New York City is safer than it’s been in generations, but there does seem to be an alarming jump in the crime rate inside the New York Police Department.
In the past two months, members of the country’s biggest police force have been accused of fixing parking tickets, smuggling guns and even planting drugs on innocent people.
In October, the U.S. attorney in New York, Preet Bharara, charged five current NYPD officers with smuggling what they thought were stolen cigarettes and firearms as part of an FBI sting.
“The charges unsealed today include conspiracy to distribute firearms, and conspiracy to distribute over $1 million in stolen goods,” Bharara said at the time. By his side was Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
A few days later, Kelly faced the media again, this time in the Bronx.
“It’s difficult to have to announce for a second time this week that police officers have been arrested for misconduct,” he acknowledged.
Sixteen officers were indicted on charges that they fixed tickets for friends and family. Still, Kelly insisted there is no culture of corruption in the department.
“Those actions are crimes under the law,” he said, “And can’t be glossed over as courtesies, or as part of an acceptable culture. They are not.”
Some observers think fixing tickets is more prevalent than Kelly is willing to admit.
“This is an embedded way of life in the police department. And he’s done nothing to stop that until all this stuff hit the newspapers,” says Leonard Levitt, who has covered the NYPD for years, first as a newspaper reporter, and now as the author of a blog and book called NYPD Confidential.
In another city, the recent spate of corruption allegations might lead to an investigation, or jeopardize the job of the police commissioner. But Levitt says none of that has happened in New York so far.
“We have the threat of 9/11 still hovering over us. And the whole town is jittery,” he says, “I think that allows Ray Kelly and the police department to do a lot of things that they wouldn’t have been able to do in the past.”
The mayor’s office does have a commission charged with overseeing the police. But critics like Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, say it doesn’t have any real power.
“We’re the only big police department in the United States without any sort of independent oversight,” Aborn says. “Chicago has it, Philadelphia has it, L.A. has it. And unfortunately every 20 years, like clockwork, we get these very big scandals.”
After the infamous New York police corruption scandals of the 1970s and 1990s, Aborn says, it took an outside inquiry to clean up the department.
But the NYPD’s defenders say recent corruption allegations are overblown in a department with 35,000 officers. On the day the charges of fixing tickets were announced, dozens of off-duty officers rallied in the Bronx in support of the defendants while police union President Patrick Lynch held a news conference.
“Taking care of your family, taking care of your friends, taking care of those who support New York City police officers and law enforcement is not a crime, period,” Lynch told reporters.
Fixing tickets may not be the most serious problem, agrees Levitt. But he is troubled by the NYPD’s alleged policy of spying on Muslim Americans and by the case of seven narcotics detectives in Brooklyn who were convicted of planting drugs on innocent people to meet their arrest quotas.
“That’s as serious as it gets,” says Levitt. “But how widespread that is, I don’t know, and nobody seems to know. The lack of transparency means that we don’t really know how widespread it is. I’d like to believe it’s not, but who knows?”
The NYPD did not respond to NPR’s interview requests for this story. But Kelly did defend the department at a news conference last month.
“The vast majority of police officers do outstanding work to protect the city with fewer resources than we’ve had in the past,” he said.
As long as crime stays low, even critics think it’ll take more than a few corruption scandals to change the way the NYPD does business.