In the 122nd Precinct on Staten Island, New York City, the cops were said to play a game.
A misdemeanor counted as one point; a felony, 1.5. If you fell below your set goals, or quotas, for any given month, you lost points. The winner needed three each month to get overtime and vacation. If they didn't, they reportedly risked time up on "Sky Watch," a mounted street tower for patrol units.
Around this time last year, photos of the apparent scoreboard leaked to local outlets, along with a memo from a commanding officer encouraging cops to go beyond minor traffic infractions. "People who write headlight summonses walk footposts in the rain and snow," it read, before adding, "(or will do so soon.)"
It was probably the most visual demonstration ever that police quotas are a fact of life in New York City—a practice, that, although the city vehemently denies it, is taken for granted by many cops, policymakers, journalists, and residents. Now, in a landmark class-action federal lawsuit—which includes the Staten Island precinct and others across the city—12 minority officers are suing the New York City Police Department over what they say is a rampant quota system.
According to the plaintiffs, pre-set "performance goals" can be used to deny officers vacation and overtime—just like the board game. And the policy is said to be fundamentally discriminatory toward blacks and Hispanics, who make up the broad majority of arrests and summonses in New York. By turning them into forceful mandates, the federal suit argues, commanders are technically using quotas, which are illegal under a 2010 state law.
Quotas have mostly taken a backseat to other, more visceral controversies, like those involving excessive use of force and the always-controversial "stop and frisk" policy. But a recent profile of the suit's lead plaintiff, Officer Edwin Raymond, in the New York Times Magazine brought a response from Police Commissioner William J. Bratton ("Bullshit," he actually said). With their lawyers spooked, the plaintiffs—active-duty cops—have clammed up. It's fair to wonder if a few rogue officers can actually change things.
Enter Anthony Miranda.
The 20-year veteran of the NYPD is serving as a spokesperson and advisor for the plaintiffs. Which makes sense: his career showed how courts can challenge policing. Now the chairman of the National Latino Officers Association, in 1999, then-Sergeant Miranda was one of 14 minority officers who sued the department over bias, eventually winning a significant payout. On a recent afternoon, we sat down with the former cop to discuss the alleged quota system, the pending lawsuit, and what it could mean for policing in New York and America.
VICE: Hearing anecdotes from officers across NYC makes it easy to believe each precinct has a system like this. That it's not just limited to Staten Island, with this board game, where they get points for arrests and summonses. But couldn't that have just been an egregious example? How common is this, really?
Former NYPD Officer Anthony Miranda: Staten Island wasn't weird—it was more blatant. It's something that's happening across the city. But these guys were just ignorant enough to create a board about it. The reality is, every plainclothes unit has a quota that they have to maintain if they want to stay in that unit. So they have to get a felony; they can't just get misdemeanors or violations, even if that's the only thing they see. So they're on the hunt for those felonies, so they can maintain their position in these details. This affects their days off, the hours they want to work, that sort of thing.
There's this competition between terminology—we call it a quota system, and the PD calls them "performance goals." That would be somewhat true if they could get away with it, but they discipline you on achieving them, so therefore, it becomes a quota system—it's an absolute thing. It's something that's verifiable across boroughs. It doesn't matter what shift you take. And we testified about this to the city council and the oversight agencies. They know what's going on, but taking on a PD is like crossing that line. Oh, I don't want to make enemies with the cops. They make those safe public statements; they hit the safety zone of what they can say, and then they don't go beyond that.
Call it what it is: an illegal quota system.
Why did these police officers come forward about it—why now?
It's not a problem that's new to the PD. Quota systems were in existence before I came onto the job, in 1982. They've been in existence the entire time. But the intensity has increased, and that's where you're getting the cops saying that they've had enough.
What's better than saying, "Your activity is low,"? Wow, that's a term: My activity is low, in this one area. It gives you the reason to start writing me up, harassing me, disciplining me. Also, it targets people by destroying their career long-term, because once you get hit with certain types of discipline, even when you're up for promotions and up for transfers, you're a problem child. We don't want you getting that next assignment. Just stay where you're at. So it limits your career. It stifles it. And I think that's why officers say they have enough.
So race is engrained in how all cops do their jobs, and it's not just minority officers talking about it.
When you look at where the majority of summonses are given, you'd be amazed to see that all of those summonses will start narrowing down just to an area that happens to be black and Hispanic, or poor. Those are your three targeted areas: black and Hispanic because they don't have lawyers. The chances of fighting back, or recording it, is very little. They pay the fine. They can't take off from work or do certain things to prevent it.
