The New York Times by JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN and AL BAKER - April 24, 2011
In 1951, police officers in Manhattan’s 20th Precinct were investigated for sabotaging paperwork to kill traffic citations, as favors for politicians. In the middle of the inquiry, the ledger recording all the precinct’s summonses mysteriously disappeared. Three years later, an inquiry uncovered 100 officers who had sidestepped the summons altogether: they sold $10 courtesy cards that motorists could flash and go free, according to the police and the Brooklyn district attorney. Between those two scandals, reformers hatched what was thought to be an incorruptible solution: Gov. Thomas E. Dewey proposed redesigning the summons books that officers carry, with ticket slips consecutively numbered, each in quadruple form. A newspaper report called it “a system of non-fixable tickets.” It didn’t quite work out that way. In 1987, a veteran police officer, Robert Hanes, was dismissed from the force after a departmental trial found he had persuaded another officer to give false testimony that let a motorist evade a fine for speeding. In 1996, a federal judge sentenced William Caldwell, a former police captain and president of the Housing Police Superior Officers Association, to a year in jail for fixing thousands of parking tickets. His scheme often involved false paperwork claiming the cars had been stolen or were disabled at the time the ticket was issued. In pleading guilty, Mr. Caldwell said, “Some of these things I did were for friends of mine, some were for profit.” Over the years, the headlines, court cases and wrecked careers put generations of officers on notice about the professional risks involved in fixing a ticket. Yet the practice persisted. Now it has become the focus of a major multiprecinct investigation, the largest focused on ticket-fixing since the 1950s. Some are wondering what took so long. Hundreds of officers could be disciplined by the time a grand jury in the Bronx finishes its work, including roughly two dozen officers who could face criminal charges, officials and others briefed on the case have said. The inquiry began when the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, in an unrelated investigation, taped an officer in mid-2009 trying to have a ticket fixed. The scheme centers on union delegates and trustees. Officers wanting to make a ticket disappear — or following orders to do so — would seek out union officials who seemed plugged into a network for doing it safely. On Friday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the ticket-fixing should have been stopped sooner. “There seems to be a lot of evidence that there was a practice that should not have taken place,” he said during his weekly radio program on WOR. The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, citing the grand jury’s work, said through a spokesman that he had no comment.
“Whenever an allegation of ticket-fixing came to the commissioner’s attention, it was pursued by I.A.B.,” said the spokesman, Paul J. Browne, referring to the Internal Affairs Bureau. “And no, he never fixed a ticket or was party to fixing one.” Over the years, discipline meted out in ticket cases has been focused mostly on officers characterized by superiors as rogues, including some who had been caught accepting a bribe. When officers have been found to have fixed tickets, the department has come down hard, handling it as a career-ending offense and holding internal trials, but leaving it there. Many active and retired officers said they could not recall any departmentwide measures to curb the practice. Several current and former prosecutors said it was extremely rare for Internal Affairs to bring ticket-fixing cases to a district attorney’s office. One former assistant district attorney who supervised and prosecuted police corruption cases said he could recall only one such instance; several others could recall none. “This stuff has been happening since the beginning of time,” the former prosecutor said, “and it’d be like picking off ducks in a barrel. Anytime anyone wanted to, they could make a big case, so they just haven’t wanted to.” While ticket-fixing was a regular practice, many rank-and-file officers dreaded receiving such requests. “Most guys spend their whole career hoping this does not blow their way,” said one officer who insisted on anonymity, referring to ticket requests.
A law enforcement official, in defending the Police Department, noted that it was the department that brought the case to the office of the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson. Rae Downes Koshetz, a former Police Department deputy commissioner of trials who presided over administrative hearings of officers, said a handful of such cases came her way. “Anytime one of those cases came before me, it was a firing offense to fix a ticket,” she said. “It’s corruption. Sometimes it involves bribery, lying, and the department is supposed to have a zero-tolerance policy for lying.” She added: “I was there for 14 years. We weren’t clogged with ticket-fixing cases.” In one case, upheld by an appellate court, Officer Jeffrey Cohen was found to have tried to harass and intimidate a fellow officer into making false statements about the issuing of a ticket. Taped conversations showed how the motorist’s testimony was coached. Officer Cohen was fired from the department. In another case, from 1997, an officer was fired for taking $200 to rip up a speeding ticket for a friend, Ms. Koshetz said. Union officials, fighting back against an inquiry that has yet to be officially acknowledged by the Bronx district attorney’s office, which is running it, are defending themselves by hinting that high-ranking officials were involved in the process. After the ticket inquiry began, Mr. Kelly moved last August to implement a nonfixable system for tickets — some 60 years after Governor Dewey first tried it. Mr. Kelly ushered in a new computerized system to provide for an electronic record of every ticket, in the hope that such a system would prove less corruptible. Ms. Koshetz said the department deserved credit for implementing the system, known as the Electronic Summons Tracking System and described in a departmental memo as a way to “increase administrative efficiency and ensure accountability” over summonses. “It seems that the department has dealt with it by trying to make it difficult, by having a computer system and giving them ticket books where the summonses are consecutively numbered,” Ms. Koshetz said. Some officers say it was once a cinch to fix tickets: An officer could rip up all the copies headed for traffic court, or to commanders. Sometimes the paperwork was retrieved from a box behind the precinct desk that is emptied once each shift. But the officer could also go to court and feign memory loss or call in sick on consecutive court dates. The officer who spoke anonymously said some in the department became cynical about traffic court because of its unpredictable, freewheeling atmosphere. Harold Dee, a lawyer, said he had heard some troubling requests when he was a traffic court judge in the Bronx and Harlem before retiring from the bench nearly two decades ago. “Occasionally a cop would come to me and say, ‘Oh, Judge Dee, I wrote this but I found out the person is family. I’m sorry I wrote it, so I’m going to say that my radar was not properly checked out,’ ” he said. “I’d listen and I’d never know if it was some sort of shoofly or somebody trying to get me indicted. I’d say, ‘Officer, just present your case, and if it’s not sufficient, I’ll dismiss the charges.’ ” Any given ticket fix might involve three or four officers, each with varying motives and moral and legal distinctions, according to those who have done it. One officer might have called in a request to help a friend; a second might have relayed that request to a third in the precinct where the ticket was issued. And a fourth might fix it for no other reason except that, as Ms. Koshetz put it, “there are very powerful incentives within the Police Department to get along and go along.” William K. Rashbaum and Jack Styczynski contributed reporting.