In March, I wrote a column detailing a number of credible accusations made against the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for instituting a quota system for arrests and for stop-and-frisk searches. At the same time, additional allegations charged higher-ups in the department with actively discouraging crime victims from reporting crimes—as well as downgrading felonies to misdemeanors—in order to make the city's crime statistics look better. Taken together, these allegations painted an ugly picture of New Yorkers being stopped, hassled, and frisked for either petty offenses or for no offense at all, while the victims of acutal crimes faced unsympathetic law enforcement officials.
The quota allegations stemmed from several audio recordings made by Officer Adil Polanco of instructions given to him and other officers by various superiors. When the recordings surfaced, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said officers are encouraged to meet "goals," but denied the existence of arrest or citation quotas. As for the charge that the NYPD was burying reports of actual crime, those allegations came from a survey of retired high-ranking NYPD officers conducted by two Molloy College criminologists. The NYPD dismissed the study, while critics such as the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald called it "irredeemably flawed."
Now comes another set of recordings from another New York precinct that validates both the Molloy study and Polanco's allegations. Earlier this month, the Village Voice obtained over 100 recordings of roll call meetings in Brooklyn's 81st precinct made by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft. They're damning.
Schoolcraft, for example, recorded a fellow officer lamenting that he'd been instructed to downgrade a car theft to "unauthorized use of a vehicle," as well as to find a way around reporting the thefts of a cell phone and video game system. In another recording, Schoolcraft captured the results as he voiced his concerns about crime stats manipulation to a unit within the department that audits such data. One officer with the unit acknowledged the political pressure to juke the stats. "The mayor's looking for it, the police commissioner's looking for it...every commanding officer wants to show it," he said. "So there's motivation not to classify reports for the seven major crimes."
In other words, the statistical manipulation extends beyond property crimes. Journalist Debbie Nathan, who was sexually assaulted in a city park last February, says that she was shocked to learn that the officers who wrote up her report classified the crime as a misdemeanor. It was later upgraded to a felony, but only after Nathan went to the district attorney. And according to the DA's investigation, the six officers who responded to Nathan's attack admitted leaving key portions of her story out of the report. As Nathan told the Village Voice, rape crisis centers throughout New York City have documented similar complaints from victims of sexual assault.
Schoolcraft also documented evidence of the hard quotas officers had to meet with respect to both arrests and citations. As the Voice summarized:
Police officers were routinely threatened with discipline (transfers, shift changes, partner changes, and assignment changes) by their superiors if they did not make their monthly quota of summonses, stop-and-frisks, arrests, and community visits.
Officers were instructed to arrest people for "blocking the sidewalk," for not possessing ID (even while just feet from their homes), even for no reason at all (cops were told to "articulate" a charge at a later time). The cops were told to make arrests even if they knew they'd be voiding the charge at the end of their shifts. As a sergeant implores in one recording, "Again, it's all about the numbers."
About those numbers: While only about one tenth of 1 percent of the stops yielded a gun (at present it's nearly impossible to legally carry a gun in New York), the practice has helped drive up the city's marijuana arrests from 4,000 in 1997 to 40,000 in 2007. Marijuana for personal use was actually decriminalized in New York during that period. But you still can't display your pot in public. So the police simply stop people, trick them into emptying their pockets, and then arrest them for displaying marijuana in public.
This is the natural progression of two related policing trends in New York: Broken Windows, which posits that cracking down on petty crime leads to a reduction in more serious crime, and COMPSTAT, a data-driven method of policing. There's debate over the effectiveness of both policies, but even if they do work to drive down crime, it's important to understand the political realities of the institutions that are using them.
Politicians want lower crime rates. This is the demand they make of the police officials who report to them. If your policing philosophy is Broken Windows, and your method of accountability is COMPSTAT, over time there will be a natural pull on the police department to enforce increasingly petty offenses and to manipulate data on more serious crimes. The department brass knows they're evaluated on the serious crime rate, and they've bought into the idea that the best way to control the serious crime rate is to aggressively enforce the low-level stuff.
In addition to the obvious civil liberties concerns about stopping, arresting, and holding people for non-crimes, these practices also poison police-community relations, particularly among minority groups. Harass people for non-crimes while brushing off actual crimes, and the people are eventually going to lose trust in law enforcement. Blacks and Latinos made up an incredible 90 percent of the stop-and-frisks in 2009, yet the arrest rate among those stopped was about the same as that of whites. (It isn't clear how many arrests led to actual convictions.) And while the city's crime rate has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, the stop-and-frisk phenomenon is relatively recent and growing fast. The rate has tripled since 2003.
Unfortunately, the current political class in New York has bought into the idea that these policies are responsible for the drop in crime. It seems odd to say that it will take an unusually conscientious politician to call for a crime policy that doesn't involve suppressing real crimes, manufacturing fake ones, and harassing the citizenry. But that is precisely what it will take.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.