The commissioner of America’s largest police force was not on hand last week to see a horde of his own officers stand outside a Bronx courthouse and call him a hypocrite.
He showed up a few hours after they’d dispersed, appearing in a press room inside the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. There, for the second time in a week, he stood in front of a podium andtold reporters in his customarily halting monotone voice that members of the NYPD had once again broken the law.
“These misdeeds tarnish the good name and reputation of the vast majority of police officers who perform their duties honesty and often at risk of their own personal safety,” Raymond W. Kelly said, reading from a prepared statement.
The transgression du jour was ticket-fixing—16 officers were being indicted following a three-year investigation—and though the high-profile case made for the department’s biggest headache since the Mollen Commission, it was arguably a sign of evolution: after decades during which such “favors” were par for the course, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau had made it clear that such corruption would no longer be tolerated.
If only parking tickets were the worst of it.
[WEB-ONLY FEATURE: RAY KELLY IN PICTURES: TIMELINE OF A TOP COP]
In recent weeks, other embarrassing scandals have emerged at a steady clip. After years in which the department seemed to be riding high in the public’s esteem, the sensational trial of the so-called “rape cops,” despite ending in a controversial acquittal, placed the boys in blue in a harsh light. Then came a parade of revelations and misdeeds, including gun-running, evidence-planting and of course pepper-spraying.
“I got to tell you, I’ve got almost 30 years in this department, and morale is really at an all-time low,” Sergeant Ed Mullins, a 29-year NYPD veteran and the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association told The Observer.
A 21-year-veteran of the NYPD, who asked not to be named, agreed. “Morale is not good,” he said. “It sucks. Years ago, people thought the cops did nothing wrong. Now it’s back to ‘Cops are the bad guys.’ We’re working stiffs, we have families to support. People seem to forget that we work as hard as everybody else.”
“Morale is in the eye of the beholder,” Paul Browne, Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, wrote in an email to The Observer. “For the very few who engaged in misconduct, my guess is it’s not great.”
Thank goodness for the “Hipster Cop,” the nattily-dressed community affairs detective whose love of all things Ralph Lauren and Converse made him an instant internet curio and perhaps the most likable peace officer in the Zuccotti-era NYPD. Like Mr. Kelly, who has a self-professed weakness for Charvet ties, he has style on his side.
But the fop cop and the top cop may not be enough to counter the actions of their colleagues, like the one caught bragging to a friend that he had “fried another nigger” after conducting a stop-and-frisk, a controversial tactic that has exploded under Mr. Kelly’s tenure.
To be sure, Mr. Kelly is still celebrated throughout the world as the man who safeguarded New York City from a terrorist onslaught, a no-nonsense crime-fighter beloved for his tough demeanor and Popeye-esque grin. In the decade that followed the September 11th attacks, he built the NYPD into a paramilitary force, capable of shooting down a plane and protecting its own borders without the Federal government’s assistance.
“The last 10 years since 9/11 is the only decade since the 1960s where there hasn’t been a terrorist attack of some sort in [New York],” Mr. Brown noted.
He added that Mr. Kelly’s second tenure as police commissioner—he held the job under Mayor David Dinkins from 1992 to 1994—resulted in an impressively low crime rate “that had no where to go but up.”
With the city the safest it had been in decades, Mr. Kelly found himself sitting for a glowing 60 Minutes profile and fielding invitations to Vanity Fair soirees.
Then came the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Compared to, say, Oakland, the NYPD has arguably handled the demonstrations with restraint. But the pepper-spraying of seemingly peaceful protesters by a high-ranking NYPD official, a “white shirt,” who then melted into the crowd, presented an indelible image of a department that seemed unmoored. The offending officer was quickly identified as Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna—not by the NYPD, but by internet sleuths. After Ron Kuby, an attorney for one of the protesters, demanded Mr. Bologna’s arrest, he was instead docked 10 vacation days and given a cozy reassignment to Staten Island, where he lives.
Now, officers from all five boroughs have been asked to work overtime on the periphery of Zuccotti Park, where every flare-up between the demonstrators and police is instantly captured on camera phones, posted to YouTube and dissected for hints of excessive force.
The month of October was a particularly rough one for the NYPD. On the 4th, citing a projected $4.6 billion deficit for fiscal year 2012, Mayor Mike Bloomberg imposed a hiring freeze and a mandatory 2 percent spending cut for all city agencies, including the police department.
On October 6, Mr. Kelly testified before the City Council after the AP reported that the NYPD had dispatched undercover officers to infiltrate mosques and Muslim student groups. Mr. Kelly denied the accusations.
