The optics don’t look great for the NYPD after two high-ranking police officials were arrested early Monday on bribery charges.
There were watches, trips to Las Vegas also attended by a prostitute, high-end Nets and Rangers tickets, a visit from “elves” who brought Christmas presents — video games for the children, jewelry for the wife.
These were some of the perks allegedly given to Deputy Inspector James Grant and Deputy Chief Michael Harrington by Jeremy Reichberg and a confidential witness, identified in published accounts as Jona Rechnitz, the two businessmen at the center of investigations connected to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraising activities.
In return for the gifts?
The businessmen reportedly got a number of “accommodations” from the police department, the more extravagant of which included the closure of a lane in the Lincoln Tunnel and a police escort for a visiting businessman.
The allegations raise questions about how police services are doled out around New York City, and who determines what “communities” need from police.
A tale as old as policing
Reichberg and Rechnitz allegedly distributed the bling and benefits in return for a police department that would be uniquely responsible to them, their neighbors and associates.
By building a relationship with Harrington, then working in the chief of department’s office, Reichberg allegedly hoped to have a “one stop shop” for assistance from the NYPD, and in general wield “considerable influence over internal NYPD affairs” in his community.
In other words, he appears to have wanted a police department responsive to his needs and mindful of his issues. According to the feds, Reichberg paid for it, however, and got more than people who don’t.
At the news conference announcing the charges, Commissioner William Bratton said there is a “level of irony” in the charges, given that police officers are (also allegedly) supposed to be building community relationships, but that lines were crossed here.
This issue is “as old as policing,” says Delores Jones-Brown, a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College.
In an earlier era of NYC policing, there was a notion that cops on the beat might get free things — coffee, food, etc. — in exchange for preferential treatment, Jones-Brown says. This conflict led in part to the creation of professionalized, more-removed police.
The charges unsealed Monday also were coupled with straightforward and serious allegations that Sgt. David Villanueva accepted bribes to streamline the process of getting a gun permit. (A fourth officer, Richard Ochetal, pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the feds). Jones-Brown says that would be a clear violation of legal statutes. And the patrol guide is clear on officers not being allowed to accept anything of value, which makes the allegations against the higher-ranking officers serious.
Without the graft, the idea of police “tailoring” their services to community needs, says Jones-Brown, is something that would be a much-needed reform — a true “neighborhood policing” model as opposed to the bare bones model in place now.
For the most part, community engagement is limited to “store-owners and property-owners,” she says. The NYPD is not “talking about Ray Ray and Joe Joe whose parents don’t own anything. They may leave this earth without owning home or business in this community,” though that doesn’t mean the police shouldn’t work for them.
Police reform activists were quick to jump on the NYPD for yesterday’s arrests.
The bribery allegations aren’t nearly as serious or apparently systemic as the issues of police misconduct and aggression that these activists normally focus on, but they, too, diminish public trust in the NYPD.
Keegan Stephan, a prominent activist, says the allegations of preferential treatment and Bratton’s acknowledgement of the fine line of community accommodations show a “warped sense of what community is” — that the “rich and powerful within a community” are not necessarily representative of the community as a whole.
Stephan, also a bike activist, says he lived and worked in Williamsburg during the Bloomberg-era controversy over new bike lanes being built through a Hasidic neighborhood. The narrative was that the bike lanes and the scantily clad or spandex-wearing riders would offend the locals.
But Stephan says Hasidic patrons regularly visited the environmental nonprofit on South 6th to buy and repair bikes as part of the nonprofit’s recycle-a-bike program. He asked the patrons where the anti-bike fervor was coming from, when so many seemed to want bikes.
He says they told him “that’s just the higher-ups, the people in power” who were being accommodated.
In terms of police-work, people like to believe that “police can’t be bought, that they should serve the public,” Stephan says. Monday’s allegations “open up the reality to people that it’s not the case.”
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers. Subscribe at amny.com/amexpress.