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Soundings

Brian C. Anderson
Good Cops
Autumn 1999

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently surveyed residents of 12 big American cities and found the vast majority of them satisfied with their police services. In New York City, the study revealed, an impressive 89 percent of white and 77 percent of black residents were happy with the cops—not what the New York Times's relentlessly critical coverage of the NYPD would lead you to think. Doubtless the city's innovative crime-fighting techniques, by dramatically slashing crime across the city, have had a lot to do with the police's popularity. But the public support may also reflect the city's unheralded effort to weed out bad cops.

The NYPD's unique, two-year-old program, "Force-Related Integrity Testing," checks for officers' propensity to lose their cool by putting them, without their awareness, into a staged stressful situation. Patrol officers will receive a call sending them to a location where, say, a suspected drug deal is going down. When the cops arrive, suspects—in truth, undercover officers from the Internal Affairs Bureau—start verbally abusing them, trying to bait them into violent behavior. The good news: out of roughly 90 staged incidents during the past 12 months, only four officers failed the test—a number even more impressive than it first appears, since the tests usually focus on officers thought to have a short fuse. Of the four failing officers, one received a precinct reprimand, a second is up on charges, and the remaining two have still-pending cases.

Of course, the program's success hasn't mollified the NYPD's noisy critics. Plaintiffs' lawyers, who often make their living by suing police, grumble that the program is merely "cosmetic." Police union attorneys protest that "cops baiting other cops is bad." Yet if the program is merely cosmetic, why would it be so low-key? Even most cops didn't know it existed until the New York Times wrote about it in September. The department has tried to keep it secret in order to boost its effectiveness. And whatever the union might say, the program is just a variation on tried-and-true methods of testing police integrity—seeing, say, if cops turned in a "lost" wallet or vouchered for all the cash recovered from a drug bust.

In the September article, the Times quickly reminded readers that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn has accused the NYPD of failing to discipline officers for brutality, and that it is considering suing the department to impose reform. But the very existence of the NYPD program belies the image of a force unconcerned about police brutality. Perhaps the U.S. Attorney might ask the Bureau of Justice Statistics—both are arms of the Department of Justice—how New Yorkers, black and white alike, think their police are doing.

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