That same week, an ex-undercover cop, Stephen Anderson, testified in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn that narcotics officers were paid two to three hours of overtime for every heroin or cocaine arrest they made. The policy, he said, led other cops to start “flaking,” department slang for planting drugs on innocent suspects. According to the Daily News, the practice has already resulted in $1.2 million in settlements for false arrest lawsuits, and on Tuesday, Detective Jason Arbeeny, a 14-year NYPD veteran, was found guilty of planting drugs on a woman and her boyfriend.
The Bologna incident was followed by another altercation with an Occupy Wall Street protester, when footage emerged of Deputy Inspector Johnny Cardona punching Felix Rivera-Pitre in the face.
“I’ll only caution people when you see a picture, you have to see the whole sequence of events,” Mr. Kelly said after the incident. “Sometimes these are not neat situations. They can get tumultuous.” (Prosecutors have met with Mr. Cardona and are investigating the matter.)
On October 17, Officer Michael Daragjati was charged in Federal District Court in Brooklyn with violating the civil rights of an African-American man on whom he’d performed a stop-and-frisk. During the April 15 incident, when the man asked for Mr. Daragjati’s badge number, the officer charged him with resisting arrest. He later referred to the man by the aforementioned raical epithet during a phone call to a friend, which was recorded by the feds.
On October 25, Federal prosecutors charged a group of NYPD officers—some active, some former—with trafficking guns, slot machines, and stolen cigarettes across state lines.
Then charges came down in the ticket scandal.
Mr. Kelly has seen much worse during his decades on the job, Mr. Browne noted. It’s nothing like 1971, the department spokesman wrote, “when Mr. Kelly was a sergeant and 12 NYPD officers were killed in the line of duty, compared to one in the last year and zero last year.”
And it beats 1981, “when Mr. Kelly was an assistant chief and there were 725,866 crimes committed in the city, compared to 188,164 last year.”
And even 1990, “when Mr. Kelly was a first deputy commissioner and there were 2,245 murders in the city, compared to the 426 so far this year.”
In short, it’s all relative.
Nonetheless, it hasn’t helped that as his officers appear on the courthouse steps and in YouTube videos and the pages of city tabloids, Mr. Kelly is more often spotted in party photos in glossy magazines and websites like NY Social Diary. The contrast isn’t lost on rank and file officers, a law enforcement expert told The Observer.
“There’s so much work to do to fix [the NYPD], and for whatever reason Ray Kelly has gotten into this whole celebrity thing,” said the expert. “You talk to cops and they follow this stuff.”
Still, it wasn’t until the ticket-fixing protest on Friday that the tensions within the NYPD became public. Hours before Mr. Kelly addressed reporters, a swarm of cops in street clothes arrived at the courthouse after being summoned via text messages sent by their respective benevolent societies. Packed behind barricades, they held up signs reading “Courtesy Is Not a Crime,” jeered at news reporters, denounced the district attorney, and even exchanged words with civilians lined up at a benefits center across the street.
“Taking care of your family, taking care of your friends, taking care of those that support New York City police officers and law enforcement is not a crime,” Patrolman’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch explained outside the arraignments.
A retired sergeant who served during Mr. Kelly’s tenure and asked not to be named attributed many of the issues facing the NYPD to a laissez-faire culture.
“Officers don’t start off being corrupt,” he said, adding that conducting a stop-and-frisk is another abuse of power. “They start off with little things, like abusing people’s rights, and when they get away with that, then more and more their disrespect for procedures, for protocol, for the law, increases, and they get into other things.”
Stop-and-frisks have skyrocketed during Mr. Kelly’s tenure.
The NYPD questioned and/or frisked 97,296 people in 2002, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. In the first six months of this year, the NYPD stopped 362,150 people, putting it on pace to top all previous records. Of that number, 88 percent were found to be innocent of any crime, and 91 percent were people of color.
“From the borough command to the precincts, they put the pressure on officers to produce the numbers,” said a high-ranking cop. “And [officers] stop people who don’t need to be stopped.”
As a result of all the scandals, some are now calling for a total revamp of the department. “I hesitate to say to bring in a corporate person, but they got to bring in a culture change, and it won’t be a cop,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“The leadership always has to be held accountable,” insisted Mr. Mullins of the seargeants’ association. “If we are going to hold the people at the bottom accountable for a condition that existed for many, many years, it goes all the way to the top.”
Which isn’t to say that the commissioner is worried. After all, a friend said, the man has survived Vietnam and 25 different commands in the NYPD.
“Whatever comes his way, he just responds,” the friend added. “There are always going to be issues, just like there would be with any huge work force with any industry.”
On October 19, Quinnipiac University polled New York voters on possible mayoral candidates. A quarter of them said they would elect Mr. Kelly, the highest out of all likely candidates for the 2013 race.