Pat Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, and the Priorities of Public Unions

My article on Pat Lynch and Quentin Tarantino appeared in the November 11, 2105 edition of Newsweek.  The text is reprinted below for non-Newsweek subscribers. 

Patrick Lynch has a problem.

When first elected head of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association union in 1999, Lynch was, at 35, the youngest PBA president ever, and he was seen as a force of reform in an ossified union that had gone years without pay raises.

But he immediately took on the role he has played ever since: chief defender of police officers who kill civilians. It served him well for over a decade, but recent events suggest that the shtick is getting old.

In 2004, when Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the shooting of Timothy Stansbury in a Brooklyn housing project stairwell “appeared unjustified,” Lynch and the PBA issued a vote of no-confidence in Kelly, demanding that the “anti-cop” commissioner resign.  

After the detectives in the shooting that killed Sean Bell were acquitted, Lynch took the lead in defending the verdict—never mind the fact that his union doesn’t represent detectives. Ousmane Zongo, Gidone Busch, Khiel Coppin—whenever there was a cop standing over a corpse, there was Lynch in his pompadour, tie and windbreaker telling us all to move along, nothing to see here.

And for years everyone believed him. I should know. From 2001 through 2008, I served at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city agency charged with investigating complaints of officer misconduct. We investigated thousands of complaints a year. We issued recommendations regarding the use of pepper spray, policing demonstrations and executing search warrants.

And every time we tried to draw attention to the issue of police misconduct, there was Lynch standing in our way, reminding everyone that crime was down. And every time he seemed to win.

I went to forums all around the city after Bell was killed and spoke at the community council meetings after Stansbury was shot. There were always a vocal few who complained about racial profiling, over-policing and violence, but most people shrugged and moved on.

When we gave our budget testimony before the New York City Council every year, we were conveniently scheduled just after the police commissioner’s morning testimony and just before the afternoon statements of the district attorneys, so the council members could go get lunch while we spoke to an empty chamber.

But in the last two years, all that has changed. After the shooting of Michael Brown and the death of Eric Garner, just about any violent arrest can land a cop in the paper. And there have been dozens of rallies, marches, protests and seminars calling for police reform. Lynch can’t keep the lid on everyone.

But that hasn’t stopped him from trying. At a rally two weeks ago—one that wasn’t very large and would likely have been quickly forgotten—filmmakerQuentin Tarantino said that if “there’s murder going on, then you need to rise up and stand up against it. I’m here to say I’m on the side of the murdered.”  

Unable to resist, Lynch frothed up his membership and called for a police boycott of Tarantino’s latest film. Wrapped up in his latest media battle, Lynch has been alarmingly silent on the news that came out a week later and is much more important to his membership: On October 25, a neutral arbitrator charged with approving a new contract for the PBA presented Lynch with a draft that limits raises to 1 percent a year. The PBA has been without a contract since 2010.  

While other unions held talks with the city, winning concessions for their members, Lynch has held fast, defending cops accused of wrongdoing rather than entering the negotiating room.

Right now, Lynch resembles no one so much as Randi Weingarten, the teachers union chief who spent much of her time rallying against charter schools and teacher accountability rather than negotiating for member benefits.

Her successor, Michael Mulgrew, agreed to accountability measures that allow the city to remove problem teachers and reaped tremendous reward, including 18 percent raises, new leadership posts and fellowship tracks for outstanding teachers.

It’s true to a point that Tarantino stuck his foot in his mouth. The legally precise definition of “murder” includes a degree of intent to kill that doesn't apply to most of the police-involved shootings of the past year. Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder, however, in the shooting of Walter Scott.  

But a drunk driver who runs over a 3-year-old on a tricycle hasn’t committed murder in the legal sense either, and we still want to see him punished. If Lynch is rallying the troops because Tarantino didn’t say that he stands with “the victims of criminally negligent homicide,” then he is resting his legitimacy on a thin reed.

