NYPD arrest

ROLE REVERSAL: The enactment two months ago of a law subjecting police officers to criminal charges if they compress the diaphragm of someone they are trying to arrest has many officers feeling like they're the ones wearing restraints. One patrol cop explained the more-deliberate process of taking someone into custody, often with the help of back-up officers, by saying, 'The abundance of caution, being careful about people, that's not going away as long as that law is in effect.'

"There's absolutely no slowdown going," Mike the Cop said Sept. 10 when asked about the suspicions voiced the previous three weeks by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Councilman Ritchie Torres that falling arrest numbers at the same time that shootings rose sharply was attributable to discontent within the NYPD about a new law imposing criminal liability for cops who used chokeholds or compressed a suspect's diaphragm. 

"The spike in crime," he continued, "is due to a lot of factors, one of them being that you no longer have plainclothes units out looking for guns" in the wake of the NYPD's disbanding its Anticrime Unit in early June over several incidents in which its members were criticized as too aggressive.

Another of those factors, Mike said, was that in a city where both the legislative and executive branches since early summer seemed more intent on punishing and constraining cops than on getting guns and the men and boys who shoot them off the street, "There's no fear of consequences among criminals. I really think there's a sense among them that there's a free-for-all out there."

Mike, which is not his real name, is a patrol cop with enough time in the job to be at maximum salary but not so much as to have become jaded about his job. And so it's significant that his analysis of the problems is consistent with those of both top NYPD commanders and those police-union leaders who haven't overdosed on their Twitter feeds.

Hostility Still Out There But Less Frequently

"We still are dealing with a lot of hostility," he said, but it has become more localized, with the biggest problems occurring in the cities like Rochester and Kenosha, Wis. where excessive force by cops has surfaced in recent weeks and prompted raucous, sometimes-destructive protests.

"There was a small amount of rioting here about a week ago," Mike said, referring to the Sept. 4 disturbance that began in Washington Square and spread north to the Flatiron District, with the damage done estimated at about $100,000 and eight of those involved being arrested.

About 50 of the protesters were "all dressed in black, part of the New Black Panther group," with another 100 people "regular protesters" with no particular uniform, he said. The crowd was far smaller than the couple of thousand who regularly massed on city streets in the days following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop who pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes. And it was that large, Mike said, only because that rally occurred on a weekend, when some of the protesters didn't have to worry about waking up for work the next day.

Despite the calls for investigations into whether cops had been malingering as their own form of protest—a claim that was rebutted by the NYPD's report of 160 gun arrests—the most since 1995—during the week ending Sept. 6, there had been signs that the anti-cop sentiment had crested and broken, including a New York Times story that quoted both elected officials representing high-risk city neighborhoods as well as residents saying they thought it was a terrible idea to defund the police.

That didn't surprise Mike, who explained, "We interact with enough people in high-crime areas who want your help to know that people want proactive policing. We get a lot of appreciation from people who work in retail, store clerks, nurses."

'Cops Still Leaving'

Nonetheless, he said, "People are still pretty down on the job. People are still leaving."

Asked whether the positive reinforcement they're getting from residents and employees in the areas they patrol wouldn't swing the pendulum back to something approaching normal, Mike replied, "We tend to respond to those who are loudest, and that's the problem.

"And," he added, "we have a Mayor who sort of wants to play both sides and doesn't have the political ability to do that. He would've been better off just choosing one side."

One of the weakest moments of Bill de Blasio's mayoralty came when he signed into law July 15 the chokehold bill that also criminalized diaphragm compressions, over the vehement objections of top NYPD commanders. The Mayor admitted he had his own misgivings based on their claims that the latter aspect of the City Council bill would make it difficult for cops to carry out many arrests without leaving themselves vulnerable to criminal charges, but then proclaimed that the change was too important not to seize the moment.

In the weeks since, he's been trying to turn back the clock, virtually endorsing a proposal by Donovan Richards, the Chairman of the Council's Public Safety Committee, that would amend the new law so that if the compression was unintentional, cops would not face charges. It's not clear, however, that enough of his colleagues have had second thoughts to get an amendment approved, and matters have been complicated by Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch saying that only outright repeal of the law would satisfy his members' concerns.

Safety in Numbers

In late July, two weeks after the law was enacted, Mike had said that he and his partner would now routinely call for back-up at the first sign that they might have to make an arrest, noting that having four or more cops on the scene would allow for the grabbing of limbs to immobilize a suspect, rather than having to get someone who was resisting arrest under control with an arm or leg pressed into his back so that the handcuffs could be applied without worrying about that person grabbing for your gun.

"Until they change the phrasing of that law," he said, "that's what's gonna be in effect," referring to the summoning of reinforcements. "Stay away from the diaphragm, stay away from the neck."

He continued, "I think the caution with which we approach things is here to stay. The abundance of caution, being careful about people—that's not going away as long as that law is in effect."

