March 8, 2015

NYPD Quotas and the Blue Wall of Silence

Last week, P.O. Craig Matthews' case against the NYPD alleging retaliation for his complaining about the quota system (which the NYPD won't admit to), was reinstated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Now, according to the NY Post in two different articles (here and here), a dozen plaintiffs have come forward in a lawsuit against the NYPD alleging that the department is enforcing a quota system for arrests and criminal summonses. These plaintiffs are black and Latino officers who are alleging that the policy is racially driven as the targeted communities are predominantly black and Latino, and these officers are treated more harshly than their white colleagues when they don't meet their quotas.

The safe thing to say is that these are still merely allegations, yada yada yada. But they follow multiple lawsuits filed by officers throughout the City of New York that all generally allege that officers are told there are baseline numbers they must make and woe unto those who fall short. There's far too much smoke here to believe there's no fire crackling underneath.

Personally, I am somewhat torn by the concept of police quotas. The dangers are plain: officers pressed to issue summonses and make arrests may understandably feel compelled to lie and fabricate in order to make their numbers. Officers wield substantial discretion in deciding whether to arrest, issue a summons, or let something pass. Quotas can impact negatively on the use of that discretion, if not push officers into misconduct.

I have litigated many cases where it appears that officers made large numbers of arrests solely to generate numbers. The fact pattern from these cases varies in detail but without much difference: cops go into a home or business with a warrant. They may find a small amount of drugs or a weapon which appear to belong to one or two people, but they arrest everybody in sight. The officers must know who the culpable parties are, but they deliberately grab everyone anyway. The prosecutors often let some or all of these people go without charges, and the rest have their cases dismissed shortly thereafter. These arrests turn into civil lawsuits that end up costing the City substantial amounts of money.

What is notable about this process is that the officers write up these arrests as a positive outcome. Memos will issue in which the officers boast that the warrant execution was a success because X number of arrests were made, regardless of whether any of these people were actually charged, much less convicted of a crime. In other words, success is measured purely by the number of arrests. What happens afterwards is of no consequence to the NYPD. Everybody had their charges dismissed? That's because of the D.A. The City paid out several hundred thousand dollars? Who cares, it doesn't cost the officers or the NYPD anything.

On the other hand, target numbers or production goals are often a necessary part of the workplace. For instance, lawyers who work on an hourly basis often have billing quotas. Surely the negative consequences of falling short could result in padded time sheets, particularly if people's careers are on the line. But if the desired numbers are reasonable targets, and the employer is putting the employee in a position where these goals can be met without bending rules or by outright fabrication, then perhaps they are not only not harmful, but actually useful in terms of setting expectations.

Therein lies the rub. First, whether these targets are reasonable, and second, whether using arrests and summonses as measuring sticks is a good thing. I'm not a criminologist or sociologist, and won't pretend to have read all the recent literature. But, what is clear from the observations available from my location along the pipeline is that the NYPD's top-down fixation on numbers needlessly creates confrontations, and results in pointless and unlawful arrests, with a variety of adverse consequences, including the continuing and cumulative damage to police-community relations.

On another note, it is interesting to see an obvious exception to the blue wall of silence. The blue wall is one of those unintentionally ironic oddities that is simultaneously understandable and thoroughly unreasonable. A law enforcement version of the mob's infamous "omerta," it was the unspoken rule that cops never rat out other cops. No matter how egregious the misconduct, tattling would somehow be worse. Those that violated the code were ostracized, or worse; just ask Florida State Trooper Donna Watts.

Hence, we have law enforcement supporters constantly reminding us that the vast majority of police officers are good cops, men and women who try to do the right thing, who put their lives on the line to make the city safer and protect all of the city's citizens. It is unfair, they lament, to tar them with the same brush reserved for the handful of thugs, thieves, and liars littered throughout the department. This is true, I suppose, except that it isn't. For as long as these "good" officers are willing to tolerate their lawless brothers and sisters, then they are as dirty and complicit as the worst of them.

Omerta is a thing of the past. Even mob chiefs are rolling over these days. But the blue wall remains an impressive force. It is a rare thing when one officer will -- outside of an employment squabble -- call out another officer publicly. It simply is not done.

Yet Craig Matthews, Adrian Schoolcraft, and a host of other officers are comfortable taking on the brass about quotas and retaliation. The distinction being that they are ratting out their bosses, not their brothers and sisters. Whether this is a meaningful chink in blue wall's armor, a blow for class warfare, or just an aberration, is to be determined. I am hoping for door number one. The blue wall of silence is one the NYPD's biggest problems, and poses a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to real, lasting, and meaningful reform within the NYPD. There's no reason to believe we are turning a corner just yet, but perhaps we are getting a little closer.

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