And now that his membership is starting to see where all this posturing has got them in terms of a contract, Lynch’s post may be far from secure. He survived a weak challenge to his leadership this summer—three of the insurgent trustees were under indictment for allegedly fixing traffic tickets—but that was before the arbitrator released his findings.

In a department that is now 46 percent minority, where most officers are justifiably proud of the fact that they don’t engage in misconduct, a union boss who tells you what movies to see rather than getting you a raise may find that his time is limited.

The Mulgrew model offers a blueprint for what a legitimate challenger to Lynch may look like. Increase accountability and allow the department to fire problematic officers, and in exchange provide for real wage increases and better career paths for the rank and file.

New York Police Department officers read the papers, and they know which way the wind is blowing. If Lynch keeps singing the only tune he seems to know, his days appear numbered.

Everybody Loves a Firefighter

One highlight of my job as the spokesman and policy director of New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board was the NYPD’s Advancing Community Trust program. Twice a year, the entire graduating class of the police academy would attend a day-long session at the Apollo Theatre. It started with group of high-profile panelists (Al Sharpton, Herbert Daughtry, Calvin Butts–one year Wycleaf Jean came) talking about policing in minority neighborhoods. The rest of the day was a series of role-play exercises and lectures. I gave an hour-long presentation on the CCRB and accountability.

But giving my presentation was not what made the day so enlightening. Instead, it was the keynote speech at the end by Wilbur Chapman. After a career in the NYPD and a controversial stint running the Bridgeport PD, Chapman has been brought back as the Deputy Commissioner for Training. I don’t know that he had any responsibilities other than to give a speech at ACT twice a year. But what a speech it was.

Chapman’s speech, “Everyone Loves a Firefighter,” stoked the bunker mentality, comradery, and paranoia already common in of most patrol officers. Chapman pointed out that the outside world would never give them credit for what they did to protect it, and that if they had been looking for easy accolades, it wasn’t too late to withdraw and join the Fire Department. Firefighters, after all, sit around making dinner for each other for eighty percent of their lives—and when they get caught stealing jewelry from a burning home, or drivinh a ladder while high on cocaine, you don’t hear about it in the tabloids and you don’t see protests at City Hall. Sanitation workers, Corrections officers, teachers, EMTs, building inspectors – all of them, Chapman said, live in a bubble, free from the constant second-guessing and irrational criticism faced by cops. The only people who will ever support you, he made clear, are each other.

Chapman was boosting morale, putting a spring in the step of officers who had felt beaten down all day. You could see the officers who had slumped in their chairs sitting up and paying attention. Still, it was almost incendiary—it encouraged and promoted the blinders that stand in the way of reform, the belief that no one else can really understand, so you may as well turn your back on anyone asking questions. But from Chapman’s perspective, it had one additional benefit. It was—and remains—pretty much true.

The current crisis on policing has been pitched consistently in terms of race—white officers against black civilians. You wouldn’t guess, from reading most columnists, that in a very short period of time, the NYPD has made enormous gains in diversity, and as older (predominantly white) officers age out of the force, it is on track to match the city’s demographics. Meanwhile, the FDNY has long been a bastion of white privilege—while the NYPD, on its own initiative, has increased minority representation on its force to 46%, the FDNY remains, even after a seven-year lawsuit, nearly 90% white. Corrections officers are notoriously abusive—a series of articles in the New York Times last year received national attention, but has not coalesced into any noticeable activism. The transit workers union fought the De Blasio administration tooth and nail to keep its members from being subject to criminal penalties when they kill pedestrians by running stoplights, and the progressive Working Families Party took the TWU’s side. A beat cop would be right to wonder, where is the “Inmates Lives Matter” movement? Where are the “Jail Killer Bus Drivers” signs? What makes us such special and inviting targets?

