By John A. Eterno and Eli B. Silverman
The Village Voice has offered the world a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the New York City Police Department. Graham Rayman’s expose of the 81st Precinct revealed that Police Officer Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded “in-house” conversations, including many roll calls. In addition, the Voice has made selected tapes and transcripts publicly available.
Recently we had the opportunity to review many of these tapes. As social scientists, we believe that these tapes, along with other information, offer the NYPD a unique anti-terrorists learning opportunity.
While we strongly value, support and respect Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and all of our men and women in blue, these tapes raise serious concerns in the fight on terrorism.
Although the recent attempted terrorist attack in Times Square has heaped deserved praise on the NYPD, the cornerstones of its success were bystanders — vendors Lance Orton and Duane Jackson, who both served during the Vietnam War. The police cannot possibly be everywhere; they need the assistance of everybody. They need people from every community to help — to work with them in the fight on terrorism.
How ordinary people are treated by police officers determines how citizens respond to the call for assistance. Advertisements stating “if you see something, say something” are an excellent way to advise the public on what to do. However, as with the “just say no” policy on drugs, its call is muted when it fails to address crucial social issues such as fear of police, the influence of peers, deviant subcultures, and the like. The tapes reveal a key example. The precinct turned away victims, including robbery victims who would not go down the station house to make a report. What message does this send to people? Not to report, not to approach, not to advise police!
The precinct, led by the commanding officer, did not decide on their own to simply turn away victims of crimes. Rather, commanders and precinct personnel are likely engaged in unethical activities due to the extreme pressures of headquarters’ CompStat meetings (regular meetings where commanders are held accountable to the higher echelons of the NYPD for crime in their precincts; these meetings can become very tense for commanders). The activities recorded on these tapes have no place in policing. Even if victims do not want to prosecute, reports should be taken. Why? One important reason is intelligence gathering. It is information that can be used to fight crime and terrorism. Indeed, the first step in the four-step CompStat process is “accurate and timely intelligence.” Without these crime reports, the NYPD is getting a false and incomplete reading on what is occurring on the streets.
Importantly, such reports can lead investigators to possible terrorist activity. As terrorism expert Jonathan White writes, “When a group prepares an attack, they commit about four crimes three or four months before the actual attack.” Law enforcement will be in a far better position to prevent an attack if they are taking reports of crimes. Therefore, they will have the necessary information to possibly stop a terrorist attack before it occurs. For example, terrorists might give away their activities while committing these other crimes. Given the unethical policy in this precinct of not taking reports unless the victim goes to the station house, the vital information about that suspect is lost. By refusing to take the report, police are possibly enabling the terrorists. The information is the key. Fear of increasing the number of crimes due to upper management pressure is deterring officers from taking reports and citizens from approaching police.
The connection between the community and the police is vital and needs to be respected. A police officer needs to take every complaint seriously. When this does not occur, victims feel as if they are being victimized again — this time by the police, when they experience three levels of call-backs, reports not being taken, and being told that they must go to the detective squad or nothing will be done.
Due to management pressures, officers seem far more concerned about crime numbers rather than people. In 2009, with over half a million people being listed on stop-and-frisk reports by police, one can only ponder whether such stops are targeted activities. The tapes indicate extreme pressures on officers to produce a certain “number” of stop-and-frisk reports. Since many of the stops are based on furtive movements, it seems likely that the police are simply throwing a wide net thus unnecessarily alienating law abiding citizens. In addition, a policy forcing officers to achieve targets such as getting a certain number of “C” summonses (summonses for minor violations of the law) or a quota on the number of stop-and-frisk reports, fails to address the vital human element essential to citizen crime reporting.
For whatever reason, there are many cultural groups who do not trust the police. A simple message of “see something, say something” fails miserably. The police need to reach out, to work closely with communities, to take reports from victims, to attract people to the democratic message of equality, liberty, rights. The police are the front line of democracy. From what we see here, there is a need for change.
The NYPD is free to seize this opportunity or to continue its culture of pressure. Treating people with respect starts with NYPD’s own.
John A. Eterno, Ph.D. is Associate Dean and Director Graduate Studies in Criminal Justice at Molloy College in Rockville Center, New York. He is a retired NYPD Captain and the author of Policing within the Law and co-author of Police Practices in Global Perspective.
Eli B. Silverman, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is a well-known expert on CompStat and the author of NYPD Battles Crime.