If you belong to a certain population, who cares if you get arrested for no reason? Certainly not certain parts of the NYPD, according to former detective Stephen Anderson. If there’s an arrest that needs to be made, and you don’t have a guilty person to arrest, you just “arrest the bodies to it — they’re going to be out of jail tomorrow anyway, nothing is going to happen to them anyway.”
It’s an attitude that is all too prevalent in law enforcement, one that is far too easy to fall into: It’s just no big deal.
Except it is a big deal.
Here’s what happens to you when narcotics officers arrest you for no good reason: You’re forcibly kidnapped, usually in public, in some of the most shaming circumstances imaginable. You’re hauled off in handcuffs, which fucking hurt. You’re fingerprinted, and a rap sheet is created, and unless you are very lucky the fact of this arrest will be part of your official record for the rest of your life. You’re charged with a crime, perhaps a felony. To support the charge, officers like Anderson will provide some real drugs and say they found them on you. Maybe they’ll sit around and try to come up with an incriminating statement they’ll say you “blurted out” on the scene. Faced with overwhelming evidence, you may well take a plea just to avoid the near-certainty of prison. Your reputation is shot, your background check will kill most decent job opportunities, and you will be a convicted criminal for the rest of your life. Because you’re not an addict eligible for a program, you’re more likely to do time. And now that the cops know you, and you’ve already got one arrest for this, you’re an easy mark — you’re all the more likely to get hassled and arrested again.
It’s a big deal. But some cops don’t see it that way. It would be a big deal if it happened to them, or to their neighbor, or to that nice kid their friends are putting through college — but you’re not part of their world. You’re part of an underclass where this kind of thing doesn’t really matter. It’s not like your life is ruined by getting arrested, it happens to lots of people in your community. It’s not like doors are being closed, how many had you really opened in the first place? That time you spent in the cells and in court? It’s not as if you had anything else to do. So who cares?
In an us-and-them world, you’re one of “them.” Beware.
Anderson testified recently to an apparently widespread practice in Brooklyn and Queens, where narcotics detectives would arrest innocent people to keep their numbers up. Drugs would be planted on people who’d done nothing wrong. “It was something I was seeing a lot of,” he said, “whether it was from supervisors or undercovers and even investigators.”
Making your numbers is a big deal in the NYPD. Your innocence and liberties may not be a big deal, but making the numbers certainly is.
It’s not called a “quota,” of course. Quotas are bad. But the various squads and commands in the NYPD need to justify their existence to the pols with the pursestrings. The NYPD justifies its existence not with meaningful results, like keeping crime down or obtaining convictions, but with the meaningless statistic of arrest numbers. (To a lesser extent, the DA’s offices do the same thing with their equally meaningless indictment numbers.) So there is incredible pressure on each command to “make its numbers” every month, so the higher-ups have something to show the politicians, so there’s a budget to pay for the medium-sized army that is the NYPD.
And as Anderson testified, each officer needs to maintain a certain level of arrest numbers. If a detective’s numbers get too low, his supervisors are going to get “on his case.” He may well be “sent back” to a uniformed patrol position. Failing to make one’s numbers is detrimental to one’s career.
This is nothing new. It was nothing new back in the ’90s when we were a prosecutor in the city’s Special Narcotics office. Near the end of each month, there would be a spike in arrests (usually simple buy-and-busts) near the end of each month. There were blocks where cops knew they could make these arrests without even trying — they called it “going to the well.”
And of course there is an added incentive to making arrests. A financial incentive. If you are the arresting officer for a collar, that means you get to stay at the precinct for several hours past your shift, earning sweet sweet overtime as you (slowly) peck out the necessary reams of paperwork, (slowly) voucher all the various bits of evidence, wait for the DA’s office to call once the rap sheet has (eventually) been generated, and (inefficiently) go back and forth to swear out a complaint. Overtime is the major source of pay for an awful lot of detectives. There’s a reason they call it “collars for dollars.”
And if there are no collars to be made that day?
What, and suffer the wrath of your supervisors? You’ve got a career to think of, guy. And lose out on making overtime? That mortgage ain’t gonna pay itself, buddy.
Yeah, it’s great and all that crime is down and the crack epidemic is history and yadda yadda yadda. Someone’s gonna have to suffer today, and it ain’t gonna be you.
Might as well be that nobody across the street. Who cares, right?
It’s no big deal.