Civil Liberties

NYPD Threw Truth-Telling Cop in Psycho Ward for 6 Days, and Tried to Talk Victims Out of Reporting Crimes for Better Stats

A shocking tale of a police department gone haywire and a cop who paid a steep price for blowing the whistle.

In 2008, Steven Mauriello, commander of the 81st precinct in Brooklyn, New York, ordered his officers to be far more aggressive – to arrest anyone doing anything even slightly out of line.

“Everybody goes,” he said. “I don't care. Yoke 'em. Put 'em through the system. They got bandannas on? Arrest 'em. They're underage? Fuck it. You're on a foot post? Fuck it. Take the first guy you got and lock 'em all up. Bring 'em in.” A lieutenant later added, “they don't own the block. We own the block. They might live there, but we own the block. We own the streets here.”

Those orders represent a taste of over 1,000 hours of day-to-day life in the NYPD secretly recorded by Adrian Schoolcraft, an unassuming patrolman who became disgusted with the unrelenting pressure he faced to “make his numbers,” regardless of whether he actually witnessed any wrongdoing.

While a federal judge this week declared “stop-and-frisk”—one aspect of the NYPD's hyper-aggressive approach to policing—unconstitutional, it only scratches the surface of the institutional problems Schoolcraft chronicled. They flow largely from the NYPD's “corporate approach” to policing, a singular obsession with crime statistics that compels officers to harass New Yorkers for petty offenses while turning their backs on serious offenses that might inflate the numbers. (In some cases patrol bosses even ordered cops to arrest people for doing nothing, with the understanding that they'd be sprung later.) Cops who don't get with the program end up with targets on their backs.

Schoolcraft would pay a steep price for trying to blow the whistle on these issues. His story is detailed in The NYPD Tapes: a Shocking Story of Cops, Cover-ups, and Courage, by Village Voice reporter Graham Rayman.

Rayman appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour this week. A lightly edited transcript of the discussion follows.

Joshua Holland: First, what is CompStat?

Graham Rayman: CompStat is a statistics-driven crime strategy. Basically, statistics are kept looking for hotspots of crime and then resources, officers, are devoted to dealing with those problems. For example, if you have a rash of robberies in a given area in a precinct, you send cops out to focus on those robberies. It was started around 1994 under then-commissioner William Bratton and was credited with the sharp crime decline that took place in New York City over the past 20 years.

As time went on, though, it also became a vehicle for promotion among precinct commanders. If you showed good numbers, good CompStat numbers, then you were more likely to get promoted. The other element of CompStat is that precinct commanders were called into headquarters to explain issues in their precinct. Sometimes those meetings would get very intense. Careers either blossomed or failed in those meetings on a regular basis.

JH: Now, Bratton, I think, was always a big self-promoter. He took credit for using these statistics to bring down crime stats. The reality was that crime was certainly falling all over the country. There's been a whole number of theories for exactly why that is. But that's not the whole story.

In the book you note that Bratton said he wanted to make the NYPD act like a for-profit corporation, with the profit being crime reduction. Can you give us a sense of how this impacted the department's culture?

GR: Well, it change the culture a great deal. First of all, one of the most important things that it did was that it took away discretion. If it's all about the numbers, then you have to show good numbers. That means more summonses, more stop-and-frisks, and lower major crimes. The officers who used to, say, give warnings, or commanders who used to tolerate officers who used their judgment and their discretion more, became less valued in the model.

JH: This is also happening while the NYPD is adopting the so-called broken windows theory. That is, you have a zero-tolerance policy for small offenses. Tell us a little bit about what impact that has on communities and especially in poor neighborhoods, communities of color, etc.

GR: Broken windows refers to the theory that if a window is broken in a house, other bad things are going to happen if you don't repair it. What it led to is this huge increase in stop-and-frisks in New York City. That caused a lot of tension in the community, because the department had quotas for stop-and-frisks. Young black and Hispanic men, mainly, were being stopped over and over again in these poorer neighborhoods, often for no reason, often just to get the quota. It's caused a lot of conflict between the police and the community.

JH: You make an important point—or you quote Adrian Schoolcraft making this point—that NYPD is effectively turning citizens who might just be hanging out on a street corner into criminals. They'll have records that will impact their employment prospects, their eligibility for social services and other things for years to come.

One thing your book makes clear that I was only vaguely aware of is how awful it's become to serve in the NYPD for regular patrolmen. You have this unrelenting pressure from above to fulfill these quotas, quotas the department denies exist. That translates into basically harassing citizens whether you want to or not. Then there are all these mechanisms for making a patrolman's life hell if he doesn't meet his numbers. Tell us a little bit about that last bit.

