“Collars for Dollars”
“Nathan, when you become mayor, I’m gonna be the first volunteer for your security detail.”
This was a detective speaking, back when we were an ADA in the Manhattan DA’s office. My office, as usual, had about five cops in it. I liked this detective, and asked how come he wanted that job.
“So I can be first in line to put a bullet in your head.”
He was only half kidding.
The reason is because I’d just proposed, in detail, exactly how I would cut out the NYPD’s systematic corruption that caused — and still causes — a great deal of injustice.
Several years have passed, and nothing has changed. The NYPD is still set up to fail. No matter how good its officers may be — and most really are quite good — the NYPD is designed not to serve justice, but to frustrate it.
There are several areas that need fixing. But the single fix that would have the greatest effect would be to end the NYPD’s “collars for dollars” mentality.
The force is structured so that cops wind up getting paid a commission — actually a bounty — for every arrest they make. There’s a huge financial incentive for a cop to make an arrest, and there is zero downside if the arrest turns out to be bullshit. Cops can easily game the system to maximize their pay.
Meanwhile, there’s huge political pressure on each command to “make its numbers” each month. Not quotas, per se, but a sufficient number of arrests to justify the command’s existence to the politicians who set the budget. In other words, a unit that makes fewer arrests is likely to get less funding.*
If you think that’s not a massive incentive to make too many arrests, for the wrong reasons, then you haven’t got a clue about human nature.
Here’s how it works, in a nutshell: Police officers are essentially hourly, blue-collar workers. [They’re unionized, with several different unions representing each of the various ranks (seriously).] If they’re still working after their shift is over, they get overtime. If they have to work even for a few minutes on one of their scheduled days off, they get a full eight hours of overtime. With overtime, an officer could double their base pay or more.
Meanwhile, the NYPD gets its funding from local politicians who tend not to be particularly far-sighted or deep-thinking. They can’t be bothered to analyze whether a particular initiative is reducing crime or recidivism. All they have the time or inclination to do is look at simple numbers. The more arrests a unit is making, then, the better the politicos will think it’s doing its job. So that unit or initiative is going to get more funding, the more arrests it makes. That’s stupid, of course, because more arrests = more crime = the police are doing their job worse. Meanwhile, commands that succeed in cleaning up major sources of criminal behavior get punished when their arrest numbers go down.
So you get officers on the street trying to make as many arrests as possible. An arrest = overtime, because at the end of the shift the arresting officer has to prepare all the paperwork, then get in line to have the case processed by the DA’s office, which can take hours. The more collars the cop makes, the more dollars he makes.
At the same time, there is a big push from the brass to make as many arrests as possible. At the end of each month, you’ll see narcotics teams being sent back to “the well” — locations known for heavy volume of street-level sales. This results in a high volume of bullshit arrests of low-level dealers, who have zero intel, and who are instantly replaced, with zero effect on the actual suppliers and traffickers. This ensures a steady supply of bullshit arrests for next month. Any attempt to actually eradicate the suppliers and managers would be like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, and would not be in the best interests of either the cops or their bosses.
(Don’t forget this video.)
Cops want to time their arrests, if at all possible, to ensure that they have to go to court on their Regular Day Off. They don’t want to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary; they just want to get their eight hours of overtime.
If a case gets thrown out, or if there’s not enough evidence so that the DA’s office decides not to prosecute it, or if the arrest was illegal, there is no downside to the cops or the command. The cop still gets the overtime he earned, even for the most unjustified bullshit arrest. And the command still gets to report the arrest number — the politicians aren’t interested in how many valid arrests were made, only how many arrests, period. So there’s no downside to making an arrest that wasn’t particularly justified or necessary.
Meanwhile, there is no incentive for the cops to have any involvement in the case once the arrest has been made and they’ve made that first court appearance on their RDO. Any further preparation for trial, hearing testimony, and trial testimony, is anathema. Because that keeps them off the street, and prevents them from making overtime. Doing any work on a case after the initial arrest is like taking money out of their pockets. This isn’t exactly in the interests of justice, either.
On our very first day of training in the DA’s office, our entering class was told in no uncertain terms that the cops aren’t our friends, they’re not our buddies. They don’t work for us, we don’t work for them, and we’re not even really on the same side a lot of the time. We were told in no uncertain terms about the games cops would play to maximize their overtime, and to minimize their role in the case after the arrest. We were reminded that our duty was to seek justice, and if doing so pissed off the cops, then that was their problem.
Once out of training, however, the senior prosecutors we worked with told us in no uncertain terms that pissing off the cops would indeed be our problem. Prosecutors don’t get overtime, and at least in the Manhattan DA’s office money isn’t exactly the reason anyone works there. No, the big incentive for prosecutors is prestige. Prestige comes from working on the cool cases, the big cases, the long-term investigations. And those cases don’t just drop into an ADA’s lap by chance. They are brought to a particular ADA by the cops on the case. And who did we think the cops would bring the good cases to, the ADA who’s always busting their balls about overtime and bullshit, or the ADA who’s easy with the overtime and who takes the cops’ side and who maybe creatively helps justify an iffy arrest and who doesn’t fight them all the time when their story doesn’t seem quite right?
So yeah, even the best prosecutors become part of the twisted incentives here.
So what were we proposing that day? What was so awful that cops would line up to whack us if we were ever in a position to make it happen? A variety of things (like getting rid of the unions and all their attendant corruption — we’ve long maintained that NYC organized labor = organized crime, no matter who’s been unionized, and the union members are the victims, but that’s a whole nother topic for another day). But with respect to the “collars for dollars” mentality, we had (and still have) a very simple proposal.
We’d change the force from a blue-collar hourly job to a salaried position without any overtime. We’d raise base pay dramatically, to reflect what a diligent officer should already be making with overtime. But at the same time, those officers would essentially be on the job until the job was done. If it took fifteen hours to work one’s shift and process the arrests, well then it took fifteen hours. They’re not getting paid extra. If they absolutely had to work on a day off, well, they’ll get that day off some other day.
We’d prohibit the command from reporting arrest numbers if the DA’s office refused to prosecute them. Numbers would have to be amended if the DA’s office later dismissed a case for lack of evidence, or if the cops lost the suppression hearing. There would be no reward for bullshit arrests or arrests that violated someone’s rights.
This simple proposal would wreak a major structural change in the NYPD. (We’d ideally change the criteria on which the politicians allocate its funding, but we try to at least be somewhat realistic.)
There would be no financial incentive for police officers to make pointless arrests, unlawful arrests, or arrests with insufficient evidence. They’d still happen, of course, but cops wouldn’t profit by them. There wouldn’t be anywhere near as many.
This would reduce a lot of harassment, and alleviate much of the strain between the cops and certain communities that are victimized by unnecessary and unjust arrests.
That’s great for potential defendants. It’d also be great for law enforcement, as more resources could be devoted to preventing crime rather than cleaning up after it. Instead of focusing on lots of pointless street arrests, cops could do the work to cut off the head of the snake.
It’d also be great for law enforcement, by erasing the biggest conflict of interest between prosecutors and cops. One still wouldn’t be working for the other, but at least there would be no reason why they could not work together to ensure that cases are proven and resolved efficiently.
Citizens would be subject to less harassment, unnecessary police contact, and unlawful police behavior. Taxpayers would get more bang for their buck. Cops would make as much money with less corruption. Cops would get more job satisfaction from making a difference. Prosecutors would have the cops on the same team. And politicians could take the credit for the improved community relations and reduced crime rate.
Now, who wants to be on my security detail?
*The DA’s office similarly gets its funding based in large part on its indictment numbers, an equally irrelevant statistic.