NYPD Notes

23:59 Sun 30 Oct 2011
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I don’t recall any interactions with the police when I lived in New York, but over the years my accumulated impression has been that it’s a very corrupt organization. That’s not necessarily unusual—I suspect that most of the police forces in major American cities would be just as bad (and nothing I’ve heard about, say, the Los Angeles or Chicago police has made me think otherwise). At the moment, though, the NYPD seem to be at the forefront.

This is partly due to recent media attention focused on Occupy Wall Street, including the awful Anthony Bologna pepper-spray incident, but I thought I’d run through and comment on the various NYPD-related stories that come to mind.

We can go back almost 20 years, to the first media reports I have a concrete memory of reading about NYPD corruption in, which concerned the 1992–1994 Mollen Commission, whose conclusion is worth quoting:

Today’s corruption is not the corruption of Knapp Commission days. Corruption then was largely a corruption of accommodation, of criminals and police officers giving and taking bribes, buying and selling protection. Corruption was, in its essence, consensual. Today’s corruption is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.

—The Mollen Commission. The Mollen Commission Report. New York: The City of New York, 07 July 1994.

The next case I recall reading about was that of Abner Louima, who was sexually assaulted/tortured by officers from Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct. While not strictly-speaking a corruption case, that this could have occurred at all, and that it wasn’t immediately denounced by all the officers nearby, clearly indicates a terrible culture among the police at that Precinct—and, other evidence suggests, the entire NYPD.

The attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 gave the NYPD a massive public-relations boost, one which saw many Americans don “NYPD” baseball caps (along with “FDNY” counterparts) as signs of patriotic solidarity with the first-responders who tried to save people from the buildings. Then, as now, I admire the heroism of those who died trying to save others, but see no reason to believe that those actions were more representative of the NYPD than what was outlined in the Mollen Commission’s report.

The NYPD turned out in full authoritarian mode for the 2004 Republican National Convention, and in the years following has been forced to produce documents detailing that its “Intelligence Division” illegally infiltrated and spied upon activists well before they arrived in New York—and that NYPD officers did so even in Canada and Europe. Incidentally, they then had the gall to argue that those documents shouldn’t be produced because they would make it easier for the city to be sued over their activities. The RNC escapades are indicative of a different kind of corruption at the very top of the organization, that of using the powers of an organization ostensibly dedicated to public safety in order to suppress dissent for political purposes[*].

I wrote last year about how the outrageous ticketing of a cyclist for going around a police car that an officer had deliberately placed in the bike lane was indicative of larger problems with mixing law enforcement and revenue-gathering. Looking back to the Mollen Commission’s report, and forward to the next few items, it remains unclear to me whether or not something particularly bad about New York/American police culture makes such abuses (and far worse) seem inevitable, or if any such combination of unaccountability, power, and greed would have similar results anywhere in the world—my feeling is that the latter is closer to the truth.

Sometime last year I heard about the case of Adrian Schoolcraft, an ex-NYPD officer who exposed corruption in the 81st Precinct and who was falsely committed to a psychiatric ward as a result of actions taken by the NYPD against him. It’s notable that one of the aspects of the corruption he revealed was the way in which higher-ranked officers insisted on quotas for arrests and that this resulted in officers simply arresting people for no good reason to make their quotas. Schoolcraft was recently interviewed on This American Life, and his description of the culture of the NYPD is both highly disturbing and unsurprising.

Anthony Bologna’s assault on the two female protesters received tremendous media attention, but three things about it stand out: the sense of entitlement in his body language (and in his statements afterwards), where it seems apparent that he thinks he’s absolutely entitled to dish out the pepper spray on people who annoy him; the fact that (regardless of later actions) the NYPD claimed (after the video of the assault was available) that he had followed departmental procedures; and the fact that it seems unlikely that he’ll be charged with assault, which he absolutely should be given the circumstances.

Last week I read about officers protesting the arraignment of 16 of their colleagues on corruption charges arising from a ticket-fixing scandal—this article is worth reading, and the signs they’re holding in the accompanying photo are a must-see. That they’re out protesting in such force suggests that things have only become worse since the Mollen Commission’s report, to such an extent that the NYPD rank-and-file and their union now regard the more minor corruption and abuses of authority as essential perks of the job.

Most recently, there are reports that NYPD officers are attempting to undermine the Occupy Wall Street protest by directing the homeless and petty criminals to the camp. That’s a much more subtle form of corruption, but is evidently an abuse of their power.

So is the NYPD worse than other cities, or does this kind of thing happen all over? The answer might be “both”—New York’s size, and the concentration of wealth and power in the city, result in pressures on the police that exacerbate the situation; at the same time, if you took another large American city and subjected its police department to the same pressures, it would likely respond in a very similar fashion. Outside of the US, comparison are more difficult, but it seems to me that societies with histories of endemic racism (like the US and Britain, for example) are more likely to have these kinds of problems than others; I also think that colonial powers are more likely to have a militaristic mindset and to attempt to bring back home the population-control measures they used on colonized peoples. Also, of course, higher levels of inequality in a society mean that its police forces will be more likely to act as enforcers for the elites.

[*] The actual mission of a police force, of course, is the control of the public in service of the state; if we want to make public safety their real mission, then we have to exert an awful lot more influence over them.

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