GR: Well, in the roll calls … Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded his commanders. In the roll calls, there's this constant drumbeat for numbers. "Get your numbers. Get your numbers. Get your numbers." If you refuse to do that, if you want to use your discretion, if you want to give a warning to someone who isn't wearing their seatbelt, for example, or someone who is drinking a beer on their stoop, you get in trouble for that.

There are all kinds of administrative tools they can use to cause you problems. In Adrian's case, they started giving him bad evaluations. When he started objecting, it just got worse and worse. They went so far as to give him assignments that were really dangerous. For example, they stuck him at night alone on foot in the most dangerous sector in the district, where basically he was in danger. I mean, he's alone, no partner, for his entire shift night after night after night.

JH: It's amazing how, if you don't have a "rabbi"—that is, someone who is senior on your side—you can just be hassled in myriad ways. They assign you to sectors the furthest from your home. They do all these things.

We really haven't spoken about what may be the worst of it, which is how the pressure to fix the books causes NYPD to treat victims of crime. On the one hand, you have these cops with this pressure to take many more actions, but on the other, the department wants to see a constant reduction in reported crimes.

GR: Well, as I said, as the numbers became more important, they became both the means and the end. Commanders seeking promotion had to show good numbers, so they evolved a whole bunch of ways to make crime numbers go down without necessarily actually driving crime down.

There's a really horrifying case that I write about in the book in which a serial rapist was allowed to continue his attacks. He did about seven of them in this one particular neighborhood, because his attacks, which should have been classified as robbery/attempted rapes or sexual assaults, were classified as misdemeanors—harassment and trespassing.

So the pattern wasn't observed until the guy was arrested and this one detective, Harold Hernandez, started questioning him and said, "You've done this before," and the guy said, "Yeah," and he showed them the locations. That led Hernandez, who was so disgusted by how the case was handled, to retire earlier than he would have, because it just rankled him so much.

JH: In the book, there are all of these shocking stories of people getting robbed and beaten and stuck up at gunpoint and not being able to make a complaint, or being talked out of filing a complaint, or having the complaints downgraded to these minor offenses, like lost property. You get robbed, and the cops end up filing a report that says you lost your property just so the numbers look better for the brass. It's really amazing.

Now, before we talk about Schoolcraft, the NYPD says that any problems with the crime stats are just kind of anomalies—a few bad apples making mistakes here and there. Do we know how pervasive this statistics-rigging really is?

GR: Well, the NYPD has never allowed a completely comprehensive examination by an outside agency or an oversight body of this issue. They've fought it. They even fought it in court 12 years ago when the state controller tried to do it, so the answer is, we don't know. The 81st precinct, where Adrian worked, is a very typical precinct, just a routine residential area. It was systematically going on there, so I think it's logical to conclude that it was happening elsewhere.

The police commissioner created a panel of former federal prosecutors that recently released a report that suggested it was much more widespread, but they were only able to look at four precincts. Again, it wasn't comprehensive.

JH: You also cited a study by a couple of professors. Tell us about the survey of retired officers.

GR: Yeah, this is fascinating work. John Eterno is a professor at Molloy College, and Eli Silverman is a professor emeritus at John Jay College. They did a survey of retired police commanders from lieutenant all the way up to chief. They got hundreds of responses. The survey concluded that the pressure to show good numbers of course increased under CompStat, and the instances of downgrading of crimes also increased significantly under CompStat.

JH: Okay, so here's a cop named Adrian Schoolcraft. He's a patrolman. He's a reluctant cop—he wasn't considering joining the NYPD until his mother thought it would be a good idea.

He's in this meat grinder. He has to do all of these crappy details that keep him off the streets, but he also has to make his numbers. At first, he's getting good evaluations, but he's obviously not happy. He starts recording his days on the job. These are the NYPD tapes. What was his motive for doing that, Graham?

GR: Well, there were a couple of reasons. One is, they were starting to squeeze him and harass him, and he wanted to make a record of that to protect himself. The other reason is, some of the things that were going on in the precinct he really objected to, and he thought that if he … well, he knew that no one would listen to him if he didn't have any evidence. He started recording to build essentially a dossier of all the different things that he thought were unethical.

I mean, it wasn't just downgrading and quotas. It was also poor training. It was orders that led to civil rights violations. The precinct commanders were ordering people to be arrested and held in the precinct just to, as it says on the tapes, just to inconvenience them. There was forced overtime, officers obligated to work a lot more hours than they should have been working just because the precinct was short-staffed, which was a huge problem that continues today.

JH: Schoolcraft, at first, complained about this through the proper channels. How did the department respond?

GR: He literally went through the chain of command step by step. He complained to his lieutenants and sergeants. Then he complained to the precinct commander. He wrote a letter to the police commissioner's office. He then wrote to Internal Affairs. He reached out to a former whistleblower named David Durk, who is a retired police officer. Durk advised him to go to an internal investigative body in the police department called the Quality Assurance Division, which audits the crime statistics. He spoke to them for two hours. None of it went anywhere.

