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Two years ago, a police officer in a Brooklyn precinct became gravely concerned about how the public was being served. To document his concerns, he began carrying around a digital sound recorder, secretly recording his colleagues and superiors.
He recorded precinct roll calls. He recorded his precinct commander and other supervisors. He recorded street encounters. He recorded small talk and stationhouse banter. In all, he surreptitiously collected hundreds of hours of cops talking about their jobs.
Made without the knowledge or approval of the NYPD, the tapes—made between June 1, 2008, and October 31, 2009, in the 81st Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant and obtained exclusively by the Voice—provide an unprecedented portrait of what it's like to work as a cop in this city.
The Voice presents excerpts from "The NYPD Tapes: Inside Bed-Stuy's 81st Precinct," from precinct roll calls between June 1, 2008 and Oct. 31, 2009.
JANUARY 28, 2009
"How Many Superstars and How Many Losers Do You Have"
In this excerpt, the 81st Precinct commander, a lieutenant and a sergeant talk about the constant pressure from bosses, and push cops to "get their numbers."
They reveal that precinct bosses threaten street cops if they don't make their quotas of arrests and stop-and-frisks, but also tell them not to take certain robbery reports in order to manipulate crime statistics. The tapes also refer to command officers calling crime victims directly to intimidate them about their complaints.
As a result, the tapes show, the rank-and-file NYPD street cop experiences enormous pressure in a strange catch-22: He or she is expected to maintain high "activity"—including stop-and-frisks—but, paradoxically, to record fewer actual crimes.
This pressure was accompanied by paranoia—from the precinct commander to the lieutenants to the sergeants to the line officers—of violating any of the seemingly endless bureaucratic rules and regulations that would bring in outside supervision.
The tapes also reveal the locker-room environment at the precinct. On a recording made in September, the subject being discussed at roll call is stationhouse graffiti (done by the cops themselves) and something called "cocking the memo book," a practical joke in which officers draw penises in each other's daily notebooks.
"As far as the defacing of department property—all right, the shit on the side of the building . . . and on people's lockers, and drawing penises in people's memo books, and whatever else is going on—just knock it off, all right?" a Sergeant A. can be heard saying. "If the wrong person sees this stuff coming in here, then IAB [the Internal Affairs Bureau] is going to be all over this place, all right? . . . You want to draw penises, draw them in your own memo book. . . And don't actually draw on the wall." He then adds that just before an inspection, a supervisor had to walk around the stationhouse and paint over all the graffiti.
The Voice is releasing portions of the tapes in batches on our website, villagevoice.com, and is also publishing several stories to deal with the issues that the recordings present. In this week's installment, we look at the roll calls at the Bed-Stuy precinct and the conflicting instructions given to street cops, who must look busy at all times, while actually suppressing crime reports. (Repeated attempts to get an official response from the police department have been met by silence.)
The Voice obtained the digital audio recordings from Police Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD. (The Voice has identified the NYPD bosses speaking at roll calls, but is using initials—different from their names—for most of them.)
Schoolcraft first made headlines in February, when the Daily News reported that he was speaking out about manipulation of crime reports at the 81st. His complaints, the Daily News wrote, had sparked an investigation that had put even the precinct's commander, Deputy Inspector Steven Mauriello, under suspicion. Those stories, however, gave no indication that Schoolcraft was also in possession of the remarkable audiotapes.
Schoolcraft tells the Voice he carried the audio recorder initially to protect himself from the civilian complaints that can result from street encounters. But then he began to document things happening in the precinct that bothered him. After he ran afoul of precinct politics, he recorded what he viewed as retaliation by his bosses.
"How else would you present the fraud being committed on the public?" he asks.
ON JANUARY 28, 2009, PATROL OFFICERS on the evening tour at the 81st Precinct gathered in the utilitarian muster room at the 30 Ralph Avenue stationhouse. They stood on white floors in ranks. The blue-and-white walls are decorated with old Wanted posters, two glass cupboards with crime maps, posters with warnings about sexual harassment and retaliation, and a flat-screen television. There are two tables, three chairs, and a podium used by supervisors to address the cops.
A roll call is the key moment in the workday of any police officer. Think Hill Street Blues and "Let's be careful out there." The sergeants, lieutenants, and, sometimes, the precinct commander relay orders to the rank-and-file. The officers are told about recent crimes and trouble spots in the neighborhood. Officers are subject to inspection and are given training. The language, naturally, is a mix of quasi-military jargon, street slang, rough epithets, and a fair bit of gallows humor—in other words, cop-speak.
The 81st Precinct covers Bedford-Stuyvesant, a densely populated, multiracial patchwork of low-income areas, public housing projects, and blocks going through gentrification. At just 1.7 square miles, Bed-Stuy is geographically small, but a place that, according to the tapes, the officers view as a "heavy precinct."