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But even that number is illusory. On any given shift, a third of the officers have the day off. Others have time off for other purposes, are on vacation, or are ill.
Plus, officers are constantly pulled away from their patrol duties to man parades, to work security at police headquarters, to write tickets for a special effort—like getting motorists to stop talking on their cell phones—and for many other reasons.
And they are pulled away to process arrests, transfer prisoners to central booking, meet with the district attorney, and babysit injured or sick prisoners at the hospital.
As a result, a typical day in the 81st Precinct had only three to nine officers patrolling the streets in an area of more than 60,000 people.
"Where is everybody?" a lieutenant wonders in an October 27 roll call. "This is going to be a bad month."
The tiny number of officers, the sergeant complains, means that they don't have enough people to spare two cops for the mobile surveillance tower known as Skywatch, compromising its law enforcement value. "We'd like to have two people assigned there," he says. "We don't have the luxury to do that. Today, once again, we have one, so the effectiveness of the Skywatch is not there."
And take October 19, 2009, for example, when a sergeant expresses his annoyance after his boss demands he send a cop to guard a vehicle where a gun had been found.
"He said, 'Put a body on it,' " the sergeant says. "He doesn't live in the real world. I didn't have any extra people to have them sit on a car."
In the same roll call, the sergeant says the precinct is so short-staffed that officers can't put in for time-off requests. "We don't have enough people, so it has to be," he says.
One way to deal with the shortage of bodies: pray for rain. "Hopefully, it will rain until 4 o'clock today," a sergeant is heard saying at one roll call. "That would be a big help to us, especially due to our limited manpower."
The shortage forced the precinct commanders to send out cops alone to staff some of the more dangerous corners in the precinct. During a recent visit to the precinct, the Voice observed a lone officer standing outside a bodega at Chauncey and Howard, considered one of the most dangerous intersections in the precinct. He stood there, looking uncomfortable, not saying a word to the people entering and leaving the bodega.
How do the sergeants counter the shortages? Usually, they just make do, and hope that nothing really bad happens. But they also pull bodies out of the plainclothes units, leave areas unpatrolled, issue blanket denials of time-off requests, and force officers to work overtime, the tapes show.
On October 13, 2009, a sergeant notes the lack of officers, and then says, "Don't bring bags of shit into the stationhouse. Does everybody understand that?"
A "bag of shit," in NYPD lingo, has a couple of definitions, but in this context, it means a minor arrest that takes a cop off the street for the rest of his shift. If the suspect is a drug addict in withdrawal or has a medical condition, that's even worse, because those require hospital visits, taking officers out of the rotation for more than one shift—again, straining patrol strength.
"If the guy murdered somebody, then that's a different story," the sergeant says. "If the guy is smoking a joint and his name is James Johnson, then you know what to do. I can't tell you not to write him a summons or don't collar him, but . . . that makes my freaking head explode."
He then adds: "Listen, don't bring Mr. Medicine into the stationhouse, because he's going to get free medical care from us that we all pay for, OK, and plus then he gets a nice police escort the whole time that he's there."
The shortages led to forced overtime, a practice that is lucrative but, over the long haul, exhausts officers. Police officers can easily earn close to $100,000 a year by working a lot of overtime, but all those hours take a toll.
On August 3, 2009, a lieutenant tells the cops that they have to give up one of their weekend days to work overtime. He shows them a sign-up list he has made. "What that means is as you are putting your name down, I cross your name off my list," he says. "That means you worked overtime. If your name is not crossed off the list, and there's an opening that day and you're off, you're working it. Whether you can or can't, you'll be here."
The shortages extend to cars. The precinct is constantly short of patrol cars, and at times, there may only be one or two cars patrolling the entire precinct.
Then, on October 25, there were none. "I brought it to the lieutenant's attention because we don't have no cars for the day tour," a sergeant says during the roll call. "It's just really, really bad. . . . So honestly, I'm going to call the borough [command]."