It has been well-documented that violence against police or on-the-job-murders are not on the rise, but what most police officers are talking about when they say there is a “war on cops” is not an increase in physical attacks on police, but an increase in how quickly and how unfavorably police are judged. It takes three years for a Corrections officer is videotaped and admits that he "stomped on an inmate's head" to go through the disciplinary process and be fired. But editorials call for cops to be immediately fired, or even arrested days after an incident. No one is demanding the resignations of the teacher and the administrator in South Carolina—who after all called the officer to the classroom to remove a student, watched him do so, and stated afterwards that he had done precisely what they had asked.

Those of us who work for or seek police reform, I believe, have an obligation to acknowledge that the problems are complex, the people involved in creating them are numerous (and often include ourselves), and that sometimes, it is our statistics or narratives that need correction. When the claim that a black person is killed by the police every 28 hours is given four pinnochios by the Washington Post, and the creator of the statistic writes back to say that so long as people join the movement, truth is “not the point,” she is playing the same game as Donald Trump. When a dashcam video supports the police version of an incident, we should acknowledge it. Otherwise we risk being the boy who cried wolf, and giving the police unions and officers good reason to ignore us when we point out real abuses, unjust policies, and the need for reform.

Police silence is a problem. The bunker mentality is a real obstacle to truth. We will not break it down in a day. But we will never break it down if we fail to acknowledge its legitimate roots, and to hold ourselves to an even higher standard than those that we critique.

Broken Windows Policing Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

If you have followed police issues at all over the past decade, you have probably heard the term “Broken Windows Policing.” You might think that it means something along the lines of what the New York Times said it means this January, a policing strategy premised on the belief that “summonses issued and arrests made for minor offenses preclude the eruption of major crimes.” If so, you are completely wrong. But don’t worry, you are not alone.

George Kelling and James Wilson unveiled Broken Windows in the Atlantic in 1982. Their article synthesized two entirely unrelated lines of research into a single theory on police, community involvement, and civic pride, a theory that essentially remains untested because it has been so misunderstood that it has not really been implemented anywhere. 

First, the “broken windows” part of the theory, which postulates that people who would ordinarily not engage in vandalism will do so if they see that their neighborhood permits it. The key study here involved leaving a car on the streets of Palo Alto – no one touched it until the researcher broke one window, at which point, everyone took their turn and reduced it to scraps. This conclusion makes basic sense to all of us – you would never think to mark up the bathroom wall at Le Bernadin, but if you’re in CBGBs, what’s the difference. 

Second, the “policing” side. For this prong, Kelling and Wilson looked to a study regarding increased use of foot patrols in Newark. Patrol officers would enforce a set of informal rules: drunks could sit on stoops, but could not lie down. Strangers to the neighborhood were “sent on their way” if they loitered. The foot patrols did not reduce crime—they only reduced people’s perception of crime. Residents surveyed reported that they felt safer, though evidence showed crime had not decreased.

Kelling and Wilson hypothesized that this feeling of greater security was the stirring of an actual greater security. The idea is that once the community feels safe, people will take control of their neighborhood. Combined with the lesson of the vandalized car, the Broken Windows Theory of Policing guesses that by enforcing a community’s standards of order, patrol officers will empower that community to drive away more serious crime. Reading the article, you get the sense of the police as a bunch of low-level scolds, riding the buses and subways and kicking off people who drink or smoke, but not actually arresting anyone. Kelling has recently stated that to this day he is “not long on arrests as an outcome.”

This is a very different image than one has of the NYPD during (with apologies to Howard Safir and Bernie Kerik) the Bratton-Kelly-Bratton era.  During that era, the NYPD has engaged in two often-conflated policing strategies that in fact are quite distinct. The first is to enforce traditionally “minor” crimes vigorously, with summonses and arrests. This is not Broken Windows (where there are community-specific standards for what is enforced and arrest is rarely part of the equation); it is “zero tolerance,” a strategy traditionally associated with summons and arrest quotas.

