Audio obtained by The Nation confirms an instance of New York City’s police union cooperating with the NYPD in setting arrest quotas for the department’s officers. According to some officers and critics of quotas, the practice has played a direct role in increasing the number of stop-and-frisk encounters since Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to office. Patrolmen who spoke to The Nation explained that the pressure from superiors to meet quota goals has caused some officers to seek out or even manufacture arrests to avoid department retaliation.
The audio makes up part of the prosecution’s case in the landmark federal class action lawsuit Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al., which opened yesterday in US District Court for New York’s Southern District and which was brought forward by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The audio, recorded in 2009 by officer Adhyl Polanco, is part of a series of recordings originally released to the media that year, and a selection first aired on WABC-TV in 2010. But WABC-TV used only a small portion of the recordings, and did not air the union representative’s explosive admission.
“I spoke to the CO [commanding officer] for about an hour-and-a-half,” the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association delegate says in the audio recording, captured at a Bronx precinct roll call meeting. “Twenty-and-one. Twenty-and-one is what the union is backing up…. They spoke to the [Union] trustees. And that’s what they want, they want 20-and-1.”
Listen to the full audio:
“Twenty-and-one means twenty summonses and one arrest a month,” says a veteran NYPD officer who listened to the recording, and who spoke to The Nation on the condition of anonymity. Summonses can range from parking violations, to moving violations, to criminal court summonses for infractions such as open container or public urination.
“It’s a quota, and they [the Union] agreed to it,” says the officer. “It’s crazy.”
“Many officers feel pressure to meet their numbers to get the rewards that their commanding officer is giving out,” says John Eterno, a former police captain and co-author of The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation. But if an officer’s union delegate is also pushing the numbers, “this puts inordinate pressure on officers, getting it from the top down and getting it from the union.”
The plaintiffs in the Floyd case allege that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy results in unconstitutional stops based on racial-profiling. The department’s emphasis on bringing in arrest and summons numbers has caused officers to carry out suspicion-less stops in communities of color.
As Polanco explained in court today, his superiors would often push him to carry out this specific number of summons and arrest stops per month: “20-and-1, they were very clear, it’s non-negotiable, you’re gonna do it, or you’re gonna become a Pizza Hut delivery man.”
“There’s always been some pressure to get arrests and summonses,” says Eterno. “But now it’s become the overwhelming management style of the department. It has become a numbers game. They have lost the ability to see that communities are dissatisfied with this type of policing, especially minority communities. They are the ones being overly burdened for doing the same sorts of things that kids in middle-class neighborhoods are doing—only they’re getting records because officers have to make these arrests.”
When asked for comment, Al O’Leary, a spokesperson for the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, said: “The PBA has been consistently and firmly opposed to quotas for police activities including arrests, summonses and stop-and-frisks. These are all effective tools for maintaining order when they are left to the discretion of individual police officers but become problematic when officers are forced to meet quotas. This union has sought and obtained changes to state law making quotas for all police activities illegal. We have sued and forced an individual commanding officer to stop the use of illegal quotas and will continue to be vigilant and vocal in our opposition to police activity quotas.”
* * *
Physical evidence has periodically surfaced of the existence of numerical arrest targets for NYPD officers, though arrest and summons quotas for police have been illegal in New York State since 2010. Precinct commanders defend their right to set productivity goals for their staff—but what the department defines as productivity goals can have the force of quotas when officers are subject to retaliation for not meeting them.
Cops who have spoken to The Nation say that retaliation can take many forms, including denied overtime; change of squads and days off that can disrupt family obligations like taking children to school or daycare; transfers to boroughs far from home in order to increase their commute and the amount they’ll have to pay in tolls; and low evaluation scores.
Officers even reported being forced to carry out unwarranted stops to fulfill the summons and arrest numbers. In a second recording obtained by The Nation, a captain addressing a roll call in the same Bronx precinct illustrated how such retaliation plays out.
“When the chief came in…[he] said: ‘you know what, you really can’t reduce crime much more, the guys are doing a great job,’” the captain can be heard saying in the rough audio. “[He] said that we can…get some of our people who aren’t chipping in to go to some locations [where we are] having problems, and give them [the area’s residents] the business…”
The recording continues: “That’s all we’re asking you to do, that’s all, that’s all. And if we do that, everyone chips in, it’s fine. It’s really nonnegotiable. ’Cause if you don’t do it now, I’m gonna have you work with the boss to make sure it happens.”
“If you don’t meet the quota, they will find [activity] for you,” another veteran officer explained to The Nation. “The sergeant will put you in his car and drive you around until whatever he sees he will stop and tell you to make an arrest or write a summons, even if you didn’t observe what he said it was.”
Sometimes these are legitimate stops, but other times, they’re bogus: “The sergeant told me to write two minorities for blocking pedestrian traffic,” the anonymous officer said, “but they were not blocking pedestrian traffic.”
The pressure for numbers, say cops, is unrelenting, and it’s leading to high anxiety and low morale. And that the union, an organization that is supposed to have officers’ interests at heart, is involved in the setting of quotas is mystifying, says one cop.
It’s all the more problematic given the union’s very vocal and public stance against quotas, such as in their ad campaign, “Don’t Blame The Cop,” which tries to engender sympathy for the officers who are pressured to write tickets and arrest motorists. “Blame NYPD management,” it says.
This development also signals to officers that there is one fewer place they can go to register their concern about departmental policy and practice. “I feel foolish for having gone to my [union] delegate with my complaints,” says one officer who has been unsettled by the continued pressure to meet quotas.
Adhyl Polanco, the officer who recorded the audio and first brought it to the attention of the press, has since had charges brought against him by the department for writing false reports—the same false reports he pointed out to the department’s Internal Affairs office as evidence of the quota system. Polanco maintains these and other charges against him and other officers who have spoken out are evidence that the department is retaliating against him and others for blowing the whistle.
The NYPD has just surpassed 5 million stop-and-frisks during the Bloomberg era. Most stops have been of people of color, and the overwhelming majority were found innocent of any wrongdoing, according to the department’s own statistics. And though the number of stops may have gone down recently—as pressure on the department and increased awareness of the policy has officers and supervisors thinking twice about how they employ the practice—the existence of quotas ensures that New Yorkers will continue to be harassed unnecessarily by the NYPD.
“The way I think about it,” says a patrolman, “is, say a fireman is told by a supervisor, we need you to put out fifteen fires this month. And if you don’t put out fifteen fires you’re gonna get penalized for it. So if he doesn’t find fifteen fires to put out, is that his fault? It’s not. But the fireman might even go out there and start setting fires, causing fires, just so he’s not penalized or looks bad…. And that’s kind of what the police officers are doing.”
What are the plaintiffs in the Floyd v. City of New York case fighting against? Watch the exclusive video of a stop-and-frisk encounter gone wrong.
Editor’s note: This piece has been edited since publication to reflect the response of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, and to reflect that the audio was played in court on March 20. Voices in the above video have been altered to protect the identities of the officers interviewed.