Then, of course, he only went public after his commanders came to his apartment and forced him into a psychiatric ward for six days. It was only after that that he went public.

If they had just treated him with respect and at least listened somewhat to what he had to say, this story may never have become public.

JH: Let's dig into this a little bit more. It's Halloween. How did Adrian Schoolcraft come to be locked to a gurney in a mental institution?

GR: Well, in early October of 2009, he went to this Quality Assurance Division that I mentioned and told them about the downgrading of the crime stats. In the meantime, Internal Affairs was leaving messages for him at the precinct, which is a serious breach of confidentiality. His commanders must have known that he was talking to the Internal Affairs investigators.

Three weeks later, on Halloween night, 2009, he went home early, about an hour early, saying he was sick, but the real reason was that he felt like he was being harassed by his lieutenant who had taken his memo book. Adrian had been keeping notes about the misconduct in his memo book, and the lieutenant had copied them and given a copy to the precinct commander.

That night, they came to his apartment and insisted that he return to the station house to face discipline for leaving work early. Just to put this in context, in a normal situation, this would have been just a routine matter that would have been handled the following day. They wouldn't have sent 12 police officers, some of them in tactical gear, and a deputy chief to his little one-bedroom apartment to deal with the fact that he had gone home from work a little bit early. It would have resulted in some kind of minor penalty, a letter in his file or losing five vacation days lost or something like that.

Instead, when he refused to go back to the station house, they classified him as an emotionally disturbed person, an EDP in department slang. That allowed them to forcibly drag him out of his apartment, throw him in an ambulance and take him to the Jamaica Hospital psychiatric ward, where he was admitted, largely based on inaccurate statements by the police about his behavior that night and held there for six days.

Adrian secretly recorded that night, and a transcript of the tape is reproduced in the book. It shows very clearly that he was calm and coherent through the whole encounter in his apartment, but that turned into a claim that he was crazy. He had this six-day period in the psychiatric ward when it was totally unnecessary.

JH: They handcuffed his hands too tight. He was in pain. This is just an amazing part of the book. The hospital just took the police department's accounts at face value, even though their own psychiatrists were evaluating him and saying "Wow, this guy doesn't really seem like he's nuts."

His father, Larry, is an ex-cop. He's trying to get someone to look at this case. How did that go?

GR: I'm sorry to laugh, but one of the really striking things about this story is that all of the oversight agencies, the federal prosecutors, the FBI, the attorney general's office, the local prosecutors, the mayor's office, the police commissioner's office, none of them responded to these complaints.

Larry —even predating the incident in his apartment on Halloween night—Larry had notified the mayor's office and the police commissioner's office that there were issues, serious issues, that there was a conflict developing between Adrian and his commanders, and that they needed to get involved. He was ignored.

After Halloween night, Larry was trying desperately to get someone to intervene, to get the FBI to come and get him out of the psychiatric ward. He was basically laughed at. I mean, they just ignored him. Subsequently, after Adrian got out of the psychiatric ward, they tried to interest all kinds of investigative agencies, and nobody would do anything.

JH: This stuff was really Kafkaesque. Schoolcraft gets released. He ends up in this limbo, because the department doesn't want to fire him. They don't want to reinstate him. Internal Affairs is racking up all these charges against him even as another unit, the Quality Insurance Division, is investigating his allegations against the department.

Finally, having kind of exhausted all the agencies they could go to, they decided to go to the press. Tell us a little bit about the fallout. You wrote a series of pieces in the Voice. There was a series of pieces, I think, in the New York Daily News. What happened next as a result of all of this?

GR: Well, after my articles came out, the police commissioner was obligated to do something, and so he transferred the deputy chief who had ordered Adrian into the psychiatric ward. He transferred him from Brooklyn to a post in Staten Island. He transferred the precinct commander. He transferred many of the top officials in the 81st precinct. He charged the precinct commander and several other cops with downgrading of crime. He also issued a couple of personnel orders about handling of crime complaints and other things.

Then, he created this panel that I mentioned earlier, which was supposed to only take a few months to issue their report, but it took over two years. In general, the response to Schoolcraft was kind of like the old North Carolina slowdown offense. It seemed like he wanted to do just enough to make it appear like he was doing something without actually dealing with the larger issues, which were department-wide, without allowing a comprehensive investigation into some of these issues.

JH: Raymond Kelly and Michael Bloomberg continue to defend the stop-and-frisk policy. In the meantime, the Schoolcrafts, Adrian and his father Larry, are fairly destitute. The NYPD blocked their application for public benefits. They're suing everyone involved, including Jamaica Hospital. The case is scheduled to be tried next month.