The second strategy is stop-and-frisk.  Stop-and-frisk as a policing strategy, rather than a patrol tactic, is now associated with Ray Kelly, whose theory was and remains that if violent criminals know that there is a high chance they will be frisked for guns while walking down the street, they will not walk down the street armed. The only way to make violent criminals think there is a high chance they will be frisked is to stop and frisk an enormous number of people. The consequences of this strategy have been dealt with at length elsewhere, including federal court, and I won’t get into them more here.

The origins of this theory, however, are perhaps less well understood. The stop-and-frisk theory’s origin was a simple change in policy that Bill Bratton instituted as head of the transit police in 1990: he aggressively pursued fare-beating.  The theory then was that anyone that commits a major crime in the subway probably got on the subway by jumping a turnstile.  Stop the turnstile beaters, and you cut down crime. The theory worked spectacularly, and Bratton deserves enormous credit for this simple change. The drop in crime on the subways had big implications for the city--safe subway commutes were a precondition for major changes seen in Brooklyn and Queens in the past twenty years. 

When Bratton first became commissioner of the NYPD, he applied what he had learned in the transit system to the streets.  If muggers can be stopped at the turnstile, then maybe they can be stopped at the door of their apartment as well. 

But subways are a closed system, and going in without paying is at least actually breaking the law. The streets of New York are an open system, and the only way to stop the gun-packers was to go and find them. Stops and frisks increased initially under Bratton in an acknowledged search for guns.  They increased much more under Kelly, and in Bratton’s second stint the practice was shut down. But it was Bratton’s brainchild, an outgrowth of his successful transit strategy.

And while Bratton has largely curtailed stop-and-frisk, he remains loyal to what he calls Broken Windows, but which is actually zero tolerance.  It is not Broken Windows because not only are the enforcement standards the same across the city, and not only does it rely on arrests rather than a nudge, but it is not Broken Windows because the windows aren’t getting fixed. For the theory to work, the physical disorder must also be cleared away.  But a kid who lives in the Walt Whitman houses, seeing that his apartment has mold and the buzzers on his doors don’t work, who knows he can get a summons for riding his bike on the sidewalk or arrested for a joint, does not think that the police are enforcing community standards.

There is a movement now to “end Broken Windows policing.”  It’s hard to know what to make of such a plea, in light of the facts on the ground in New York. Because despite the fact that police commissioners have been citing to the article for decades, in New York at least, Broken Windows policing can’t be ended—it was never actually begun.

Some Thoughts on the James Blake Incident

James Blake was a joy to watch play tennis. His heart was in every stroke. He fought for every point. He played—and I mean this in the best of ways—madly beyond his talent. He had the massive forehand, sure, but the rest of it was pure will. And pure will is fun to watch. So if twenty years from now, all people remember is that he was a guy who got stopped by the cops, that itself would be its own disrespect. That being said, I think that the arrest last week—and the spin afterwards by the NYPD—is worth dissecting.

I spent nearly a decade of my life investigating police misconduct in New York, crafting policy recommendations based on our investigations, and pitching stories to the press about problematic police officers and problematic police policies. I left the job in 2008, so most of the work that I did was before anyone seemed to much care about it. But I know a fair amount about the NYPD, the regulations governing police conduct, and search and seizure law.

Here is what we know about the James Blake incident. Plainclothes officers assigned to a task force investigating credit card fraud (not Anti-Crime or SNEU guys doing stop-and-frisks) arrested someone involved in a scheme to steal credit card numbers. That person identified Mr. Blake, standing nearby, as involved in the scheme. A lot has been said about an Instagram photo of someone else who was also totally innocent, but whether that guy looked like Blake or not is beside the point--a witness on the scene pointed out Blake to the cops.

