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Life Inside

A Night with the NYPD

In which the rookie learns what police really think.

“Jesus Christ, use your head!” the sergeant at the wheel cries at a car lingering in front of him. He hits his siren – Whoop! Whoop! – and inches past the offending vehicle. It’s 5:45 p.m. in the Bronx, and the sergeant, partnered with a rookie fresh out of the police academy, is on his way to the evening’s first call, a 3-4: assault in progress. The sergeant hits the gas and the colorful storefronts outside blend into a blur.

Until recently, rookies didn’t ride with veterans on New York City’s streets. For over a decade, as part of a program called Operation Impact, a police academy graduate’s first job was invariably foot patrol in one of the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods, what the NYPD calls “impact zones.” As the sergeant, who himself started in Operation Impact, puts it: “A lot of rookie cops go to the worst areas and just attack: write summonses, write everything, arrest everybody.”

But last year, as part of a broader effort to create a kindler, gentler NYPD, Police Commissioner William Bratton announced a fresh approach, wherein rookies no longer go to Operation Impact and are instead paired in patrol cars with specially trained senior officers assigned to mentor them and give them a fuller sense of the job. The sergeant – who on his first night out of the academy was left by himself on a street corner in a crime-ravaged South Bronx neighborhood, without even a radio to call for backup – is skeptical.

“He’s being handled with kid gloves,” the sergeant says a few days later, comparing the rookie’s experience to his own. “They don’t want him to be a hammer. They don’t want him to go, ‘Oh, I got to write 20 summonses, I got to get an arrest.’ They want him to, basically, give everybody a hug. Which, listen, if it works, I’ll eat my sock.”

On a normal night, the rookie would ride with his mentor and his partner from the academy. But tonight the precinct is understaffed, so the rookie is under the wing of exactly the kind of old-school cop that the sergeant himself says the brass are afraid will “corrupt” him. Although the sergeant seems eager to speak his mind, the NYPD doesn’t allow officers to talk to the press without permission, so neither his name nor the rookie’s will be revealed here.

No one’s spilling the beans at the 3-4, either. The sergeant stands on the sidewalk, coaxing a young black woman with a baby carriage to explain what happened. The rookie stands nearby, keeping an eye on the young black man with her. Tears are drying on the woman’s face. The man with her paces circles on the sidewalk, hands pushed down into his pockets. When it’s clear he’s getting nowhere, the sergeant bends down and lifts the blanket covering the carriage. “When there’s a baby, I always check the baby,” he says, back in the car.

The sergeant, white, thirty-something, and assigned to an overwhelmingly black and Hispanic precinct, looks like the former high school football player that he is: tall, wide, and meaty with a broad face and a buzz cut. “Now onto more important business,” he tells the rookie. “I’m starving. You ever have halal before? You’re in for a treat.”

They eat out of styrofoam cartons while parked in the car: chicken and lamb over rice, heavy on the white sauce, light on the hot. The sergeant has warmed to the notion of a night with the rookie and starts dispensing wisdom. Stay away from impact zones for meals in the car. Open your jacket while eating; it’s harder to clean than the bulletproof vest underneath. And, most importantly, an old boss’s mantra that the sergeant will repeat several times during tonight’s tour: “People call you to make things better. So things should be better when you leave.”

With their empty cartons bagged up in the back seat, the sergeant continues his lecture while steering the car onto a broad avenue.

“It’s important to know the street,” he says. “When I’m looking out the window, I’m looking far ahead. See this guy in that car? If he’s dirty, he’s seen you already. You got to look farther ahead. See that guy over there? Why does he only have one hand in his pocket? Why not both hands? If you don’t notice stuff like that, you’re going to suck at this job.”

G etting rookies out of Operation Impact was one of a number of changes de Blasio and Bratton began making in 2014. The city also dropped the Bloomberg administration’s appeals of two Federal District Court decisions that restricted the use of stop-and-frisk in both public and private settings. The NYPD has consequently been updating its policies for both.

