The NYPD Tapes: Inside Bed-Stuy's 81st Precinct
By Graham Rayman Tuesday, May 4 2010
Two years ago, a police officer in a Brooklyn precinct became gravely concerned about how the public was being served. To document his concerns, he began carrying around a digital sound recorder, secretly recording his colleagues and superiors.
At 1.7 square miles, the 81st Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of the smallest in the city, but the densely populated neighborhood is also a rough place to work. One cop there recently told us, “It keeps you from getting bored is about all you can say.”
He recorded precinct roll calls. He recorded his precinct commander and other supervisors. He recorded street encounters. He recorded small talk and stationhouse banter. In all, he surreptitiously collected hundreds of hours of cops talking about their jobs.
Made without the knowledge or approval of the NYPD, the tapes—made between June 1, 2008, and October 31, 2009, in the 81st Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant and obtained exclusively by the Voice—provide an unprecedented portrait of what it's like to work as a cop in this city.
They reveal that precinct bosses threaten street cops if they don't make their quotas of arrests and stop-and-frisks, but also tell them not to take certain robbery reports in order to manipulate crime statistics. The tapes also refer to command officers calling crime victims directly to intimidate them about their complaints.
As a result, the tapes show, the rank-and-file NYPD street cop experiences enormous pressure in a strange catch-22: He or she is expected to maintain high "activity"—including stop-and-frisks—but, paradoxically, to record fewer actual crimes.
This pressure was accompanied by paranoia—from the precinct commander to the lieutenants to the sergeants to the line officers—of violating any of the seemingly endless bureaucratic rules and regulations that would bring in outside supervision.
The tapes also reveal the locker-room environment at the precinct. On a recording made in September, the subject being discussed at roll call is stationhouse graffiti (done by the cops themselves) and something called "cocking the memo book," a practical joke in which officers draw penises in each other's daily notebooks.
"As far as the defacing of department property—all right, the shit on the side of the building . . . and on people's lockers, and drawing penises in people's memo books, and whatever else is going on—just knock it off, all right?" a Sergeant A. can be heard saying. "If the wrong person sees this stuff coming in here, then IAB [the Internal Affairs Bureau] is going to be all over this place, all right? . . . You want to draw penises, draw them in your own memo book. . . And don't actually draw on the wall." He then adds that just before an inspection, a supervisor had to walk around the stationhouse and paint over all the graffiti...