Larceny? Grand!

Try to report a crime, and you can feel like a criminal

So there I am on the 4 train minding my own business, packed in with hundreds of other folks after the Fourth of July fireworks, when the door opens at 138th Street. A couple of guys jostle me and my wallet is gone. I say some unkind things about these persons unknown and their mothers. Fortunately, I'm more reserved on the phone to the credit card company, and I learn that the bandits used my plastic to procure a monthly Metrocard. The good people at MasterCard are willing to wipe out that charge as long as I produce a police report. The desk sergeant at my neighborhood precinct tells me to come in the next day and file one.

I knew, of course, that this wasn't the crime of the century, and I didn't expect the cops to form a task force to track my robber down. I didn't even care if the NYPD ever thought about the crime. But I wasn't about to buy some punk(s) a month of free rides.

The next day is sunny, and I head out early to the 52nd Precinct on Webster Avenue. A civilian clerk welcomes me into the room where crime reports are taken and says, "Can I help you?"

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  • "I was pickpock—"

    "What do you mean you were pickpocketed? You mean you lost your wallet!"

    I explain what happened on the train.

    "What took you so long to report this?" a cop asks. I start to reply, but the clerk jumps in to say that unless I saw the guy steal my wallet, it's not a crime. We have to be careful, she says, adding, "We've been getting a lot of false reports." It's not a crime, she says, unless they used one of your credit cards.

    I tell her that, in fact, they had used my card. I even have the phone number for my credit card company, my account number, the MasterCard operator's name, my Social Security number—all the things the police would need to investigate the crime.

    But there was no crime, she said, until I prove that I'd been ripped off. I'd have to do some legwork first.

    My credit card company is good enough to send a report on the activity in my account after the incident. A couple days later, I return to the precinct with this in hand.

    A female officer asks why it had taken so long to report the crime, so I explain and show her my credit card info. She begins to take down a report. At last, we are getting somewhere. Or not.

    "Where'd the crime occur?" she asks. Well, I say, the train had stopped at 138th Street and Grand Concourse when I was jostled and realized the wallet was gone. "But that's not where the crime occurred," she says. The pickpocketing isn't the crime. It's the credit card thing. So she sends me upstairs to see the detectives. They'd figure out where the crime had been.

    I wait 20 minutes for a detective, staring at missing-persons photos on the wall. The detective apologizes for the wait; there'd been a home invasion in Bedford Park. Then he apologizes again, because he can't investigate a crime unless a report's been filed. We go back downstairs to see the clerk.

    I stand between them, and think of Kafka. The clerk won't take a report unless the detective tells her where the crime occurred, and the detective won't look at the case unless the clerk files a report. I point out the irony to the clerk. She's sympathetic. "I have to protect myself," she says.

    Finally, a detective sergeant or something proposes that I call my credit card company back and get a serial number for the Metrocard so they can trace it. I comply and obtain a long ID number. Great, my detective says: Now, call the transit bureau. They'll tell you where the card was used.

    All this strikes me as odd, from the initial encounter where I was all but accused of fabricating a crime, to the multiple visits to the precinct, to the detective telling me to investigate the crime I was trying to report.

    I've got a college degree and a job that allows me time to make calls and visit my station house. And I kind of like cops, having even taken the NYPD civil service exam. Would someone with little education or limited English be able to navigate this maze?

    Would anyone with a normal 9-to-5 have time to do so much running around? Would someone who actually felt victimized have the guts to keep repeating the story? Is this one reason why the number of reported larcenies is down? Why bother?

    Well, I want that $70 charge vanished, so I make the call to the transit bureau. The cop at the other end is like, "What took you so long to report this? Wait, you want what? You better talk to the lieutenant." I tell the story to the lieutenant, who's polite and very quickly gets the picture. A day later, I have the location: 149th and Grand Concourse, one station north of where I'd been hit.

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