‘Quotas exist’: Former NYPD officers discuss the data-driven department

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Adhyl Polanco speaks on the panel. (Dan Rosenblum)
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It isn’t hard these days to find mayoral candidates critical of police quotas, stop-and-frisks and the level of outside oversight of the New York Police Department.

But something less common occurred last night, as six former police officers and one active one candidly discussed their views of the problems that data-driven policies cause for the department and the public.

“Quotas exist,” said John Eterno, a former NYPD captain. “Anyone who tells you any different is a liar. They occur and right now they are stringent about it, particularly with the young cops.”

He was part of a panel that spoke to 150 people at Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center as part of a forum on department policy entitled “From Behind the Blue Wall of Silence." It was organized by the Police Reform Organizing Project, a group headed by longtime criminal-justice activist Robert Gangi, and moderated by Village Voice reporter Graham Rayman, who in 2010 broke the story of officer Adrian Schoolcraft, who taped his superior officers demanding quotas.

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The panelists argued that the ability of a police officer to use discretion in making arrests and issuing tickets should trump numerical requirements, which they said often produced favorable-looking statistics that don't reflect reality. They said the numbers-driven policies encouraged police to do more stop-and-frisks, deflate crime reports and issue summonses or make arrests for innocuous crimes. The logic is keep the numbers for measured crimes low, but not so low as to make them attainably hard to beat the following year.

That cycle, they said, harms the trust between officers and the communities they police.

Adhyl Polanco, the only panel member still on the NYPD, grew up in Washington Heights, became a cop in 2005 and was eventually assigned to the 41st precinct in Hunts Point. He said after seeing daily abuse and illegal stops and racism against residents, he spoke to reporters in 2010 and was suspended shortly afterward.

“NYPD says there’s no quota, it doesn’t exist,” said Polanco. “I recorded it, we played it and now it’s 'productivity goals'.”

He said because of an upcoming trial, he couldn’t disclose much about his suspension, but briefed the room about things he would see at work, like street vendors getting locked up with their sons.

“I couldn’t live with that, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “And I spoke up and I’m glad I did.”

Polanco later recalled what he called one of his worst experiences at a burglary scene at a housing project after someone broke a through a window and took $500, among other things.

“It’s a robbery,” he said. “I started writing the report and called the supervisor over. The supervisor came over and looks at me ‘Polanco, this guy lives in [public] housing and he’s got a 40-inch TV? Nah. Not today, we’re not taking no report.' The report was not taken.”

According to Polanco, he relayed the matter to the department’s internal affairs bureau, but the supervisor was later promoted.

Eterno, who retired in 2003 and now chair of Molloy College’s criminal justice department, has an uneasy relationship with stop-and-frisks. He said as captain of a unit dedicated to stop-and-frisks during the Giuliani-era, he computerized reports and did trainings on it. Eterno said he was initially supportive of the tactic, which he still supports if it's applied more selectively than it currently is. 

“At the time, I was exceedingly confident that what we were doing was correct,” he said. “But given the changes that I’ve seen over the last five years, I am also exceedingly confident right now that these things are being abused, without any doubt.”

Eterno had some data of his own, saying his research showed that 15 percent of police officers routinely violate the constitution. (He said later that the figure came from research for a book he co-wrote where he gave hypothetical scenarios to officers to see what they would consider legal.)

“If we have 700,000 stop-and-frisks in New York City, this 15 percent translates into 100,000 unconstitutional stops taking place,” he said. “This is unconscionable. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

He criticized the leadership’s “numbers culture” for promoting rather than questioning the high number of stops.

“Well, if you 'see something, say something?' Who the heck is gonna go to the police officer who’s been pushing them around? Nobody. This is something that hurts our fight against crime and terrorism.”

One panelists argued the stat-driven culture had spread from the police department to other city agencies, with similar effects.

“The fact is that productivity is not just in the police department,” said panelist Jeff Kaufman, who retired from the police force in 1986 and eventually became a high school teacher in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “While I’ve been in the Department of Education, we have productivity goals too. And we have quotas too. There is a corporate mentality to this mayoral agency, to all of the agencies, dealing with how you deal with the citizens of this city that basically treats them as mere little widgets, as we used to call them.”

He said he would see rashes of chain-snatching on subways, which could either be written up as a grand larceny or a robbery. He said that because they were considered preventable, robberies were considered worse.

“So all of the sudden, no matter what happened, no matter how that person lost their chain, unless you got the perp, unless you got the guy, it was going to be a grand larceny," he said. "Once you got the guy, it becomes a robbery.”

Quotas will continue if people stay silent, said Anthony Miranda, the chair of the National Latino Officers Association. He said that when CompStat was first introduced, it was a great resource for keeping commanding officers informed. But then something happened: As numbers fell, officers got transferred and people got the message. As the talk drifted into solutions, he suggested officers be evaluated on decreasing crime rates, not on increasing summonses.

Eterno suggested a commission with subpoena power to investigate internal-affairs claims.

“The numbers game has got to stop," he said. "Until that stops, nothing is going to happen. The training is great. What has to stop, what has to end, is the culture, and that starts at the top, from Commissioner [Ray] Kelly on down.”

Another panelist, attorney and former NYPD sergeant Colleen Meenan, suggested, somewhat controversially, a political solution.

“First of all, I’m confident that if Christine Quinn is the nominee for mayor that she’ll address some of this stuff,” said Meenan, and the crowd, seemingly not Quinn fans, jeered. “Well, if not you’ll have to hold her feet to the fire. If not Christine it’s gotta be someone else who’s willing to take on--listen, there’s no doubt about it, the police department is a very, very strong political force in the city, but the will of the people can be much stronger.”

At that, the audience applauded.

When I was talking to Kaufman after the panel, he told me that in fact "discretion" was a difficult concept, and that the term originally referred to the practice of collecting bribes. The emphasis on numbers came partly from departmental corruption reforms, like the Knapp Commission.

“I had police-activity reports, but if you didn’t have an arrest on it, they said ‘Officer Kaufman, come on, you can do better next month,’" he said. "I wouldn’t get threatened with being transferred or anything. But at the same token, my commanding officer was locked up for giving off tips to, when guys were coming in for auto crime, they were doing a chop-shop operation.”

I asked him whether he wanted to see Ray Kelly run for mayor.

“In some ways, I’d love there to be an election where these issues were really out there and the people could really make a choice as to what they really wanted, and understood the choice,” Kaufman said. “So he doesn’t scare me.”

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