The Scandal behind the Scandal
By John A. Eterno and Eli B. Silverman
Recent revelations of ticket fixing are less than meets the eye. They are symptomatic of the findings of our long standing publicized and published research.
According to the unions, ticket fixing is a fairly common practice. Recent news accounts confirm that 400 or more officers are involved. While, we have no reason to disbelieve this, our findings demonstrate that fixing complaint reports in order to manipulate crime statistics was just as common, if not more common, than ticket fixing. This occurs for numerous reasons.
First, the upper echelon has consistently pressured officers for numbers indicating drops in serious crime, more summonses, a greater amount of stop and frisk reports, downgrading crime to less serious offenses. The unions are on the record and this is confirmed by tape recordings revealing enormous pressures on officers which may amount to illegal quotas. Such pressures emanate from Compstat. Whether one likes it or not such numbers are ruling NYPD. This forces lower level officers to write summonses, sometimes even when it may conflict with the mission of the department. This is one of the reasons why the department has someone to “void” summonses at the Chief of Department’s office. Such an informal ticket fixing scandal spirals out of control when numbers rule the day. As our research has indicated, informal norms develop in response to iron control by the upper echelon. This is a well known to social scientists.
Second, such practices, including ticket fixing, and manipulating crime complaint reports, involve much more than lower ranking officers. Pressures to make the numbers look good emanate from Headquarters. Yet it seems the NYPD is happy to send the lower ranks -- officers and sergeants -- to the trial room and to court. However, everyone needs to be held accountable. The fact that this ticket fixing scandal was unearthed by happenstance -- Internal Affairs looking for drug dealing --should raise red flags. The much prized NYPD oversight agencies-- Quality assurance, Data Integrity, Integrity Control Officers were AWOL on this issue. Why did the officers feel so free to violate ethical and legal guidelines? As our survey showed, integrity in statistics is not something commanders in the Compstat era are as concerned with. They are more concerned with making the numbers “look right for Compstat.”
The New York Times reports that the NYPD installed an electronic ticket scanning system last summer to prevent these ticket fixing practices from occurring in the future. The Times states “It is unclear why the department did not put it to use sooner.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/23/nyregion/new-system-to-prevent-police-officers-from-ticket-fixing.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y) The fact that this is unclear to seasoned reporters and observers of the NYPD is the real scandal behind the NYPD ticket fixing scandal. A monitoring system requires energy, commitment, constant attention and transparency. These qualities are low on the NYPD priority list. If they were higher, the widespread manipulation of crime statistics would have been uncovered and revealed by the NYPD itself.
Third, quality in policing is much more than a numbers game. It is time to hold the upper echelon accountable. If they were not aware, quite frankly, they should have been – especially after our research, several whistleblowers, tape recordings, victims of crimes coming forward, and other evidence has mounted. Prosecution of lower ranks is shameful. Those in higher positions need to be leaders and take responsibility. It starts by recognizing you have a problem. NYPD, you have a problem. Paraphrasing the Knapp Commission, there are meat eaters and grass eaters. While the grass eaters essentially just look the other way, they are the root of the problem. The culture needs to change.
These practices have become part of the NYPD culture. The NYPD needs to be transparent. Lacking transparency other scandals will inevitably emerge.
John A. Eterno, Ph.D. is associate dean of criminal justice at Molloy College. Eli B. Silverman, Ph.D. is professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Village Voice article