Crystal Petteway couldn’t believe what was happening. The 18-year-old had been sitting one evening in May 2001 with three friends in the stairwell of a building in Harlem’s St. Nicholas Housing complex, where they lived. “We were talking for about three seconds before two cops interrupted us,” she remembers. Police officers working with the Housing Bureau can arrest residents if they’re found in another building of a complex unless someone who lives there vouches for them. The group was arrested for criminal trespass.
At the stationhouse, they were ordered to remove their sneakers and socks. Gripped with fear, Petteway was sent into the bathroom, where a female officer told her to strip. “After I took everything off, she told me to squat and cough. I said, ‘You want me to do what?!'”
The police found nothing illegal. But hours later, the teens were brought to Central Booking. There, Petteway was again strip-searched.
NYPD regulations allow strip searches only for serious felony cases where officers believe the suspect is extremely violent, or carrying concealed drugs or weapons. This was clearly not that kind of situation. With help from Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, Petteway later sued the city for violating her civil rights. In 2003 she settled out of court for $50,000.
New York has been paying a high price for such incidents. In 2001, the city agreed to pay $50 million to 50,000 people erroneously strip-searched during 1996 and 1997. In 2002, the last year for which figures are available, New York City paid out $78.7 million for judgments and settlements in 561 “police action” lawsuits, about 85 percent of which alleged misconduct. Strip-search suits typically cost the city $20,000 to $75,000 apiece, according to civil rights attorney Ronald Kuby.
These events took place during the Giuliani administration, which often encouraged police to violate civilians’ rights in the name of crime fighting. But though the problem of police misconduct has ebbed since then, it isn’t going away.
Last May, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) issued a report noting dozens of improper strip searches that had occurred since 2002, and warning that city police were not being properly trained. In one instance cited in the report, officers from the 13th Precinct approached a young woman who was playing her car radio loudly in the early morning hours on a street in lower Manhattan. When she failed to produce her driver’s license, she was taken to the station house and strip-searched.
The CCRB report recommends that the NYPD improve its instruction on search procedures. The police department has responded by developing a video on the subject for use at the academy, where new officers are trained.
But the NYPD does not have a way to make sure wayward cops get straightened out once they’ve joined the force. There’s no formal oversight or individualized re-education. And there’s no effort to make sure officers retain the procedure updates they receive in memos from the NYPD legal bureau. Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of Police Studies and Law at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, cautions that even the most proficient veterans need reinforcement. “Anyone can forget something six months after learning it,” he says.
Cadets at the Police Academy learn the rules from the patrol guide–a little red book containing all the procedures they need to know. To graduate, they have to take four multiple-choice exams, with 100 questions apiece, on topics ranging from behavioral science to the rules regarding arrest and questioning. They can pass each by answering just 70 questions correctly. New officers never find out what they got wrong. That’s a precaution against future test takers finding out what’s on the exam–but it also means rookies are never set straight even when they plainly don’t know the rules.
New York City police officers are at heightened risk for forgetting old training because of 9/11, says Nick Casale, a former NYPD detective and deputy director for security and counter-terrorism at the MTA who is now a partner at the Manhattan-based business-security consulting firm Intac. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Casale notes, many cops who worked in administrative support were reassigned outside the office, and they don’t always remember what they learned a long time ago. “Let’s say that an officer hasn’t been out on the street in 10 years,” says Casale. “And we say, ‘It’s Code Orange–suit up and get out there.'” After so much time behind a desk, “that officer may be rusty.”
“Cops learn on the job,” concludes David Feige, a Bronx defense attorney who has been working to get the NYPD to use more effective procedures to identify suspects in police lineups. “There are simply too many mistakes being made over and over again.”
“I almost can’t blame the officers individually. They don’t know that they don’t know,” says Dawn Cardi. A Manhattan attorney, Cardi is co-counsel for Queens resident Raymond Wray, who is currently suing the city for $80 million. Wray spent eight years in prison on a robbery and weapons possession rap before a higher court ruled that he’d been falsely convicted. Evidence gathered for the lawsuit suggests that the city has a cop training problem it’s doing little to correct.
The court determined that the miscarriage of justice resulted from a “stationhouse showup”–police arrested Wray, brought him to the precinct and simply asked eyewitnesses if this was the guy who robbed them. This practice had been strictly prohibited since 1967. The officers never learned it was illegal.
Wray’s case began on a cold night in late November 1990. As a party promoter and DJ, he had agreed to host a Thanksgiving bash at Bea’s Kitchen, a West Indian restaurant and nightclub in Laurelton. The day of the party, Wray arrived at 11 p.m., decked out in a long black coat and matching hat. With both the front and back doors open, he remembers that Bea’s felt “kinda chilly,” so he kept on his coat.
Also wearing a long black coat was a man who used a .357 Magnum to steal a leather jacket from a patron outside the club. He handed off his weapon to a teenage companion and fled into Bea’s. Police followed him, and there they spotted Wray in his coat and hat. The officers took Wray to the 105th Precinct. “They just walked up, arrested me and took me out,” he recalls.
