How To Cure the Police Crime Plague

Five specific, systemic, attainable reme­dies to the epidemic of police abuse


We are experiencing a police crime wave. More than 40 New York City police officers have been arrested so far this year for crimes including criminally neg­ligent homicide, manslaughter, assault, sodomy, and robbery. During 1984, 81 police officers were arrested. During the past two months, two sergeants — the backbone of the department’s command structure — have been accused: one of stun-gun torture, and another of being a hit-and-run killer.

During 1984, 6698 complaints of bru­tality or verbal abuse were filed with the civilian review board — an increase of 2000 over the previous year. Peer pres­sure for cover-ups — communicated by superior officers — has created a “blue wall of silence” to shield lawbreaking by law enforcers. Clearly, the mayor’s busi­ness-as-usual election-year study com­mittee of power brokers is an insufficient response to this civic crisis of confidence.

The purpose of this article is to outline five specific, systemic, attainable reme­dies to the epidemic of police abuse. But first I want to make some general obser­vations to try to keep matters in perspec­tive and prepare the reader to better un­derstand where the writer is coming from:

Crime is just as serious a problem in this city as police brutality. New York’s population is not being adequately pro­tected and does not feel safe. This is es­pecially true in black and Latin commu­nities, where the crime rate is the highest. According to the New York Times poll published last Thursday, 36 per cent of blacks named crime as the “most impor­tant city problem” while only 12 per cent mentioned jobs and 9 per cent said housing.

We need more police, more jail cells, faster trials, and tougher sentences for violent recidivists. We need to appreciate what a difficult job being a cop is. We tell them to be aggressive, but not too aggres­sive. The police department can’t be ex­pected to rectify all the failures of soci­ety’s other institutions — the economy, the schools, the courts, the drug-enforce­ment agencies.

The police are only human. We pay them to do a dirty job that most of us can’t do. Police work under extraordinary stress inside a subculture of violence. Most of them do it honorably. I am respectful, even as I criticize and urge reforms.

One reform that this article will not suggest is the appointment of a special prosecutor for police brutality. This is a pointless, simplistic demand that is being promoted by loony media militants like Reverend Al Sharpton and lawyer Clay­ton Jones.

Mario Merola, Elizabeth Holtzman, and John Santucci have done nothing to justify superseding them in police cases. Their integrity and independence have been exemplary. That is why the PBA has attacked these D.A.s — and demanded a special prosecutor in the Eleanor Bumpurs case.

As an unreconstructed, Jeffersonian democrat, I believe in accountability to the electorate. It is better to have an elected prosecutor making these sensitive decisions than an appointed prosecutor who is only responsible to the politician who selected him or her.

A special prosecutor would quickly become an institutional prosecutor, little different from the five D.A.s. The existing networks of relationships and pressures would merely shift to the new, unelected personality. Moreover, the first time a special prosecutor made a decision that Sharpton or Jones disagreed with, the demand would go up to supersede the special prosecutor with an extraspecial prosecutor.

Police brutality is perceived as a racial issue by both blacks and whites. And there is a significant racial component to it. But the deeper, more universal issue is abuse of authority: guns and nightsticks in the hands of unstable persons, official irresponsibility that victimizes all kinds of people.

In 1984, almost as many whites as blacks filed grievances with the civilian complaint review board. Last year, 38 per cent of all the complaints against police were brought by blacks, 37 per cent by whites, 20 per cent by Hispanics, and 5 per cent by Asians and others. In 1982, 30 people were killed by police deadly force in New York City — and 20 of them were Hispanic. Last month a black police offi­cer, Mervin Yearwood, was indicted for killing Paul Fava, 20, who was white, on a Bronx subway platform. Yearwood says Fava jumped the turnstile. A mostly white group called Citizens Against Police Injustice has been active on Staten Island for the last five years. Two of its leading members are a retired city police detective and a Transit Authority police sergeant. They cite 10 cases in which citi­zens were beaten up or unjustifiably killed by police guns.

Dr. Hyman Chernow — white, well-off, and elderly — was crossing Park Avenue when he was run over and killed by police sergeant Frederick Sherman, who was allegedly drinking on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. And two of the cops arrested off-duty for assault this year — officers Paul Witchel and Russell Bjune — allegedly beat up women. Bjune was indicted for assaulting a woman entering a Brook­lyn abortion clinic that he was picketing.

This week Sergeant Rudolph Hays pleaded insanity at the start of his trial in Queens in the shooting and killing of Sharon Walker after a traffic accident last December.

