Queens when last February he was struck and killed by a New York City Patrol Car. The controversy surrounding this was whether or not the cruiser had its emergency lights and siren engaged. The corner where Oyamada was fatally struck is in an area with plenty of surveillance cameras and eye-witness reports. While the eye-witness reports directly contradicted the statements of the police officers, the family is still waiting for the video evidence to be released.

While the details of this case remain aloof, the NYPD hasn’t always been bad at holding their officers accountable. They happily strung Johnny Cardona, former Deputy Inspector in the NYPD, out to dry for sucker punching an Occupy Wall Street protestor. However, did the NYPD have a choice? If you look up any of the footage surrounding the attack, it is a pretty cut and dry case. The officer approached the protestor and struck him without any violence soliciting the assault. The fact that a sea of camera flashes surrounded them the moment after the attack meant one thing: the world would know the truth.

Transparency and Oversight

Now take a moment to recognize that the NYPD perform a necessary service that is all too often regarded with contempt. The fact is that officers who abuse power ruin it for those who actually fulfill their duty and uphold “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect,” the words printed on each NYPD cruiser and van. So why should the city instill oversight on officers who are innocent of wrongdoing?

Perhaps regulation is not what is necessarily needed; the answer might be as simple as increased visibility into individual police interactions. So many of the controversies that have come to light in the past few years have been the result of recording police interactions. Ever notice the extremely professional conduct demonstrated by law enforcement on the show Cops?

One town that is taking transparency very seriously is Rialto, CA, where officers have been investigating whether or not wearing cameras is beneficial to their day-to-day interactions with civilians. Only half of Rialto officers are wearing the cameras at any given time, but what has been documented so far is simply astounding.

Initial reports find an 88 percent decrease in the number complaints against the town’s officers. In addition, force was used 60 percent less on enforcement with cameras, and when used, it was twice as likely to be by officers not wearing a video recorder. Simple logic suggests that when these officers knew their interactions were being recorded, they acted more professionally, used less force, and acted in a way more becoming of their position. The study began in February 2012 and will come to a close in July 2013.

The need for regulation is becoming apparent more and more because of the effect that social media has had on the speed at which information is reported. The ability to see a department’s transgressions is as easy as logging on to Twitter, or doing a Google News search for police misconduct. More people understand statistics and find out what the results mean long before a department has a chance to issue a response or press release. This, in turn, puts law enforcement agencies on the defensive, which can be difficult, considering they already spend so much time trying to decipher which officers they should and shouldn’t defend.

The call for oversight is certainly an idealistic one. Part of this struggle is an administration not wanting to relinquish control under the premise that other people can manage the internal affairs better. To do so would be tantamount to admitting to corruption or, in the very least, extreme negligence. If it were a matter of pride, this might not be so bad, but these transgressions could theoretically come with a fine, unemployment, or even criminal charges.

One thought that is comforting though, is that the people have already begun to provide our own version of police oversight. What happened to the pristine NYPD we once knew? Smartphones with cameras happened. Occupy and Twitter happened. Suddenly everyone can be a photojournalist, recording misconduct at a moment’s notice. Adrian Schoolcraft managed to uncover corruption through the use of small, previously unavailable, recording devices. Technology and the viral nature of the internet has been the biggest enemy to any police force that is not as professional as their car decals would like you to think.

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