And amid last fall’s controversy over Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, Bratton announced that 20,000 officers would undergo a new, three-day training program focused on dealing with uncooperative people and those who resist arrest. The sergeant has attended the first two of his three days. “It’s basically trying to calm everybody down, from what I see,” he says. “You know, it’s like, ‘Take it easy, it’s not us against them.’”

But the sergeant feels frustrated and thinks that the general public and his superiors no longer support him or his style of policing, which he calls “proactive”: broken windows-based policing intended to deter more serious crimes. “Proactive policing is jumping out, looking for stuff,” the sergeant says. “Get the criminals off the street and everybody can sing ‘Kumbaya’ then. Not to sing ‘Kumbaya’ while the criminals are running wild.”

“The message was sent,” he says of de Blasio’s decision to drop the Federal Court appeals. “If you don’t have the backing of your mayor, who’s backing you?”

His former boss, a sergeant in another precinct, describes the sergeant as “one of my best guys” with “the sense to uncover criminality. He has an ability to anticipate things before they even develop. He can almost predict what’s the next step of a bad guy.” His one criticism of his former protégé is that some colleagues thought the sergeant “could be a little full of himself.”

“Ten percent of the cops do 90 percent of the work,” says the sergeant, referring to the fraction he considers proactive. He’s concerned that the new policies risk “turning the 90 percent into the 99 percent…. Right now they’re so afraid there’s going to be another lawsuit that makes the news, another police brutality caught on video. So what they want is us to just go answer jobs, be nice to everybody, and move on with your day.”

“But I didn’t come on this job to take reports and to say to people,” the sergeant switches to a meek-sounding voice, “‘Oh, glad I could help you.’ You know?”

A s the evening sky darkens, the sergeant and rookie check on a crowd gathered at a makeshift memorial of cards, candles, and flowers near an apartment building’s entrance, the site of a gang shooting a few days before. They answer another 3-4 in an old woman’s apartment, where she complains her grandson was hitting her. And, after banging on his door and shouting “Police!” they end up in the living room of a middle-aged man in a tank top, reported as having a gun and threatening suicide. He claims to have no idea who called the cops on him or why.

“So you’re not going to kill yourself?” the sergeant asks. “Because if we leave here and you kill yourself, that would look pretty bad for us.”

“That’s one thing you don’t need to worry about,” the man replies.

The next series of calls come from a young woman with a bump on her head who from her doorway says that her boyfriend beat her, a laundromat manager complaining about kids drinking around his machines, and the evening’s first call to the precinct’s impact zone: a restaurant delivery man who reported being robbed at gunpoint. The guy and his electric bike are surrounded by cops by the time the sergeant pulls the car up. Several of them, including the sergeant and the rookie, charge into an apartment building and fan out, looking for the robber. But they come up empty.

A few minutes later, it’s 8:30 p.m. and the sergeant and rookie are speeding with flashing lights under an elevated train track to another 3-4, this one involving a gang.

“Let’s jump these guys!” the sergeant orders the rookie, after slamming the brakes outside the designated address. The “guys” are two young Hispanic men wearing matching red hoodies and leaving the scene. They’re questioned, frisked, and then let go when a young woman comes out of the building’s vestibule to clarify the situation.

A gang of 15 or 20 men and women attacked her, she says, while she was taking out the garbage. “The girls were all black,” she recalls from the back seat of the patrol car. “The guys, I don’t know.”

The sergeant crawls the car slowly through the neighborhood, scanning for the gang, while the woman answers questions and texts her boyfriend in the back. But the streets are empty and the woman gets dropped off after turning down the sergeant’s offer of an ambulance. The rookie writes up the report.

“She was black-Hispanic, right?” he asks the sergeant, considering which box to check.

“If you have any doubt if they’re black or not, then it’s white-Hispanic,” he replies.

