16 NYPD police officers were arraigned last week, 11 of them charged with fixing parking tickets. What was stunning was the extent of the charges—indictments of more than 1,600 criminal counts—and, even more so, the demonstration by hundreds of angry police officers, whose ire was not aimed at those officers charged with shaming the police department but at the prosecutors, who were cursed, and police chief Ray Kelly who was called a hypocrite.
Protesters didn’t defend the charged officers as being falsely accused. The defense is that the accused were merely following orders and participating in a system in which parking tickets were routinely fixed. Officers would alter information on tickets so that there would be mismatches between, say, the color of the car and the plate number; cops would remove records from files and make them disappear.
“We look out for our families and friends,” a relationship reinforced through the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, to which al 16 accused are either current or past union delegates or trustees. This is part of the mind-set of a police department where favors are extended to those in the “family.”
Such favoritism even got played out during their arrests; the accused cops weren’t subjected to the perp walk (see my blog on perp walks http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/am-i-right/201106/perp-walks-are-they-right ), the humiliating parade before the public. Instead, they were whisked out the back door and into a van, no cameras or reporters around.
The protesting police officers feel entitled to special treatment. One T-shirt read, “Improving everyone’s quality of life but our own.” Protecting the public isn’t their major concern. It is improving the quality of their own lives. This is an understandable attitude for those who risk their lives for the rest of us. But it goes too far. The quality of a police officer’s life should be ensured through a decent salary, benefits and working conditions.
In a democratic society, the law works best when it is perceived as fair; a democratic society functions when its major institutions are viewed as above-board. So, say when a police car turns without signaling or exceeds the speed limit for no good reason, confidence in our public protectors is undermined.
Getting rid of tickets for family and friends is one aspect of the misuse of police power around parking violations. I once received a ticket for parking in a space reserved for cars with handicap permits. I was driving my with my handicapped friend in his car and when we parked I displayed the permit in the correct manner. When we returned, there was ticket on the windshield. I went to the station house and asked if anyone could explain why it had been issued. The officer in charge looked at it and said that the permit wasn’t good in New York City. The fine print disagreed, stating clearly that it was valid everywhere in the state.
“I don’t care what it says,” the lieutenant said sharply.
Well, my friend and I did and we sent a copy of permit to the station house with a cover letter explaining why we wouldn’t be paying the ticket and were more than glad to explain the story to a judge. We were never summoned to court and we never paid the ticket. Presumably someone made the summons disappear.
One way to look at the ticket fixing scandal is to sympathize with the police, who, after all, are expressing one of the most noble of human sentiments: loyalty to family and friends. However, as public servants they also have a loyalty to all citizens and have the obligation to treat everyone equally before the law. You cannot be partial to family and friends and carry out the duties of the profession at the same time.
The police are obligated to follow the law; they aren’t above or beyond it. The 16 NYPD broke the law. Neither they nor the PBA deny it. What they claim is that the law shouldn’t apply to them. That is something that no self-respecting democracy can tolerate and is cause for wondering what other laws they think don’t apply to them. The NYPD police commissioner and prosecutors deserve our credit for their willingness to confront a dangerous attitude in their midst.