NYPD Tapes Show a “Toxic Environment”: John Jay Prof


In more reaction to the Voice‘s “NYPD Tapes” series (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5), an influential criminal justice professor at John Jay College is saying that the recordings made in a Brooklyn precinct expose a “bullying and toxic environment,” in the city’s police precincts, negatively affecting routine encounters between cops and New Yorkers.

“The number one issue in the Police Department is the treatment of their rank and file, and that translates directly into how New Yorkers get treated by cops,” said Prof. Eugene O’Donnell on The Brian Lehrer Show (WNYC) last week. O’Donnell is former New York City police officer and a prosecutor in Queens and Brooklyn.

“The largest complaint you probably get from New Yorkers is not about big ticket issues like deadly force,” he adds. “It’s that they feel they are roughly treated in routine interactions with the cops. I think what you’re hearing in those tapes is the way cops get treated [by their superiors]. And I think that needs to be cleaned up.”

O’Donnell added that the tapes, made by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft in Brooklyn’s 81st Precinct, and the series, raise the question of whether the ends justify the means. “When it becomes a numbers driven process, the loyalty to the law and respect for the law can fall by the wayside,” O’Donnell says. “Which means that cops are not only going to get the numbers one way or the other, but they very well may be tempted to misrepresent the facts, swear falsely and things like that.”

O’Donnell’s modest proposal? He says the NYPD should record each precinct roll call and each CompStat meeting “so there’s no question about the message being sent out, that no officer anyplace is being encouraged ever, even implicitly, to break the law.” (In CompStat meetings, precinct commanders are called on the carpet and questioned, often harshly, about crime trends in their neighborhoods.)

O’Donnell says it’s still important for the Police Department to have standards to measure police productivity. But, he says, the NYPD should take a new look at those standards: “Do they measure the whole picture? Like stop and frisks: Is more necessarily better? Is there any effort to look at quality enforcement?

“There needs to be a real look at not only just a numerical analysis, and this ‘more is better’ analysis, but qualitative issues, and of course the issue of bruised feelings among those people who are stopped and frisked,” he says.

“We need to look beyond just a numbers games, and look at what these metrics represent, and also the pressure that these metrics may put these cops under,” O’Donnell says.

O’Donnell noted that there’s confusion even among judges and lawyers about the stop and frisk standard. “If you have that kind of confusion, we need to go very carefully, even if we’re not intending it, to make sure it’s not just about quotas, just about getting numbers,” he says.

O’Donnell also touched on a subject raised in the series, that the drop in the total number of police officers has affected staffing levels in the precincts. Part of the reason for that drop, he says, is morale. “You see more and more officers saying they are sorry they joined the Police Department, and you’re seeing it on the other end, with officers getting out (retiring) as soon as possible,” he says. “There’s no concept of managing talent. Supervising cops is easy. They don’t need to be bullied and intimidated.”

After a caller raised the question of whether it would expose law enforcement secrets to record the roll calls, O’Donnell said that was a non-issue. “We’re talking about civilian policing. There’s a total lack of transparency. There’s very little being said in a roll call that is top secret. Most of it is trying to get people to produce and the means and methods to do that.”