Next time you have your ass handed to you by a member of New York’s finest—be it a hotheaded rookie who plays by his own rules or a grizzled veteran who’s too old for this shit—you’ll have the comfort of knowing that the officer is under strict orders to carefully report every aspect of the smackdown. Will he actually do so accurately? That’s a good question.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is set to announce a new department initiative today that will require officers to file comprehensive “Force Incident Reports” every time they use their batons, punch farebeaters, or tackle world-renowned athletes outside of their hotels. Beginning early next year, the reports will track everything from the specific way in which the cop used force, to his justification for using it, to the race of the person he used it against. Officers who witness their colleagues using excessive force will also face punishment for failing to report it. The hope is that the new policy will teach the NYPD about the ways in which its own officers make aggressive contact with the New Yorkers they are tasked with protecting—something Bratton openly admits the department knows less about than it should.
Self-reporting by NYPD officers has led to real reform in the past. In 2008, a court ordered the department to publicly release its own electronic data about stop-and-frisk incidents, which helped the public understand how seemingly arbitrary many of those stops were. (“Police stop a 21-year-old in Brooklyn, citing ‘other.’ No weapon is found,” reads a typical entry, tweeted today by an automated bot that has been chronologically publishing, since 2013, every 2011 stop in the database.) Five years after the court order, a little-known progressive candidate named Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York on a platform that centered around curtailing stop-and-frisk.
But officers were incentivized to report street stops. Whether the department wants to admit it or not, it’s become clear in recent years that official or unofficial quotas were placed on beat cops for the number of stops and frisks they carried out. To file a report was to show your boss that you were doing your job. The use of force reporting will only be useful to citizens if it reflects the instances when cops aren’t doing their jobs, or aren’t doing them correctly. What incentive is there for an officer to fill out a form that says he shoved someone for no reason?
The New York Times, which broke the story, is right to compare the use of force forms to the weapons discharge reports that officers are required to file every time they fire their guns, whether they hit anyone or not. In the early 1970s, when those forms were first brought in, weapons discharges “reached a peak of nearly 1,000” per year, the Times writes. Last year, there were only 79 discharges, a record low. Surely, the vast majority of that statistical dropoff is due to a legitimate decline in shootings—maybe even all of it. Maybe not.
On July 13, 1977, years after officers were first required to begin filing firearms discharge reports, the power went out across all five boroughs for a full 24 hours. On Broadway in Brooklyn, along the Bushwick-Bed Stuy border, burning and looting were rampant, and cops were unreserved about using their guns in hopes of quelling the chaos. Jonathan Mahler described the chaos in his book The Bronx Is Burning:
Many officers were using their guns repeatedly, usually with the intention of clearing hostile crowds and scaring off snipers. Some cops recall Emergency Services vans combing the streets, tossing out extra boxes of ammunition to officers in need. One cop says he and his partner shot on the order of 130 rounds. Another remembers talking to a shaken transit cop who had defended a token booth at an elevated subway stop by running back and forth between the two entrances, firing his pistol to keep the looters at bay.
It’s impossible to know how many bullets were fired by the cops that night (or by the looters, some of whom had robbed a Broadway store that sold guns). According to the official record, the number was zero. “During a few successive roll calls, sergeants asked if anyone had used his gun that night,” Mahler writes. “No one wanted to deal with the paperwork that accompanied every shot fired, not to mention the elaborate examinations and reenactments mandated by the Weapons Discharge Review Board.”
The captain of Bushwick’s 83rd Precinct praised his officers’ restraint in a report to NYPD brass about the blackout. “The Officers were subjected to provocations of bottle and other missile throwing, and the stress of attempting to contain the unrestrained lawlessness,” he wrote. “However, no firearms were discharged.”
After the terror of the blackout—and of Son of Sam, who was still at large and murderously prowling the city—public opinion was firmly on the side of law and order. The cops of the 83rd didn’t kill anyone; if they had reported the discharges like they were supposed to, it’s hard to imagine anyone being seriously reprimanded for what amounted to warning shots on the most trying night of night of their careers. The NYPD chose to ignore a night of hailing bullets not to save its officer from punishment, but to save them from the hassle of filling out forms.
Now imagine a scenario, in 2015, in which a cop would face retribution for using force. He uses a chokehold against a man who isn’t resisting, or throws a public housing resident to the ground while conducting a search of her apartment. The most potent weapon against such individual abuses is the intrepid bystander with a cell phone camera, but this time, no one is around to film. The only people who know about the violence are the cop, his partner, and his victim. Maybe he’ll do the right thing and report it. Maybe he won’t.