What’s Eating the NYPD? Ray Kelly has built the best police force in the country. Now it is turning on him.
By Chris Smith
The kids are finally asleep. Charlotte Hill* looks like she could use a good nap, too. She wearily blows a strand of auburn hair off her face. The toddler-induced fatigue, the small-liberal-arts-college degree—Hill could be an early-thirties Anymom. Until she starts talking about work. “My first shooting—some kid got shot. I think he died. Did he die?” Hill pauses, thinks. So many bullets, so many bodies in eight years as a city cop. “It was winter, but no snow. It was like ten at night, he got shot in the arm, and then the shooter had run back into the projects. The lieutenant just went crazy on us: ‘You guys fucked up the crime scene!’ Apparently we were all stepping on the shell casings. But the thing is, nobody had trained us!”
The blood didn’t bother her, and she gradually figured out the procedural stuff. But that first shooting was an introduction to dysfunction. “It’s just such a highly punitive and numbers-driven job, and it’s gotten infinitely worse over eight years,” Hill says. “You’re giving me a psychological test and sending me through an academy so I can learn how to have good judgment—and now you don’t want us to have any judgment. Every message is that the department doesn’t trust us. When a cop is out sick, we have to call in if we’re going to the doctor during our shift hours. I’m not kidding. And then they want to know why cops act like children.”
Hill wasn’t naïve when she joined the force: She’d grown up in a major city and understood that Police Department culture is about rank, discipline, and rules, and that the job often means dealing with nasty, even evil people. But as she’s become a skilled foot soldier, part of the rank and file that has strung together an extraordinary decade of declining crime statistics while foiling terrorist plots, Hill has grown uneasy about the dehumanizing cost of keeping the city safe. “You don’t realize how much everyone is going to hate you,” she says. “At least where I work now, people look at you and go, ‘I fucking hate you.’ And I go, ‘I fucking hate you, too.’ And then we move on. I have a harder time with overeducated, moneyed people. When I work on the Upper East Side, or in Downtown Brooklyn, people just talk down to you. We don’t feel supported by the courts, we don’t feel supported by the department. I think everyone would say they love being a cop”—she laughs ruefully—“and they hate being in the NYPD.”
Last year ended with a spate of unpleasant Police Department headlines. On Staten Island, an officer was caught on tape bragging he’d “fried another nigger,” then pleaded guilty to extortion and civil-rights charges. In Brooklyn, eight current and former cops were arrested by the FBI for smuggling guns, among other charges. The nasty run continued: In March, a Washington Heights cop was convicted of a gunpoint sexual assault.
The NYPD was also increasingly under attack for the tactics it has used to drive crime down to historical lows and to head off terrorist strikes. City Council members, prospective mayoral candidates, and civil-liberties groups have flailed the NYPD for stopping and frisking thousands of innocent black and Latino New Yorkers; a series of Associated Press stories has explored the department’s far-reaching surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods.
But while those debates raise important questions, they are largely about policy choices that can be either altered or continued by the next mayor and police commissioner. And the spate of outright criminal behavior by cops, ugly as it was, was not particularly aberrant: Any large organization is going to employ a handful of miscreants, and every police era has its share of corruption. More worrisome, to the functioning of the department and the maintenance of public safety, now and in the future, was the anger rumbling just below the surface of the NYPD—and, on a couple of occasions, bursting out into plain view. In September, cops contributed to a Facebook discussion on the raucous West Indian Day parade that labeled marchers “animals” and “savages.” In October, scores of cops converged on the Bronx County courthouse as sixteen of their colleagues were arraigned on ticket-fixing charges, waving signs reading JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS and some wearing T-shirts that said IMPROVING EVERYONE'S QUALITY OF LIFE BUT OUR OWN. The accumulation of woes and discontent made it look as if Commissioner Ray Kelly was suffering from something more than third-term drift. It looked as if he were losing control of his department.
Cop cynicism is an art form and a self-defense mechanism. You expect black humor and grousing about “the job” and “the bosses” whenever you interview police. What I also expected to hear when I began my conversations with cops of many different ranks, from many different parts of the city, was some well-deserved boasting about being part of the winningest team in Western urban-law-enforcement history. And there are plenty of cops who talk proudly about their colleagues’ acts of heroism or, more quietly, about their own small moments of doing good. But the collective NYPD mood is surprisingly dark. There’s something different about the current discontent. The complaints aren’t about the old standby, low pay; they’re about the systems the NYPD uses to bring down crime—systems that are fueling a bitterness that can interfere with the department’s ability to keep the city safe.
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