I n March, the department circulated to precinct houses a “Finest Message” memo clarifying the new stop-and-frisk rules. The UF 250 forms that cops fill out after stops now include “a narrative section where an officer must record, in his or her own words, the basis for the stop.” NYPD supervisors are tasked with reviewing stops for constitutionality. The processes for investigating civilian complaints, and for imposing discipline on officers, have also changed.

To conduct a stop, says the memo, “An officer must have individualized, reasonable suspicion that the person stopped has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or penal law misdemeanor.” It specifically excludes, as a basis for reasonable suspicion, “furtive movements” and “mere presence in a ‘high crime area.’” Racial profiling is prohibited; stops must be “based on a specific and reliable suspect description that includes not just race, but other identifying characteristics.”

“They’re basically re-reading Terry v. Ohio to us,” says the sergeant, pointing out that the law hasn’t changed and referring to the 1968 Supreme Court decision supporting stop-and-frisks based on reasonable suspicion as opposed to the higher threshold, required for an arrest, of probable cause.

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But even before the memo, the NYPD’s count of stop-and-frisks in the city had plummeted over 90 percent from its peak of 685,724 in 2011 to 46,235 in 2014, a decline that retired NYPD Captain John Eterno – now a professor and director of graduate studies in criminal justice at Molloy College – believes came from the ground up.

“I think much of this is due to the officers themselves, not from the higher echelon,” he says. It was more a matter of cops “seeing what was going on” in the courts and “saying, ‘Well we better not do this.’”

The sergeant’s assessment is similar, and he adds that now, after stopping a suspect, “I have to give you a piece of paper explaining why I stopped you, what to do if you don’t feel comfortable with me stopping you, basically, like, ‘Here, screw me, as much as you can. I’ll see you later.’” Besides, he says, “Nobody wants you to do any work. So what are you doing it for? Most of the people I talk to, that’s how they feel.”

As for charges of racial profiling, the sergeant says he’s never seen it, and cites the sort of statistics former commissioner Ray Kelly often called attention to: that although nearly nine out of 10 New Yorkers stopped by the police are black or Hispanic, the same is true of suspects of violent crime. And that the NYPD is nearly as racially diverse as the city itself, with 42 percent of its officers now black or Hispanic, compared to about 51 percent of city residents.

“To paint us as racist is almost comical,” the sergeant protests. “How could we be the most diverse, and the most racist?”

But the sergeant acknowledges that stop-and-frisk created legitimate complaints: nearly 90 percent of the stops did not yield an arrest and guns were found in fewer than 0.2 percent of the incidents. “A lot of that is true because the department forced activity on young cops,” he says, “so we can generate data.” Eterno goes further, contending that there were “heavy, heavy quota pressures on officers with stop-and-frisk,” as the NYPD single-mindedly evaluated itself with CompStat, the Department’s system for tracking crime data.

But the sergeant still thinks the statistics are skewed. To illustrate, he recounts the case of a young black man he started scrutinizing after an informant told him the man had a gun.

“I’d wait for him to do something that would give me the legal right to approach him,” he says, and then once he had it, “I’d stop him. I would give him a frisk. He’d have no gun on him. Nine times I stopped this kid. Nothing.” So that’s nine bad stops, according to the numbers, he points out. But on the tenth try, the sergeant got the gun and concludes, “I’m stopping the right person…He is up to no good.”

T he sergeant steers the car onto a new street and stops.

“Okay, rookie. A shooter just ran across the street! Call it in! Where are we?”

The rookie looks outside, then back at the sergeant.

“C’mon rookie. I just got attacked in a hallway! Where are we?”

“I don’t know.”

The sergeant shakes his head. “We’re at B----- Street. You gotta know where you are at all times.” A few quiet seconds pass.

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“Don’t worry,” the sergeant says. “Everybody fails that test.”

O ne of the sergeant’s fears is that Bratton will eventually eliminate Operation Impact altogether, and he worries about the consequences of that and the other changes.