Wray was placed in a cell with the teenager, and soon officers brought the robbery victim and a friend who witnessed the scene over to the cell. The cops asked them if Wray was the person who committed the crime. Both said yes.
The case against Wray was based solely on this “stationhouse showup” and the word of the two officers who thought they’d seen Wray as they stood on a roof near Bea’s. Actually, the detectives had never gotten a clear look at the gunman’s face. It was nighttime and “a little tough to see–it was shadows,” a detective would testify at Wray’s trial. Another officer testified about Wray’s hat being different than that of the gunman seen from the rooftop. And then, in sworn testimony, the robbery victim and his friend both said Wray wasn’t the gunman. Since the weapon seized was never tested for fingerprints, there was no physical evidence, either. It was hardly an open-and-shut case.
Over defense objections, though, the judge allowed the showup into evidence. Wray was convicted and given a six-to-twelve-year sentence. He describes the eight years he served as “a nightmare. I cried myself to sleep every night.”
In 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit overturned Wray’s conviction and ordered him released. In a strongly worded ruling, later backed by a Queens Supreme Court judge, the NYPD got a thrashing for the stationhouse showup. And a year later Wray retained attorneys Dawn Cardi and Robert Rosenthal.
Since then the trio has turned Wray’s case into a crusade to reform law enforcement procedures. They put together an $80 million suit against the police officers who arrested Wray and arranged the showup, against the District Attorney’s office for not teaching its personnel that showups are unconstitutional, and against the NYPD and the city for not training cops well enough so they’ll know the same thing. As the lawyers subpoenaed police records and took depositions, they found several appeals based on NYPD stationhouse showups that were filed after Wray’s. One showup, in late 2001, caused a 15-year-old Bronx boy to be classed as a juvenile delinquent and ordered to a detention facility for a year.
Cardi and Rosenthal were also startled to discover that after all this time, the cop who’d arranged Wray’s stationhouse showup still said he was unaware the procedure is banned. They also found out that many checks and balances intended to combat police ignorance or misbehavior look good on paper but don’t really work.
Every day, for example, patrol officers are required to write down in memo books every action they’ve performed while on duty. The information goes into their annual evaluations. Rosenthal and Cardi found, however, that the information recorded can be quite sketchy. “[W]hen I’m doing an evaluation, I look at sick records and attendance records, discipline, productivity,” Lt. Frank Valluzzi, Commanding Officer of the NYPD’s Promotional Training Unit, testified in a deposition about the monthly activity reports he reviews. But when Rosenthal asked if anything would happen “if an officer does something contrary to department policy?” Valuzzi answered, “Probably not.”
Whenever someone who’s been arrested is brought to the stationhouse, the desk officer is supposed to make detailed notes in a command log about the circumstances of the arrest and the behavior of all officers involved. But when Wray’s lawyers subpoenaed the command log in the Wray case, they saw that it makes no mention of the stationhouse showup. (Likewise, the log in the Crystal Petteway case fails to mention a strip search.)
“There’s an old-school mentality in some precincts that the more you write down, the more trouble there is. And the less you write down, the better off you are because there won’t be any records to subpoena,” says a former NYPD lieutenant who requested anonymity. “There are a lot of flaws in the system.”
Beyond New York, concern over procedural screwups has increased as cities grapple with lawsuits arising from an alarming number of wrongful conviction and police abuse cases. In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which empowered the U.S. Justice Department to sue state and local governments whenever police departments were found to have repeatedly used procedures that violated the law. The first wave of lawsuits and settlements resulted in the federal monitoring of police departments in Cincinnati, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and other cities.
To prevent similar suits, law enforcement agencies are implementing early intervention systems. A centralized computer database, maintained by precinct commanders, contains information not only on offenders but on officers, including complaints from the public. Over time, evidence may emerge that a cop is having problems. When that happens, superiors are required to intercede. “The point is to make the best possible effort to save an officer before he crashes and burns,” says Sgt. Rod Snodgrass of the Phoenix Police Department’s Standards Bureau.
In Phoenix, sergeants and lieutenants typically begin each day by logging into the database, which is constantly updated with new information from the field. For example, an officer conducting a routine traffic stop must radio a detailed account, with the reason for the stop and the race and gender of everyone in the vehicle. If an officer exceeds a predetermined threshold of, say, stops, strip searches or civilian complaints, a database alert is triggered. The sergeant must then determine how to correct the problem.
One option is sending the cop back to school, which is what Phoenix did recently when the database revealed that an officer had a tendency to use force in making arrests. His supervisors developed a 20-hour training block on proper arrest procedures. “He couldn’t believe that we were going through all this just for him,” says Lt. Snodgrass.
The Phoenix cop was happy to get attention rather than punishment, and his positive attitude is common among officers in cities that have adopted early intervention systems. “It’s all about how you package it,” says Carol Archbold, a researcher at Marquette University in Milwaukee who has studied early intervention systems. “When you take away the disciplinary component,” she says, “police unions are more likely to go along with it. But ultimately, proper training and supervision is in the best interest of officers and the communities they serve.”
