"It's complicated," Mike the Cop said June 1 when asked about the state of the job for NYPD officers a year after the murder of George Floyd and the turbulent, sometimes-violent protests on city streets that followed.
"We finally got new people for the first time in a year," with the recent graduation of two classes totaling 847 rookie officers from the Police Academy. "But the New York City Police Department is very shorthanded right now. Enough people have retired or moved on or resigned, and the new people aren't enough to make up for the ones we lost. We're running fewer [patrol] cars than we ever have."
The scrambling that forced has limited the extent to which officers can do community policing as they deal with rising crime while trying to indoctrinate the new officers, said Mike, who was speaking as usual on the condition that his real name not be used.
"It's suffered because you can't give people the attention they'd like," he said, referring to residents who want to discuss problem areas in their neighborhoods with the cops. "It's like being a teacher in a class of 10 students vs. a class of 30 students."
And so quality-of-life calls wind up largely neglected, he continued, because the department has other priorities.
'Anything We Can Do? Probably Not.'
Residents complain about conditions, including pot-smoking on their blocks notwithstanding the fact that marijuana has been legalized statewide, Mike said. Other nuisance crimes, he said, will bring the question: "Is there anything we can do?" In many cases, he said, the response is "probably not," at a time when murders, shootings and other violent crimes matter most.
He works in a relatively low-crime precinct, but he noted, "If somebody's robbing a store, we have to turn all our attention to that." The result, though, is that when residents can't get officers to address less-serious offenses, "People are frustrated, and they yell at us because that's how customer service works," meaning NYPD brass aren't readily available to hear the complaints.
"I think it's only going to get worse as the summer goes along," Mike said.
And officers, besides being assailed by citizen grievances and a perceived loss of respect for their authority, feel under siege because of pending legislation that figures to make it even harder to do their jobs than laws that have already had that effect over the past 18 months. Among the new concerns is a bill introduced late last month by State Attorney General Letitia James that would criminalize any force that was deemed excessive.
"James is saying we can only use force as a last resort," Mike said. "That's what we normally do. Her bill's based on the assumption that we go out looking for trouble."
The stress this places on veteran officers is compounded by the reality that "we're also trying to bring new people into the fold" and have to adapt the on-street training they provide because of the changes in laws governing force that have already taken hold.
"We used to have a clear idea of what's expected of us," he said. "Good cops always prided themselves on doing things themselves. It's not necessarily by the book; it's a more-effective way to handle a situation" than is laid out in the Patrol Guide.
'Getting Like Robots'
But, Mike continued, "Because there's so much oversight, we're teaching new people you have to take your time and you have to be closer to what the official version is. You don't want them to wind up like robots, but that's the direction in which we're going. There's no creativity to it anymore."
Ironically, he said, this, too, can lead to conflicts with residents who have complaints about neighborhood conditions.
"I get the impression that when someone calls 911, they expect us to do our jobs the way we always have, but to follow all the new rules," Mike said. "Many times, you just can't do both. We're not going to take proactive physical action that might get us arrested."
He was referring to the bill enacted by the City Council and signed into law by Mayor de Blasio last summer that leaves officers liable to criminal charges if, in the course of making an arrest, they compress the diaphragm of the person with whom they are struggling. That was actually a tack-on to a measure criminalizing chokeholds—which the police unions were willing to live with because a similar measure had already been passed by the state—that was made by then-Councilman Rory Lancman, who said he went beyond the change he had fruitlessly pursued for the previous five years because he was confident that in last summer's anti-police climate Mr. de Blasio would not take on the Council by opposing that provision.
In past clashes where cops met resistance while trying to make an arrest, Mike said, "If they fought you and you fought back, before the diaphragm stuff, you could take legal action to effect an arrest while protecting yourself.
"The other part," he added, "is people are not listening to us anymore." Prior to the George Floyd protests, "If you went up to people and said they had to leave, they would listen, even if they just moved to another corner. They might curse you out, but they would be walking while talking."
'Public Doesn't Back Us'
Now, he said, cops will get static from bystanders in situations where they wouldn't have in the past. "As soon as you start taking some kind of action, the public does not have your back. When they're filming, they're not doing it to protect you; they want to be the person who saves 'the next George Floyd.' We used to put someone in handcuffs without anyone protesting. People didn't used to blow past cops to ask someone in handcuffs, 'Are you alright?' Of course they're alright: they're sitting on the ground, nobody's hitting them."