Police violence and misconduct poten­tially affects everyone, and it ought to be perceived that way. There seem to be more nuts entering the NYPD than there are leaving the Reagan administration.

These are my five specific proposals to restore the honor of the New York Police Department:

1. Require all new police officers to live within New York City. This would reduce the “occupying army mentality” of many suburban cops, lead to more off-duty arrests, pre­vent some crime, and help the city’s economy.

Most of the police officers arrested this year live outside of New York City. All five of the cops accused of the stun gun torture in the 106th Precinct live on Long Island. Lieutenant Steven Cheswick lives in Wantagh. Sergeant Richard Pike lives in Selden. Loren MacCarey lives in Com­mack. Michael Aranda lives in Freeport. Jeffrey Gilbert lives in Elmont. Police Officer Joseph Vecchio, who was indicted for manslaughter in Brooklyn, lives in Lynbrook. Officer Alexander Forbes, who was indicted for criminally negligent ho­micide in Manhattan, lives in Orange County.

A police department commanding offi­cer with 20 years on the force told me: “Living in the suburbs breeds an attitude of fear, paranoia, and disrespect for the population. It creates a feeling of not be­longing, of feeling like an alien.”

The police should not feel separate from the population. They should not live separately. If all New York cops used the parks, paid taxes, voted, and sent their children to schools in this city, their outlook would be different. Cops should not fear or loathe the population that employs them.

Many of the public statements made by Phil Caruso, the head of the New York PBA, have been inflammatory and unconstructive. Caruso lives in Sayville, in Suffolk County. The entire executive committee of the PBA is white, and al­most all of them live outside the city.

There was once a residency law for all city employees — the old Lyons Law — but it was repealed during the 1950s as the municipal workforce started moving to the suburbs. The time has come again to require city residency for all future police officers.

Prospective residency laws enacted by other major cities, like Chicago, have been upheld by the courts and have worked out well.

Eventually, police officers should be assigned to precincts near their homes, and should patrol their own neighbor­hoods. Both of these recommendations were made by the prophetic Conyers Committee after it conducted police bru­tality hearings in New York two summers ago.

2. The training and screening of police recruits should be radically changed. The training program should be patterned after the state police: 26 weeks in a barracks boot-camp setting where psycho­logical weaknesses can’t be hidden and new values can be instilled.

The New York Police Department has been suffering from an erosion of disci­pline and competency over the years, starting perhaps with the notoriously poorly prepared police academy class of 1969, which was rushed through the academy because of fear of riots. Most new recruits have no military experience, and for a high proportion of cops, this is their first job. Because of the hiring freeze during the fiscal crisis, 50 per cent of the force now has less than five years’ experience. Last year, 58 per cent of citi­zen complaints were made against officers with less than three years on the job.

Almost every cop I talked to for this article told me off-the-record that the department has a severe and growing drug problem among these younger officers. The combination of tension and tedium on the job, access to drugs confiscated from arrested dealers, and the prolifera­tion of drugs in the working-class culture has increased the abuse of Quaaludes, co­caine, and marijuana by police officers. This makes them more irritable, para­noid, and sometimes out of control. Dur­ing 1984, seven police officers were ar­rested on drug charges — five for possession, two for sales.

The statistical evidence of the general breakdown of discipline in the depart­ment is strong. Last year, about 100 cops reported they lost their guns; 20 years ago this was unheard of. Last year, about 360 squad cars were cracked up in acci­dents — 60 more than the previous year. At a public forum last November, Com­missioner Benjamin Ward commented offhandedly: “These young patrolmen to­day seem to have a penchant for wreck­ing cars.” Ward later explained that many new cops have never driven a car before joining the department.

The idea for a boot-camp environment police training was suggested to me by Thomas Reppetto, the well-respected president of the civic watchdog Citizens Crime Commission. Reppetto is a former commander of detectives in the Chicago Police Department and author of The Blue Parade, a history of the police in America.

Says Reppetto: “Police recruits can hide a drinking problem, or a drug prob­lem, or a violent temper, or a bad racial attitude in the police academy during an eight-hour day. But they could not hide such weaknesses under the stress of a 26-week barracks training-and-testing situa­tion. This would screen out a lot of bad apples that the psychological test seems to miss …

“The training for the New York City Police Department should be as high-lev­el and as tough as the FBI or the state police. New recruits have to get their val­ues straight. Right now a lot of young cops are influenced by TV and the mov­ies. The message they get from Starsky and Hutch and Dirty Harry is not to play by the rules. A lot of voices are telling cops it’s okay to get the bad guy any way they can. We need completely different training methods to create the peer pres­sure to act the right way.”

