The NYPD Needs a Customer-Service Re-Boot

 New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the New York Police Department graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden on December 29, 2014 in New York City.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the New York Police Department graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden on December 29, 2014 in New York City. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A skimmer had scammed me.

The email from my credit card company arrived early in the morning, and their question woke me up: two charges from the previous night looked suspicious. Could I please confirm them?

I couldn’t. They were fraudulent.

A late-night attempt to use the card number at a Brooklyn gas station was thwarted, but a $108 charge at a market near the gas station went through. The card company’s algorithm had identified the obvious: I don’t own a car and hadn’t been to Bushwick in years. But it also identified the medallion number of the taxi where I had used the card the night before. And that was the only charge I had made in the previous 72 hours.

If there had been a skimmer in the cab – a small device that could remotely read the numbers off the magnetic strip — I probably wasn’t the only victim. I knew that data breaches and identity theft were a real concern for millions of people. Although “only” 800,000 records had been stolen in 2015, the year before had been a consumer protection disaster: 64 million records had been pilfered in 2014 involving breaches of the federal government’s employment records, CVS, Hilton, Hyatt, and Ashley Madison, to name just a few.

I did not know if the cab driver was complicit, but his cab and the garage were reasonable places to begin any investigation. Of course my card could have been hacked, cloned, or skimmed at any time, and sold weeks earlier. But there had been something sketchy about the cab driver: he had missed my requested stop twice, and was on his cell phone the entire trip. So I filed an online complaint with the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission. When the TLC’s instant response was, “You’ll hear from someone in 45 days,” I decided to be pushy, and picked up the telephone. I was concerned that any video surveillance from the gas station would be erased after such a delay.

When I shared my story with friends in the NYPD, they were neither surprised nor hopeful. One immediately responded, “Civil service mentality.”

The TLC investigator was happy to file a complaint against the driver for talking on the telephone and missing my stop, but said she could do nothing about the identity theft. That was police matter. So at lunch I went to my local precinct.

The young patrolman at the desk listened to my story for about 30 seconds and then tried to discourage me from filing a complaint. It wasn’t a crime, he insisted. Only one charge went through, and I wouldn’t be held responsible for it. I told him I was an attorney and a writer, and cited the applicable provisions of the Penal Law. He begrudgingly shuffled me off to a waiting area. Twenty minutes later, with still no action, I called a friend in the NYPD. He suggested I ask the desk officer to convey a message to the precinct commander: regards – and a dumb joke – from my friend. The commander wasn’t around, but the desk officer suddenly sensed a potential problem with his boss, produced a complaint form, and we filled it in.

He then told me I’d have to follow up with the Brooklyn precinct where the gas station and market were located. As I walked out, I realized it had taken 90 minutes, and I still didn’t have a complaint number; the desk officer had shifted responsibility for investigating this minor crime to another precinct.

When I contacted the Bushwick detective squad two days later, I was informed the case was closed. There would be no investigation. No explanation was offered. I could talk to someone in the statistical unit who could recode the complaint and that might perhaps re-open the case. I did, and heard nothing for three weeks. Then, one Saturday afternoon I got a call from a detective – from the original precinct. The case had been bumped back there, and he was puzzled why he was just seeing it now. I again repeated what I knew and he said he would investigate. He did, and three hours later called to say that the market had a surveillance camera. But the video was erased; it was only kept for two weeks.

If the officers and detectives so cavalierly ignored, discouraged, and dismissed a victim who is white, educated, middle-class and at least a little “connected”, how do they treat people without such advantages? When I shared my story with friends in the NYPD, they were neither surprised nor hopeful. One immediately responded, “Civil service mentality.” And another blamed Compstat, “The desk officer didn’t want to open a case that would never be pursued; his boss would have an open-unsolved on his Compstat report.”

On the spectrum of pressing matters that the NYPD must deal with every day, my identity theft and petit larceny were admittedly unimportant. I’d much rather have police resources focused on getting a gun off the street, pursuing a speeding driver, or putting a case together against a domestic abuser. But in terms of how the Department interacted with a citizen, it was clear that the NYPD needs a customer-service re-boot.

Why? Because effective crime fighting needs the active support of citizens. People who have had frustrating – or even indifferent – interactions with the police department will be less receptive to police requests for help: “I don’t want to get involved.” There is also self-interest: the police unions are spending lots of money trying to convince the public that they deserve more than the 1% raise that Mayor de Blasio is offering. New Yorkers who have been ignored by the NYPD are less likely to be empathetic to its needs.

Policing is a dangerous job, but there is way too much bureaucracy and legacy inefficiencies. America has moved into the internet age, but the NYPD reminds us of Lily Tomlin’s classic response, “We’re the phone company. We don’t have to care.”

Imagine if the NYPD’s citizen interactions were dictated by the same values and procedures that drive Amazon. People could file complaints online and know that there would be action – not necessarily resolution — within 48 hours. Not all complaints would be resolved in the victim’s favor, but the presumption would be that the citizen’s concern was legitimate. And everyone up and down the chain of command would be held accountable.

The NYPD may not care that I’m a dissatisfied citizen, but it should. Every interaction between police and civilians should be an opportunity to build trust and mutual respect. At least pay attention when you ignore me! When the NYPD fails to respect a person’s time or take his concerns seriously – even when the crime is relatively minor — it widens the gap between them. That is not good for the Department, the individual, or the City.

Steve Cohen is a lawyer at KDLM in New York. The NYPD Needs a Customer-Service Re-Boot