Mike continued, "I welcome people to film, because the people I'm working with, we're not going to do anything wrong. If you film us, you're going to get a boring video; it's not going to go viral."
He said he had no issue with a city bill that would end NYPD officers' right to qualified immunity against civil suits, explaining, "You were never protected and indemnified if you violated someone's civil rights. It's just that they put it in writing" with the legislation, which is similar to a measure introduced in Congress to apply nationally, spurred by decades in which judicial rulings have expanded cops' immunity to ridiculous lengths. A Federal Judge in Mississippi last summer wrote a broadside against abuse of that right even as he acknowledged he was compelled to dismiss a lawsuit against a local cop who had egregiously violated his authority after stopping a black man for the crime of driving a stylish late-model car.
Told that Ms. James's "last-resort" bill was unlikely to advance in Albany because she introduced it less than three weeks before the Legislature's scheduled June 10 adjournment, Mike replied, "The fact that it was even brought up is enough to make cops hesitate." The NYPD grapevine is powerful, even though it is often wrong, he explained: "People say, 'She said it; that means it's going to happen.' If not this session, then next."
And on the other side of the divide, he continued, "Perps now think that's the rule, and they think, 'We can do what we want now and they can't do anything to us.'"
That blowback reinforces cops' anxieties about the pendulum having shifted against them—"You get the impression they're all out to get you. It's not true, but it seems that way."
Eyes on Mayor's Race
Mike said his fellow officers were paying somewhat-close attention to the Mayor's race, even though "a lot of people aren't registered Democrats and a lot of people don't live in the city."
Many of them rely on reporting in the Daily News and the Post in forming their opinions, and the conversation has generally focused on the two men who have been on top of the polls for much of the race, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, rather than those vying for progressive voters.
Mike said, "I think Eric Adams is attracting a lot of attention from police officers," who are interested in his candidacy despite the ex-NYPD Captain's past friction with both the Police Benevolent Association and the NYPD hierarchy.
"He's no Bo Dietl," he said wryly, referring to the ex-Detective who opposed Bill de Blasio's re-election in 2017 while running on the Dump the Mayor ballot line. "What I find interesting about him is he's hard to pin down, and so he's almost treating [stop-and-frisk] like a complex issue, which I like."
Referring to a station-house beating when Mr. Adams was 15 years old that he has frequently cited during the campaign, Mike continued, "Rather than become an advocate, he became a cop. It's an interesting way to deal with the problem."
He wondered how many of his colleagues would actually vote for Mr. Adams, saying, "He's trying to approach a complex issue with some nuance. On the other hand, the likelihood of many of them voting for a Democrat for Mayor is foreign." But, he said, "You'll hear people saying since Adams is running on a mix of justice and order, you're gonna have to make good on that."
He added, "I think Yang has won over a couple of people who think he's a moderate."
Among candidates running further to the left, he said, "You're instantly going to write off Scott Stringer, who they know because he's been in the public eye a long time."
Wake Up to Wiley
Asked about Maya Wiley, the former Counsel to Mr. de Blasio and chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board who has heatedly engaged Mr. Adams on stop-and-frisk, Mike said, "I think they wouldn't know who Maya Wiley is." But moments after concluding a 45-minute interview, he called back to say, "I just got a notification from The Post of a Maya Wiley anti-cop ad. I guarantee you they'll be talking about her now."
The dispute between Mr. Adams and Ms. Wiley over stop-and-frisk has punctured perceptions of each candidate's persona. Mr. Adams, sometimes described as tightly wound with a shoot-from-the-hip style, is the one who's had a three-dimensional view of the tactic. He testified against the NYPD's abuse of it during the 2013 Federal trial that led to the ruling that the department frequently deployed it unconstitutionally, culminating in the appointment of a monitor who continues to examine its practices, but he has defended it as a worthwhile crime-fighting tool when used properly.
Ms. Wiley, in contrast, attacked him over that position, notwithstanding her legal background and the Supreme Court precedent of 53 years ago that found it was permissible to use it when officers had reasonable suspicion to believe that someone had just committed a crime or was about to do so.
