Arrests Are Down More Than 90% for Low-level Crimes in New York. Here's Why

January 8th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

At the memorial of the first NYPD officer that was killed by a gunman, hundreds of New York City police officers turned their backs on the city's mayor as he spoke at the funeral. A week later, groups of officers repeated their protest during the memorial for Wenjian Liu. Since then, policing in the city has experienced some very conspicuous cut-backs. As the New York Times reports, arrests are down significantly, and after plummeting 66% in the week after December 22nd compared to the same stretch in 2013, they were down over 50% in the week of December 29. Criminal summonses are down over 90%, while parking and traffic tickets were also down over 90%. 

As the Times reported:

The numbers, disclosed on Monday, reveal a downturn in nearly every category of arrest — including gun possession and drunken driving — and all three categories of summons activity, parking violations, (down 93 percent to 1,191 from 16,008); traffic infractions (down 92 percent, to 749 from 9,349); and low-level crimes (down 91 percent)

According to the New York Post, the slow-downs are the result of a direct push back effort on the part of New York cops who fear for their safety and feel betrayed and vilified by de Blasio's sympathy for police reform protests in the wake of a grand jury failing to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner over the summer. The Patrolman's Benevolent Association, New York's largest police union, reportedly told its members not to make arrests "unless absolutely necessary." "This is not a slowdown for slowdown's sake," a source told the Post. "Cops are concerned, after the reaction from City Hall on the Garner case, about de Blasio not backing them."

Although Police Commissioner Bill Bratton declared the fraternal back-turning at officer Rafael Ramos' funeral an "inappropriate" politicization, it's becoming increasingly clear that New York's finest are acting and reacting together, like an independent body armed with reactionary, unseemly politicking strategies. As we've discussed, this is a dangerous notion for both the police and the citizens they are employed to protect. The slow-downs in the last two weeks have called into question what exactly warrants a "necessary" arrest, and some have spelled out the implicit benefits of curtailed policing.  But they also fit into a larger, more unsettling scheme; an outcropping of the entrenched us-versus-them mentality, the unspoken bond between officers and departments present not just in New York, but across the country, known as the blue code of silence. 

Blue code of silence

Essentially, this unwritten code, also known as the blue wall, or the blue shield, is an understanding between cops that they won't rat out one another and instead plead ignorance in cases of abuse or misconduct–even if it is witnessed firsthand. The code draws its strength from and is a product of that very fraternal bond between police, and is constantly fed by the us-versus-them mentality mentioned above. This protective shield poses some very real threats. But though it is unwritten, the code of solidarity has been widely reported on.

The Christopher Commission, an independent commission that looked into the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King beating, found that "perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints is the officers' unwritten 'code of silence'...[the principle that] an officer does not provide adverse information against a fellow officer."

But given the extent to which police can control certain aspects of society, any block on transparency or accountability threatens to undermine the entire system.

"[P]olice officers are given special powers unique in our society, to use force, even deadly force, in the furtherance of their duties," the commission wrote. "Along with that power, however, must come the responsibility of loyalty first to the public the officers serve. That requires that the code of silence not be used as a shield to hide misconduct."

There have been multiple reports examining the "code" and proposing solutions. But propping up better role models or somehow requiring officers to ascribe their loyalties to principles instead of one another, as some have suggested, can't always provide tenable recourse. For obvious reasons, these options can be impracticable. The Mollen Commission, New York's answer to the Christopher Commission, found that in New York, "the code of silence is strongest in the most crime-ridden and dangerous neighborhoods and is considered essential to prove loyalty to other officers in those areas of the city. One police officer who admits to corrupt and brutal practices, former NYPD officer Bernard Cawley, testified that he never feared another officer would turn him in because there was a 'Blue Wall of Silence. Cops don't tell on cops...[I]f a cop decided to tell on me, his career's ruined...[H]e's going to be labeled as a rat.'"

While the findings of these reports may seem out of date, like products of the early and mid-1990s when crime rates in cities ran high and streets were more dangerous for police, the code of silence allegiance is still strong. A current case involving a Baltimore police officer illustrates the problem. According to the Baltimore Sun's reporting, after detective Joseph Crystal told prosecutors in 2012 that he had observed fellow officers assaulting a man, word spread in the department. Crystal was subsequently subjected to intimidation and neglect by others in his department. He is now suing the agency and the commissioner after he reportedly found a rat on the windshield of his car at home. Officers also refused to provide him with back-up on potentially dangerous suspect stops. According to the lawsuit, his supervisor told him directly that "nobody wants to ride with you," and in another instance, a detective pulled alongside his cruiser to ask if he was "having a cheese party," because he knew "rats like cheese."

Dim-witted mockery aside, codes of silence pose a real threat of trapping police misconduct behind a sturdy, blue wall and dangerously ostracizing officers brave enough to call foul when they see wrongdoing. It also leaves outsiders concerned with transparency banging their fists against the walls of a veritable fortress. These dangers are felt acutely in tense situations when police feel under attack, as in recent months, and codes of silence create harmful barriers to meaningful discussion and progress.

According to the Mollen Commission report, "other officers who testified concurred with Cawley, including one who kept his identity hidden during the Mollen Commission hearings precisely because of the code, and who stated that officers first learn of the code in the Police Academy, with instructors telling them never to be a 'rat.' He explained, '[S]ee, we're all blue...we have to protect each other no matter what.'" Just a few days ago, Mayor de Blasio addressed a graduating class of police cadets and was met with, among the obligatory cheers, a notable amount of booing, lending credence these nearly two-decade-old reports.

If recent events have taught us anything, it's that some real change is needed. Change will require a willingness on the part of law enforcement to accept reasonable criticism and to admit that there is such a thing as institutionalized racism in the meting out of the policies of our lumbering justice system. A firm stance against this, like at Officer Ramos' funeral, is an unwieldy and unwise strategy. As the Human Rights Watch report concluded, "In the end, the code of silence all but assures impunity for officers who commit human rights violations since, without information about brutal incidents from fellow officers, administrative and criminal penalties are much less likely. In such a climate, officers who commit abuses flourish."

Certainly, if we don't need anything, we don't need this.