Brian Miller, a spokesman for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the city’s police union, says that any initial concerns about the intervention system were quickly put to rest once the department saw it as a tool to correct the behavior of officers before it was too late. “This is not set up to skirt around discipline,” says Miller. “Mistakes are possible, but you have to consider how long the officer worked. Is he seasoned or new? That’s the beauty of this system. You can see if it’s a onetime thing that never happens again or something repetitive.”
Closer to home, the New Jersey State Police Department has had an early intervention system since January. Developed over three years at a cost of about $2 million, MAPPS (Management Awareness Personnel Performance System) was implemented as part of a 1999 federal consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in the wake of a bevy of racial profiling incidents, including the infamous 1998 shooting of three unarmed black and Latino men by two state troopers along the New Jersey Turnpike. With an upgraded system for recording the data troopers supply during each stop, including the age and ethnicity of a vehicle’s occupants, MAPPS enables monitoring of all the state’s 1,500 troopers. “It clearly shows who’s performing well and who’s not,” says Sgt. Kevin Rehmann of the New Jersey State Police Department. “You can identify officer deficiencies and train them on it.” Adds Sgt. Mike Schaller of the MAPPS unit, “It’s an invaluable tool.”
Pittsburgh has also successfully fashioned an early-intervention program, and Chicago will have one in the next six months. The systems are classic risk management–an investment of resources to protect against crushing expenses down the road. But most cities, including New York, have resisted implementing them, and criminal justice experts say their reluctance is mainly about money. Though Pittsburgh police officials will not say what their system costs to maintain, the Vera Institute reports that the city spent $1 million to get it up and running. Bigger municipalities can expect higher bills. Cost is “a huge issue,” concedes Archbold, who recently sampled 354 police departments and found that less than 4 percent use risk management. “But cities are also getting nailed in lawsuits for false arrest and wrongful search and seizure lawsuits,” Archbold says. “Having a risk management system is just good common sense.”
The Bloomberg administration has been finding its own ways to reduce the costs of police misconduct. “Police action” payouts are down significantly from the $142 million doled out in 2001, the last year of the Giuliani administration.
“Under Giuliani,” says Kuby, “the idea was that police would do illegal stop and frisks of young, black men, for instance, in order to find guns. So what if the cases didn’t hold up later in court? You’d gotten the guns off the street and lowered the crime rate, which was what Rudy was elected to do. Given that mandate, what was $2,000 for a stop and frisk, or $20,000 for a strip search, as far as the city was concerned? Civil rights for Giuliani were a salable commodity. We attorneys loved him! He was a gift from God when it came to putting money in lawyers’ pockets.”
But civil rights violations continue. In a report released last October, the CCRB notes that the number of complaints it receives has gone up during the past two years. The uptick can’t be explained solely by the 311 city telephone hotline, which gives citizens a new and ready way to file complaints. Complaints were already increasing before 311 was activated, and the CCRB hasn’t been doing extraordinary amounts of community outreach. Among the most commonly substantiated complaints: stop and frisks, strip searches, arrests without probable cause, and searching vehicles and homes without good reason.
The Bloomberg administration is saving money by limiting payouts to plaintiffs. Attorneys from top-flight private law firms give pro bono help to fight lawsuits against the city. “Corporation Counsel delays cases for months, even years,” says Kuby. “Eventually the city will lose. It won’t matter to Bloomberg, though, because by then he won’t be mayor. But ultimately the city will pay a lot more in legal fees and court costs than if settlements had been made in the first place. The cost will be higher.”
Raymond Wray’s cost has been especially high. Though cleared in the courts, he still feels traumatized by asthma and short-term memory loss, which he attributes to the stress of his eight years behind bars. And he still can’t shake the fear that he could be wrongly ensnared again by the police.
Several months ago, the city offered to settle his $80 million suit for $100,000. He refused the deal, and the city went to court to have the case dismissed.
In October, Brooklyn federal judge Jack Weinstein ruled that Wray can sue the detective who orchestrated the showup and can also sue the city over the broader issue of NYPD training. Weinstein urged that Wray and the city proceed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit–the same court that overturned Wray’s conviction four years ago. But, the judge mused in his ruling, Wray’s claim against the city “will probably fail” unless his attorneys can prove the NYPD acted with “deliberate indifference to the right of citizens.”
Rosenthal and Cardi believe they can show that the city knows better police training would preserve citizens’ rights but that it’s been deliberately indifferent about making the improvements. If Wray prevails in court this time around, predicts Rosenthal, “the judge will order the Police Department to correct its policies.”
But the city has also appealed, and Rosenthal notes, “The chances are always greater that the court will rule for the city.” Even so, he and his cocounsel are fiercely dedicated to the suit. “I’ve worked hundreds and hundreds of hours on this, and Dawn [Cardi] and I have invested thousands of dollars of our own money. We think it’s a good case. It’s infuriating to think that a NYPD officer who hasn’t learned something at the academy can go out on the street and hurt someone–most likely a poor, minority person–and the city doesn’t care. If Wray prevails here, the police department will have to change its training procedures. That’s a win for a lot of people.”
Wray, too, hopes his case will serve as a catalyst for reform. “Police officers should have the right training so that an innocent person isn’t locked up,” he says. “I want to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else. Whether black or white.”
Curtis Stephen is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.