3. Recruitment of blacks and Lat­ins should be made a higher priori­ty. Their numbers must be in­creased in positions of authority in the police department.

New York City today is half black and Latin. But only 10 per cent of the police force is black and 8 per cent is Latin. Of 232 captains, only one was black as of October 1984. Of the 2700 recruits who graduated from the academy during 1983, 1880 were white, 252 were Hispan­ic, 198 were black, and 22 were Asian.

The perception of every white police officer I spoke to is that affirmative ac­tion has lowered the standards of the de­partment. And to a limited degree this is true, although I would argue that bend­ing the old rules is an acceptable price to pay to create a department that reflects this city’s wonderfully diverse population.

Height requirements have been low­ered to accommodate minority and fe­male applicants, and under recent rule changes an applicant with a minor crimi­nal record can become a police officer.

But Tom Reppetto argues: “Affirma­tive action for minorities should be con­tinued. It is not a factor in the break­down of discipline.”

The goal of an integrated police force is both prudent and ethical. You cannot have an 80 per cent white police depart­ment when 70 per cent of the crime vic­tims are nonwhite.

One useful idea, proposed by Basil Pat­erson, is that the city invite the Guard­ians — the fraternal society of black cops — to play an upfront role in recruiting, with an emphasis on high school graduates who are likely to pass the sergeant’s exam.

4. Implement the idea of a Police Corps. Under this plan, young men and women of all racial and ethnic groups would be offered college scholarships in exchange for serv­ing three years as police officers after graduation.

The Police Corps is the brainchild of Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert Kennedy and a former chair­man of the State Investigation Commis­sion. Walinsky says:

“This proposal would give us more po­lice at an attainable cost. It would bring idealism and intelligence to police work. It would recruit the most qualified mi­norities. It would make citizens feel like we are really doing something to fight crime, instead of giving up and saying crime is insoluble …

“We would offer young people a free, four-year college education, just like the army and the marines do. And these young people would give us a couple of summers’ worth of training. After that, they would give us three years of service in the NYPD at an entry-level rate of pay that we could afford. Our goal is 20,000 Police Corps cops in New York City.

“As the economics work out, we could support a kid to the tune of $8000 or $9000 a year for four years of college and pay him or her a reasonable salary and benefits — say about $20,000 a year the three years of police service. And at the end of the whole program — the whole seven years — it costs less than half of what it costs for the average year of po­lice service under the current labor contract.”

The concept behind this is affirmative action while upgrading standards. We are now creating a two-class police depart­ment. Blacks are not being promoted to captain, and not enough are passing the sergeant’s test. Under the Police Corps, blacks and Hispanics could go to college, become cops, and then pass the ser­geant’s exam if they choose to remain on the force after the three years.

This bold and creative innovation has been endorsed by Bronx D.A. Mario Mer­ola, former deputy mayor Basil Paterson, U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, conser­vative columnist William F. Buckley, the Daily News, and The New York Times. The PBA is opposed in private, but pub­licly will not attack it. Meanwhile, most politicians try to ignore the Police Corps idea and stick to their comfortable, boil­erplate rhetoric about crime.

5. Create a civilian complaint review board as a truly independent institution outside the police de­partment. This can be accomplished by an act of the City Council or state legislature, or administratively by the mayor.

The present complaint board was im­proved and given more staff in 1983. But citizen complaints still must he filed in the intimidating atmosphere of a police station, and investigations by the board are still under the command of a deputy chief of the NYPD.

The present review board received 4676 complaints in 1983 and 6698 last year. There are two or more unproven complaints on file against 300 police offi­cers. The PBA has won a court injunction preventing these multiple allegations from being used for evaluation or disci­plinary purposes by superior officers.

When Congressman John Conyers held his police hearings in New York in 1983, Mayor Koch complained that the hearings would “embolden criminals.” But judging from the increased number of cit­izen complaints, capped by the recent revelations of torture in the 106th Pre­cinct, what occurred was that the mayor’s hysterical overreaction to the Conyers hearings emboldened brutal cops to feel that they had a license from City Hall.

Now, more than ever, an independent civilian review board is needed. Police Commissioner Ward said this year: “I can live with an outside board.”

The resistance comes from the mayor and the PBA. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 29, 2020