The disbanding of the Anticrime Unit, he said, required the NYPD to dial back its gun tactics as well.

"Rather than a proactive stance, you have a reactive stance," Mike said, while implying that if Anticrime officers had sometimes been too aggressive, the danger of their work had a tendency to shape their styles in that direction.

Responding After Crime

"It's actually safer for officers responding to a 'shots fired'" call, he said. "It's just that you don't have [cops] following people trying to prevent shootings, so you're responding after the crime has been committed."

It wasn't that the police presence in troubled areas had declined, he said, noting, "We're still doing foot posts in high-crime neighborhoods. A uniformed presence is great, but it keeps [criminals] away from that high-crime area. But a covert plainclothes presence allows you to have people a block away," if that becomes the relocation point for criminal activities.

A week earlier, the NYPD had rolled out a disciplinary matrix setting guidelines for addressing various infractions by cops, which it portrayed as an effort to standardize penalties that have too frequently varied depending on whether the offender was well-liked or the person meting out the discipline had pet gripes or overlooked some more-serious offenses.

Mr. Lynch objected that the system would give cops fewer rights than are afforded criminals in dealing with the accusations against them. Mike's feelings were mixed on the subject, and he also said, "This matrix is something they've been using for a while; they just didn't publish it" until now.

"There's always been the suspicion that you're presumed guilty until proven innocent" by Internal Affairs Bureau investigators, he said. "There's the sense that IAB sometimes brings charges because they need to justify their existence." And, he added, personality clashes can cloud what should be objective calls, with investigators acting on a dislike they develop for a cop that may have nothing to do with the supposed offense.

Not Unlike Criminal Court

And once charges are brought, he said, those who handle the cases often behave much like prosecutors in a District Attorney's Office who will reward someone with leniency for a guilty plea and punish cops who plead their innocence and insist on going through the system.

Mike emphasized he was not speaking from first-hand experience—"Discipline in the department is not something I know much about, and I hope to keep it that way."

But from accounts he's heard from other officers, "There's this kind of game they play, where they'll make an offer and if you fight it, they'll up the punishment." And so once again, subjectivity infects the process, and just like in the court system, someone who insists they did nothing wrong can be in worse shape than an officer who enters a plea and gets off lightly.

"Trying to put a matrix in is perceived as trying to tamp some of that down," Mike said of the perception that matters including nepotism and grudges intrude on the disciplinary process. "That at least [the outcome] will be fair, even if it might not be right."

The subjectivity, he said, could be seen in the final decision-making on internal cases by the three previous Police Commissioners before Dermot Shea. "O'Neill really had it in for cops who drove drunk. Kelly was very strict on discipline; Bratton not so much.

A Tainted Aroma

When I suggested that people outside the department  thought the system was perverted by the longtime policy of firing cops who tested positive for marijuana while giving officers who were charged with driving while intoxicated a second chance, Mike agreed. (The argument that pot is illegal and alcohol isn't is an exercise in flim-flam, since driving drunk is a lot more serious a crime than merely smoking weed.)

He said a first offense for a positive test for marijuana should result in a warning, adding that while attitudes had been evolving on that subject in recent years, he didn't expect such a change to occur while he was still in the department.

And, he said, there is a certain level of Mickey Mouse in other parts of the police disciplinary process. "There's actually a rule in the Patrol Guide about 'unnecessary conversation'—that if you're talking with a supervisor [about a problem], he could tell you, 'You're engaging me in unnecessary conversation' and write you up," Mike said.

"Does it happen a lot? No. But the biggest fear is people are going to start getting heavier hits for small infractions."

Asked what the response had been within the PBA—a union whose majority consists of people of color—to its endorsement of President Trump, particularly in the wake of recent revelations about allegedly disparaging remarks he had made about war veterans and his having spoken to Bob Woodward early this year about how deadly the coronavirus could be—Mike replied that "there's a naive response that Donald Trump is pro-law enforcement because he said he is. They see Biden and they see him as being with people who are against us, and therefore they think the other guy must be for us."

'Stick to Meat and Potatoes'

He doubted that Mr. Lynch would face any blowback for so strongly supporting the President regardless of how the election turned out, saying, "Grumblings about Lynch have always been contract-related or connected to the Bronx ticket-fixing" scandal of several years ago. "People normally stick to the meat-and-potatoes concerns: contract, health benefits, discipline."

Asked what the reaction among his colleagues had been to the latest outburst from Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins, who had attacked Councilman Torres on Twitter as "a first-class whore" for calling for an investigation into a possible slowdown, Mike replied, "Mullins does things like this and some of it is sort of shock value. It's like, 'Oh, there goes Mullins again.' He's a firebrand—that's what he does and people kind of expect it from him.

"On the other hand," he concluded, "he's president of a rather large union, and maybe somebody ought to take the phone away from him."    

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