by Robert Gangi
In what could fairly be described as the de Blasio administration's entry in the contest for the Sean Spicer medal for the the most blatant lie by a government spokesperson this month, here's a recent statement by J. Peter Donald, an NYPD mouthpiece: "Quotas for arrests, summonses, or stops have never been used by the NYPD. The department measures success based on the prevention and reduction of crime." Mr. Donald spoke in reference to a $75 million court settlement that NYC had just agreed to and that accused the Police Department of issuing at least 900,000 bogus summonses from 2007 to 2015. The lawsuit stated that city officials pressure officers on the ground to issue summonses not in response to infractions or crimes but to meet a minimum required number.
In general, informed observers of NYPD practices know that the department has employed quotas to evaluate officer performance for years, if not decades. Police brass including recently retired commissioner Bill Bratton and current department head Joseph O'Neil regularly deny their existence partly because state legislation outlaws their use. Police officials euphemistically claim that they have "productivity goals," but not numerical quotas. George Orwell is alive and well at today's NYPD.
There are specific reasons that we at the Police Reform Organizing Project are certain about the department's persistent use of quotas. Over the years our organization's representatives have talked with a number of police officers, retired and on the force, all of whom have stated unequivocally that quotas are a daily fact of life within the NYPD. Here are some of their accounts:
- Under pressure to "make their numbers" each month, some officers working in a precinct with a cemetery within its borders will issue "cemetery summonses," meaning that they will enter the graveyard and write up summonses with the names of dead people that they find on the tombstones.
- One of the first questions that an officer new to an inner-city precinct asks is, "What is the number?" Some precincts -- those serving white well-to-do communities, for example -- have no quotas.
- Some officers will for most of the month ignore a neighborhood "hot spot," a place where crime such as drug-dealing or prostitution takes place in the open, and if they have not met their quota, will round up the people at those sites at the end of the month.
- An NYPD supervisor brought rookie officers assigned to transit duty into a room on a subway platform in an inner-city area and directed them to peek through slits in the metal door to look out for and to arrest fare evaders. One officer thinks, "What are you kidding me?' and then they do it again.
- An officer objected to an NYPD higher official about the practice of hiding in a room or behind a post on a subway platform. The officer wants to stand in a visible place by the turnstile -- in this way, his presence will effectively deter fare evaders and he will be available to help New Yorkers if a real problem arises. "No," he's told, "we want you in the room and to hit your number."
- An officer asked his supervisor for an unplanned day off to deal with a family emergency. "Like to help you out," the supervisor replied, "but I have to check your activity." In other words, if the officer did not fulfill his quota, his supervisor would not grant his request.
- To illustrate how quotas turn the idea of good policing on its head, an officer explained: "If I break up a fight between two boys and send them home, I get no credit. If I happen to help deliver a baby in an emergency, I don't get credit. But I score points if I issue a seat belt ticket or record a stop."
- An officer said that sometimes you can see the trail for "quality of life" directives, pressure from headquarters to borough commanders, precinct captains to lieutenants, and sergeants to cops on the street.
- "It is easier to arrest a black or brown kid" in Harlem, an officer told us. He went on to say that under nor circumstances would he arrest an Orthodox Jewish person because they will "make your life miserable" by using their connections against you.
More evidence has come from the victims of unfair policing who tell us that an officer apologized after making an arrest or issuing a summons. In one instance, an officer, after ticketing a man for walking between the subway cars of a stopped train, said, "Sorry about this, but it's the 26th of the month and I have to make my number."
An especially pernicious feature of the NYPD's quota system is that the officer gets the notch on her/his belt as soon as s/he makes the arrest or issues a summons, the quality of the sanction notwithstanding. If the arrest or summons lacks merit or is straight-up bogus, if the district attorney declines to prosecute -- which happens in roughly 10 percent of NYPD arrests -- or the judge dismisses the charges, the officer not only does not face any consequences, the department rewards the officer by crediting her/him with having taken a step toward "making their number." By applying quotas in this blind and mechanical way, the NYPD actually incentivizes unjust and abusive policing.
As a matter of principle, lying about government practices is bad business. In this era of Trumpian antics we all too frequently see its toxic effect on our public consciousness. We also see how it can conceal the harmful effects that actual on the ground policies have on citizens, especially the most vulnerable people living among us. Mayor de Blasio and Police Chief O'Neill -- after all, Mr. Donald couldn't have issued such a brazen falsehood without their green light -- should take pains not to add another "alternative fact" to our political discussions. While they may think that the circle the wagons tactics represented by Mr. Donald's misguided quote serve NYPD institutional interests, such stratagems serve poorly all us New Yorkers in need of our local government's safeguards and represent a disheartening failure of responsibility at a time when we as a City and country more than ever need to hear the outspoken voices of credible and truthful leaders who directly challenge the corruption of America's political discourse.
Robert Gangi is a police reform activist in NYC. Checkout more of his work here.