“If you take away our right to proactive policing,” he says, “you’re going back to the 90s, late 80s in the city,” when police were branded “potted plants. They didn’t do anything. They weren’t allowed to do anything. They just sat and watched. And that’s what unfortunately is probably going to happen again in the city.”

“We’re up huge in shootings,” he adds. “I think that this summer, if they continue the way they’re going, is going to be probably one of the bloodiest summers that the city has seen in awhile.”

Shooting incidents, according to CompStat’s May 10 report, are up: 8.7 percent higher year-to-date than last year, 13.2 percent higher than the year before. There have been 10 percent more murders this year versus last, too.

Still, most other categories of crime are flat or down and, “We’re not seeing crime jumping up,” according to John DeCarlo, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police chief in Connecticut. DeCarlo points out that the increased homicide rate corresponds to 10 more murders, a small bump compared to the 333 the city experienced in 2014 and the 2,262 it suffered in 1990, the city’s most murderous year.

“We’re still on the plus side of the ledger,” adds DeCarlo’s colleague at John Jay, David Kennedy, professor of criminology as well as the director of the National Network for Safe Communities. But, Kennedy says, the numbers are only part of the story. “A lot of the conversation in New York has proceeded as if the question of constitutionality doesn’t matter, but it does.”

Kennedy means the large numbers of innocent, primarily black and Hispanic, people stopped, questioned, and frisked during the practice’s heyday as a deterrence strategy. As Vince Warren, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights – the organization that filed the successful class action suit against stop-and-frisk – puts it, “We will know that the police are operating in a constitutional manner when the relationship between the number of people that they stop and the number of arrests and summonses that they make are more in line.”

Despite his belief in broken windows and stop-and-frisk, the sergeant is sympathetic to innocent citizens caught in a widely cast net. “I hate it when I jump out of the car,” he says, “and I grab you and you’re like ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and you show me you work at sanitation and I got it 100 percent wrong. I feel horrible. I apologize to you. I’m like, ‘Holy shit man, I’m sorry.’”

And though he believes that “policing has to be different in every area,” he’s conflicted about the unfairness that that approach implies. “If I could change something,” the sergeant suggests, “I wouldn’t change the stops – stop ‘em – but if he’s a hardworking man: discretion,” he says. “ I never wrote the summons to the 52-year-old guy getting off work that’s having a beer on his stoop, unless he was an asshole to me or something like that. So I always had the discretion.”

But the zeitgeist appears to have moved past the point of providing more power to the police and toward the notion of “community policing,” in which law enforcement cooperates with civilians to achieve its aims. DeCarlo cites the recent “Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” which President Obama commissioned as a response to last year’s events in Ferguson and New York and which calls community policing a “pillar.” Says DeCarlo, “There’s nothing in there about ‘Let’s go out there and kick ass.”

The NYPD is piloting its own community policing programs, with David Kennedy serving as a consultant. One initiative, called “Operation Ceasefire,” will “identify the gang and crew members that overwhelmingly drive the violence,” says Kennedy, and then meet them face-to-face with a coalition of community leaders and law enforcement to warn them that they’re at risk, to offer social services, and to make clear the legal consequences of violent behavior. According to Kennedy, “The point is not to arrest you, but to stop the violence.”

“The department is not retreating from proactive policing,” he adds. “It’s doing it differently.”

But, as DeCarlo puts it, “There’s an old saying amongst police administrators. Cops don’t like two things. They don’t like change and they don’t like the way things are.”

The sergeant tells a story to illustrate how hard he finds it to switch modes. It was his daughter’s first birthday, and he didn’t want to miss it.

“I can’t make an arrest, I can’t make an arrest,” he says told himself. “I’ve got to be there.” But then, “I find myself in the middle of a car chase, chasing a car, getting into an accident, breaking both my thumbs, and after it’s all done, I’m like ‘I knew I couldn’t get involved in anything. What am I doing?’”

“But,” he says, “you get in the zone and it’s tough to stop it.”