Witness misidentification happens more than you would guess. If you want to make it about race, you’re probably right. I investigated plenty of cases where a black man was identified by a white witness who “mistook” him for someone else. The police officer who stopped Skip Gates was responding to a call from a neighbor (who herself only called because someone else told her to). When the on-site witness tells a police officer, “that’s the guy,” it’s very hard for them to get introspective and question the inherent racial bias of the witness.

The police officer moved in and tackled Blake immediately. The Daily News called the tackle “brutal.” I know a fair number of Daily News police reporters, and can tell you that they have all seen takedowns that are far more brutal that were never on the front page of the paper. I have watched the video. It isn’t any fun to be taken down like that. But I'm willing to bet that if you live in New York, you have seen someone arrested in exactly that manner. Maybe for selling weed in the park. Maybe for jumping a turnstile. Look at the passers-by in the video. They don't look very surprised at what they are seeing.

This is what a felony arrest looks like. It’s true that credit card fraud is not an inherently violent crime. But it is a felony, and credit card fraud rings are sometimes backed by gangs. This was not a stop-and-frisk encounter where an officer must escalate through the De Bour steps before effecting an arrest. This was a takedown, and this kind of takedown happens every day in this city.

I’m not saying that it was right or fair or just for the officer to tackle Mr. Blake. I’m saying it was not unusual. When City Council members act appalled at the violence of the takedown, I have to think they haven’t seen many arrests. On police officer message boards, you will read officers who are astonished that anyone thinks the move was violent at all. It was just like they teach you at the academy. Get the arms out of the way. Take the body to the ground. Cuff him quickly. For your safety and for his.

As soon as the story hit the press, the NYPD told the New York Times that the officer had four prior CCRB complaints, and allowed reporters to contact the complainants. During the nine years that I spent at the CCRB--as an investigator, policy officer, and press officer--we consistently tried to get the NYPD to discipline officers whom we found had conducted unauthorized searches, had beaten up kids, or who had used racial slurs. The NYPD's usual strategy when an officer has, say, thirteen complaints in a year, is to promote the guy to the Academy to train others. When the Times feigns surprise that the officer in the Blake incident wasn't fired after getting four CCRB complaints for punching people, I have to laugh a little. For years we reported publicly that the NYPD had stopped punishing officers in CCRB cases. When we found that an officer tried to get someone to cough up a glassine envelope by beating him over the back with a nightstick long enough to rupture his spleen, the department agreed with our findings just enough to dock the officer ten whole vacation days. 

As the press officer, I was constantly reminded that there is a special provision in state law, Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, that prohibits revealing any information about police officer discipline investigations in the press.  It's a terrible law, as I've said publicly.  But the new and supposedly more civilian-friendly CCRB has not only relied on this law to conceal incidents when it found that officers lied under oath at a CCRB interview (a firing offense for which no officer has ever been fired) it fired its Executive Director for providing officer histories to criminal defendants and then boasted about it (even though criminal defendants have a constitutional right to know when the officers who testify against them have lied under oath before).

The NYPD has done a very good and deeply cynical job of convincing everyone that the problem is an out-of-control officer. Because if the department admitted that the detective was doing exactly what it had trained him to do, then we would have to have a conversation about police tactics, police training, and police policy. And the NYPD very much does not want to have that conversation. Better to throw one guy under the bus, and crush the morale of your line officers (many of whom now understand that the captain who atta-boy's you today will clip your badge for doing the same thing tomorrow if it's convenient) than to look at what you are doing honestly and why.

But wait, you note. The detective failed to void the arrest. He didn't identify himself when asked. He hid what he has done. That is true as well. And the NYPD couldn’t be happier. This way they will be able to fire or reassign the detective for a procedural violation without ever having to address the arrest and the takedown itself.  The department is not about to say that officers can no longer tackle felony suspects. But whatever the reason they ditch the detective, the tabloids will report that he is gone and no one will be the wiser. Blake will applaud the Commissioner, and the department will go on throwing kids up against the wall, each officer hoping that he isn’t the one to accidentally tag somebody famous.