It's also something that they ask you when you're up for promotion.How's your activity? Not just arrests."Oh, I got 50 arrests!" Which is outstanding! Well, how many summonses did you get? "I didn't get many." Well, that's a problem. You must be non-compliant. You must be a fighter of the system.
Did you see that firsthand when you were a police officer?
Absolutely. I saw it every day. When I was supervisor in East New York, because I was so active, they tried to give me all the problem officers of the command. These guys were getting zeroes—absolutely no activity. So I had a meeting with all of them. I said, "I'll make you a deal. I'm not asking you to become the top of the precinct, I'm asking you to give me something. You see something, you give me something. If you give me one or two, that's fine. Just give me something, so I can defend you."
When the PD targets you, they say, "Tag you're it!" Once you're deemed it—the person to go after—you get it from every supervisor, from every rank. You're literally on such a high alert, that it's so stressful, it creates a problem to begin with. So these officers ask me, "If we do this for you, are you gonna get them to stop messing with us?" And I'd say, "Sure, you're in my squad now. Not one other boss will write you up. Not one other sergeant, without having a confrontation with me." I even said, "If you're drunk the night before, or you have an emergency, you got the day off."
These guys had legit emergencies at home, and they'd be denied a day off. It was that kind of abuse. That wasn't gonna happen with me.
But William J. Bratton is a still a (relatively) new commissioner, and stop and frisk is way down. Can't new leadership reform this system you say is so bad?
It doesn't matter who's at the top. The message from the top has to be that you won't be disciplined for not hitting these numbers. That you give summonses and take action according to what you see. That's what it is. We're not a revenue-generating agency. It should've never been that. And that's what it is right now.
Statistically, it's impossible that an entire precinct of officers every month, the miracle that they come out with the same numbers. They all end up with one arrest per quarter, twenty-five summonses. And that's even more amazing—not only did you get twenty-five summonses, but you got twenty-five in the exact order they required: three of these, five of those, fifteen of these. It's always the same spread. It's the miracle of performance. It's not a quota system; it's performance goals.
No, it's called bullshit.
So where is the lawsuit at now?
They haven't even gotten to court yet. The city's position is always to delay, delay, delay, because they have resources. By the time you get to trial, you'll have reached your twenty years, and you can retire. Or you'll get so fed up that you'll quit. The strain you go through, going home every day, you finally give up. You say, Damn, I've had enough of this shit. What do you want me to do? What is it that I have to do so you guys can just leave me alone?
You can talk to any one of those officers, and if you gave me the opportunity to say, "They guarantee that they'll just leave you alone," they'd all be quiet. They'd be like, "You guarantee?" They'd be happy with that. They're not in it for money.
But a lawsuit only brings money if you don't settle. So you know what—get your kids' Christmas or college money, because you reach a point where you just say, Fuck it. Sometimes you need to take their money to get their attention. $26.8 million in our [older] lawsuit got their attention.
What's the end goal for this lawsuit? What would you like to see accomplished?
Just so you understand—and I had this conversation with the attorneys and plaintiffs—most lawsuits are about money. So they pay out billions of dollars and try to clean up the people's records; that's what you end up with in a lawsuit that just goes to trial. But if, before trial, you come to terms with it, and you agree to it, you can create more systemic change in an agency than a lawsuit can. A lawsuit can give you compensation, but it can't change the rules.
A settlement changes the rules, the processes, it creates protections. Our lawsuit that we filed—$26.8 million that it settled for—we were the first, and we were naïve. We had federal oversight for five years. And on the anniversary of the fifth year, when there was no more oversight and we couldn't get back in the court, they dismantled all the protections we put into place. We didn't know. Class-action lawyers are concerned with getting their paycheck. So when you settle and they have private meetings, you say, "No more private meetings. Fuck you. I'm gonna be a part of every meeting you have, and when we settle for systemic changes, that can't be temporary—they have to be permanent changes." So it exists past the new commissioner, or chief.
We've never had an investigative body that has oversight over the PD. We have plenty of people who have oversight—the new inspector general, the city council, all kinds of groups. Bt nobody cares enough to take the necessary work the next step. Get into the nitty gritty: Give me, randomly, five activity reports from every officer from every shift citywide.
They just don't want to fight the PD. Oversight has to have independence, ability, and competency. You gotta want to have change; if not, it's ineffective. You give people nice jobs, nice salaries, and they generate nice, hundred-page reports. But nothing changes. You didn't fix nothing, you didn't change nothing, you didn't do nothing. And everything is that way for the next guy who comes in and wants better results for the future.
But the future never comes for police officers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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