Stops peaked at 685,000 in 2011, and declined in the final two years of the Bloomberg administration as it prepared to fend off the lawsuit against their constitutionality, falling to 191,000 in 2013. By 2016, three years into Mr. de Blasio's tenure, they had plummeted to slightly more than 12,000, and have stayed in that vicinity since then. The decline began in the spring of 2012, when then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly removed the unofficial quota that existed for officers in high-crime precincts with an order directing them to focus on "quality" stops, and accelerated under the current Mayor, who made sharply limiting them the focal point of his 2013 campaign.
Mike said the numbers have remained low for reasons having little to do with Mayor de Blasio's priorities, not least of them the burden placed on cops to account for them.
"Any stop report goes by the Federal monitor," he said. "If you stop someone at Level 3—reasonable suspicion—that paper is going to be scrutinized very heavily, all the way up to 1 Police Plaza and the Federal monitor."
And, he noted, two or three forms concerning stops have to be filled out in triplicate, "and the body-camera footage [of the encounter] has to match up perfectly."
When doing the stops, he said, the person targeted must be offered a contact card that contains information about where they can lodge objections to the stop, including the phone number of the CCRB. And, he added, "You must let them know that they don't have to consent to the search."
He offered one recent example of how the added requirements have altered police response to complaints by citizens that someone is behaving suspiciously or in an erratic manner. A young woman approached officers and said she had just seen a man near a subway station who was waving around a large knife. She declined, however, to accompany them to identify the man.
When two of the cops walked in the direction she indicated, the younger one saw a man who fit the general description and asked the other one, "Could that be the guy?"
"Ten years ago," Mike said, "you might have just stopped the guy and patted his waistband. Maybe you pull out a butcher's knife. But he's not indicating he's a threat right now, and you don't do anything, and we move on and see two or three people who fit her description. But they're not doing anything to attract attention, so we don't stop them, either."
He continued, "Would it have been good to have stopped someone and gotten a knife off the street? Yeah. But we're just not doing that. I'm not going to risk violating his civil rights now. The public doesn't want it; the department doesn't want you violating someone's civil rights. We're not going to take the kind of action that creates the possibility of a physical confrontation."
The reasons extend to the negative consequences for cops in forcing the issue in those circumstances. "It's just not worth the risk," Mike said. "There could be cases where you make a good collar but you still get sued. Or worse, you wind up getting hurt" in a physical struggle.
Subways the Action Spot
If there is a place where aggressive enforcement is encouraged these days, it is in the subways, where a rash of violent crimes, from slashings aboard trains to attempts by emotionally disturbed people to push people from the platform onto the tracks, have provoked a public outcry while making some riders reluctant to return after more than a year of not having to commute to work.
"That's where the overtime is now," Mike said, after the Council's overreaction to the Floyd protests and claims that cops abused peaceful protesters led to a reduction in the NYPD's overtime budget.
Mr. Yang's call to put two officers on every subway platform drew a derisive response from Mr. Adams, a former Transit cop, who said they were most needed on the trains.
"The truth is," Mike said, "you have to do both. What we used to be able to do is insert plainclothes guys onto the trains, and you might catch someone who already did things at other stations. Getting rid of the plainclothes patrols [by non-Transit Bureau officers] has been a problem," he said, a move that was ordered not long after the Floyd protests.
The result has been, he said, a shift from "proactive to reactive policing."
To be able to return to the kind of deployment that is most effective in preventing and deterring crime but also carries risks of alienating some segments of the public and elected officials, he said, "They need to start hiring people who can really do this—who are able to make good decisions."
An Inexcusable Blunder
Referring to the April incident in which a 26-year veteran Minnesota police officer, Kimberly Potter, fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop and claimed she had mistakenly fired her gun when she thought it was her Taser, Mike said, "I almost lost my mind over that woman in [Brooklyn Center] who couldn't tell the difference. Yes, it's a tough job, but you've gotta get that right. That's a 10-out-of-10 thing."
Ms. Potter resigned her job and has been charged with manslaughter. The chief of the Brooklyn Center P.D. also resigned.
For the NYPD to avoid similar mishaps that lead to fatalities, Mike said, "They need to raise the standards and stop acting like anybody can [be a cop with the right training]. You don't need a higher education, but you need people with a good level of situational awareness."
He concluded, "People will say you need tough guys to do the job. Yeah, but tough guys who make good decisions."