Thursday, June 16, 2011
For Police in the Bronx, a Ticket-Fixing Investigation Stirs Up Fear and Anger
A new policy intended to combat ticket-fixing in the Bronx requires that police officers hand their summonses to desk sergeants. But some officers are apparently taking the requirement a step further: they wait to watch the sergeant electronically scan those tickets, and even resist orders to return to patrol until they have seen the entire transaction.
Then they mark the moment in their memo books — their proof that the ticket did not disappear on their watch.
But that is not the only subtle change occurring around Bronx station houses since a grand jury was empanelled in April to hear evidence against officers fixing traffic tickets for friends and relatives, often with union leaders conveying the requests and making sure the favors were carried out.
In another sign of frayed nerves, those same union leaders are suddenly hard to find.
Once the “Mr. Fix-Its” for the rank and file — arrangers of shift changes, finders of the right union benefits forms and defenders against excessive force complaints — some union leaders are not picking up their phones when officers call them, several said.
But the phone is ringing in the precincts. Residents are calling to heckle officers, demanding their tickets be voided.
“All we get all day on the phone is, ‘Why do the cops have to stop me?’ ‘You guys are fixing tickets; can’t you fix this for me?’ ” said one officer assigned to patrol in one of a dozen station houses in the Bronx. Like most others interviewed, the officer insisted on anonymity.
As many as 40 officers could face criminal charges, and hundreds more may face disciplinary proceedings in the department when the grand jury is finished, most likely in July. Since the investigation began, Internal Affairs Bureau detectives and Bronx prosecutors have been treating precincts as if they were organized criminal enterprises, using multiple wiretaps and calling in officers to testify before the grand jury against others.
Guessing where and when it will end, or how deep and widespread the misconduct will prove to be, has become something of a police officer parlor game. It has brought a dark mood to the precincts. The absence of information means that layers of emotions fill the vacuum: fear, anger and indignation.
In interviews, some officers cited what they felt was an overzealousness by prosecutors. One officer said the scandal had isolated officers. Officers are scared even to talk shop with one another — especially on anything involving traffic tickets, which for many in the current numbers-driven environment is no small part of the measure of an officer’s productivity.
“You used to joke: ‘Who did you write today? Which star?’ ” said the officer, describing interactions with colleagues who patrol around Yankee Stadium. “ ‘Did you write them a summons?’ ” Now, the officer said, “you can’t even joke about that.”
Feelings about the investigation have cut into conversations among officers across the city, at precinct station houses, on city streets, at 1 Police Plaza, or in the backs of bars or restaurants.
“Everybody is on edge,” said Edward D. Mullins, the head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. “They don’t know what is going to happen. They don’t know who is involved. There is all kinds of talk of people wearing wires; up on cellphones.”
Referring to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, he said, “The latest rumor is they are sitting up on the phones in the P.B.A. office and the cops can’t even call their own unions.”
Put another way by a veteran officer in the Bronx: “There are a lot of cops waiting out there for the other shoe to drop. It’s not just a question of you, but your friends. Are you going to find out that the guy next to you is taking bribes?”
Nearly all officers interviewed voiced one strong sentiment upfront: anyone who took a bribe to make a summons disappear deserves the worst. Yet that easy answer deflects a question about whether the lesser transgressions — doing the unpaid favor of scrapping a ticket after it is written or taking a dive in traffic court — are corrosive to the department’s legitimacy. On that question, there are deeper divisions.
“If someone was taking money, shame on them,” said a current delegate in the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But if someone in my family got a summons, I would try to help them out.” He added, “If one of my cops says to me, ‘My father got a ticket, can you help me out?’ I say, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ ”
State Senator Eric Adams, a Democrat from Brooklyn and a former city police captain who has been talking to his friends on the force about the issue, said such professional courtesies did not amount to corruption. He said it was a norm in law-enforcement agencies around the country. “Other states are laughing at us,” Mr. Adams said. “They’re saying, ‘Are you guys kidding me?’ ”
But to other officers, those who have tried to steer clear of breaking rules, however small, fixing tickets after they are written represents unfairness. “The city is full of decent people who don’t know cops, and I can only imagine their frustration in learning that the other half of the city that is either related to police or best friends with a cop can get their ticket fixed,” a long-serving officer in the Bronx said.
He said the scandal represented a department “lurching toward complete legitimacy.”
The scandal has caused divisions between police officers, who expect to be hit the hardest, and superiors, whom many say were often the drivers of the ticket-fixing practices. That has led some to express a feeling of abandonment — a sense that the high-level officials are feigning shock over a system everyone happily embraced.
Because some of them were the subject of wiretaps or grand jury proceedings, union officials are offering none of their usual reassurances, adding to officers’ sense of foreboding about what comes next. For one officer, Marco Varela, his unsuccessful campaign for second vice president in the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association elections led him to about half the city precincts, though he was getting by far the frostiest receptions in station houses in the Bronx.
“When you go in there in a suit, they look at you strange, like you’re part of Internal Affairs,” said Mr. Varela, who is assigned to a patrol car in Upper Manhattan.
“The atmosphere in the Bronx makes it the toughest place to work,” he added. “It’s the toughest place to work in the world, moralewise.”
At least a few younger officers are rethinking their relationships with the department or with their careers. A cynicism has taken hold as a new generation of officers, many in their late 20s, grapple for the first time with the taint of corruption. For some, the scandal has ironically blunted their willingness to blanket their patrol area with summonses.
“People are literally scared to go on patrol or write a summons,” said the officer who is assigned to patrol in the Bronx. “You’re scared to approach someone because you’re not sure what the outcome is.”
The numbers support the officer, to a point. The number of summonses for moving violations written by police officers in the Bronx has declined to 63,948 through June 5, compared with 69,987 through the same period a year ago, a 9 percent reduction, according to numbers provided by the department. Citywide, those numbers have dropped to 424,359 this year, compared with 451,494 last year, a 6 percent drop, the numbers show.
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said the decline in traffic and parking summonses was not believed to be attributable to the investigation. “The fact of the matter is, these numbers fluctuate based on observed violations,” he said.