Who Is Watching the Cops?

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The ticket-fixing scandal in New York City is a reminder that police officers cannot be trusted to patrol their own, and citizens must pick up the slack

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CBS News reports that "a major ticket fixing scandal is rocking the NYPD, and as many as 400 cops could face bribery and larceny charges for making tickets disappear in exchange for gifts, according to a report." The illegal behavior was discovered by accident when a police officer discussed taking care of a ticket on a phone line being tapped by internal affairs in an unrelated investigation. A followup by The New York Times suggests lots of well to do New Yorkers have had their tickets fixed. 

In any other jurisdiction, 400 cops under investigation would be a disaster. For context, it's worth pointing out that the NYPD is 34,500 officers strong. During my time living in Brooklyn, I benefited from its impressive success reducing crime in the city, and in direct interactions with uniformed men and women - including two ride-alongs and reporting at several crime scenes - I was always impressed. Few enterprises manage to attract employees as good for a starting salary of $34,970, and as Heather Mac Donald showed in her memorable story The NYPD Diaspora, leadership in the department has gone on to successfully implement its methods in other jurisdictions. In many ways, the men and women of the NYPD should be tremendously proud.

At the same time, the ticket-fixing inquiry now underway is hardly the department's only recent scandal. Secret tapes made by an officer in the 81st Precinct revealed numerous instances of lawbreaking and troubling departures from protocol (This American Life did an excellent version of the story in Act Two of this episode). "Precinct bosses threaten street cops if they don't make their quotas of arrests and stop-and-frisks, but also tell them not to take certain robbery reports in order to manipulate crime statistics," The Village Voice reported. "The tapes also refer to command officers calling crime victims directly to intimidate them about their complaints."

Two officers are currently on trial for rape. Last year, an officer was charged with having "lied to cover up several unlawful stops and seizures in Manhattan and forced subordinates to falsify paperwork to justify the stops." Other major scandals - some merely alleged, others proven - are outlined here

It isn't that NYPD officers are irredeemably corrupt, or that they're unfairly maligned, though there are instances when both of those things are true. The point is that even in one of the most professional, highly scrutinized police departments in the country, serious misconduct happens. Corruption and abuses are inevitable anytime some human beings are vested with so much power over others. In cases involving proven misconduct, an additional troubling feature is that there are often a lot of officers who observed wrongdoing but did nothing to stop it.

Here is an inescapable conclusion: police officers in New York City need to be monitored more closely. So do police officers everywhere else. Were it up to me, the cops of America would have a dashboard camera on every cruiser, a digital audio recorder in every pocket, a camcorder running during every interrogation, and secret internal affairs officers operating in every precinct. The exoneration of wrongfully accused police officers would please me as much as the bad cops who were punished for breaking the law or acting unprofessionally. I'd also pass a federal law permitting United States citizens to record the activity of on duty cops without fear of being prosecuted (nope, you don't necessarily have that right already, depending on where you live). Reason magazine's Radley Balko wrote a great how-to guide on the subject here.

Over the years, law enforcement has used ever more sophisticated surveillance equipment to monitor citizens. As every police scandal reminds us, the ticket-fixing story included, there is good reason for citizens to become far more sophisticated in our monitoring of on duty police, and the law ought to permit our doing so.

Image credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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