One Police Plaza

Leonard Levitt's new book, NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force, is available in stores and online. Click here to order.

Ticket-Gate: The Scandal That Touches Everybody Who is Anybody

April 25, 2011

Ticket-fixing is so pervasive and accepted inside the NYPD that its top uniformed officer, Chief of Department Joe Esposito, designates a member of his staff to handle requests, sources said.

At some Brooklyn precincts, sources say it is routine to yank tickets for favored segments of the community - i.e. Hasidic Jews, who have access to the department -- before the paperwork gets into the court system.

These ticket Houdinis span all ranks, including precinct commanders, community affairs officers and sometimes even borough commanders, sources say.

"There is an officer in every office to Houdini tickets," said a source. "It happens at every level."

A Bronx Deputy Inspector has reportedly been picked up on a wiretap, asking a union delegate to kill a ticket.

And even the chief in charge of rooting out corruption is apparently not immune to the practice of aiding an important friend.

Although Chief of Internal Affairs Charles Campisi denied a news report that he killed a ticket for the NYPD's Chief Surgeon, Eli Kleinman, sources say that what Campisi actually killed was Kleinman's $250 tow-fee to the city.

Perhaps this widespread practice of deep-sixing parking and other tickets is why Police Commissioner Ray Kelly -- once commander of the 71st precinct in Brooklyn, an enclave of Lubavicher Hasidim -- has been mostly silent about this scandal. All he has said was that he moved to stop the practice by installing electronic scanners after a police investigation revealed it in 2008.

Does anyone with half a brain believe that Kelly -- who likes to say he has worked every police job in this town, from switchboard operator to Head Honcho -- never knew that ticket fixing has been a part of the NYPD culture since probably the invention of the automobile?

It's similar to Kelly's saying he knew nothing of the unconstitutional questioning of arrested anti-Iraq war demonstrators in 2003. His denial prompted U.S. District Court Charles Haight to compare Kelly to the Claude Rains character in the classic film "Casablanca."

As Rains famously put it, he was "shocked, SHOCKED" to find that gambling was going on in Rick's cafe -- just as the croupier handed him his nightly winnings.

Kelly may well have reduced crime to record lows. He may well be responsible for the city's having been spared another terrorist attack since 9/ll. He may even be, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said, the greatest police commissioner in the city's history.

But the first lesson of Ticket-gate, is this: despite all his accomplishments, you cannot trust him to police the NYPD.

Lesson number two: you also can't trust Kelly to level with the public. When he ordered the installation of those electric scanners, he never said a word.

As the New York Times remarked on his now deafening silence: "The system [electronically scanning the tickets at every stage of their journey through the system] has been in place since last summer but was not publicized until a far-ranging investigation of ticket fixing emerged in the Bronx."

That emergence -- in all three city dailies -- occurred just this month.

Ticket-gate's third lesson is that every city needs need an aggressive media to play a watchdog role of its government. The media is now feasting on the story like no other in the Bloomberg administration as the scandal races through the five boroughs and infects the integrity of the department like a low-grade fever.

All three dailies are leapfrogging each other with exclusives, egged on by the Post's former police bureau chief, Murray Weiss, now on the loose as an on-line columnist.

The Daily News even took extraordinary step last week of actually criticizing Kelly, [albeit timidly], whispering in its editorial, "Nix tix fix" that he owes the public "a fuller accounting." Duh.

Putting it all in perspective, Ticket-gate hardly approaches the corruption unearthed by the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s. Then, virtually the entire NYPD, including those in the police commissioner's office, was systemically shaking down anyone doing business with the city or coming in contact with the department.

Nor do the alleged actions of Patrolmen's Benevolent Association officials in reportedly fixing tickets approach the union's past corruption.

Just a generation ago, the PBA seemed but a step away from being a criminal enterprise. Its chief counsel owed half a million dollars to Atlantic City casinos and its chief investigator was convicted of bribing witness to testify falsely or not at all against crooked cops.

The counsel, the legendary Richie Hartman, went to federal prison after unrelated bribery and extortion convictions and the union's chief investigator, Walter Cox, died in state prison.

Still, today's scandal is serious enough that the Bronx District Attorney is reportedly investigating 40 police officers for accepting gifts in return for deep-sixing tickets.

Campisi's Internal Affairs Bureau is reportedly investigating a whopping 400 officers. And as the mayor pointedly said last week, some tickets that were deep-sixed involved not merely parking violations but speeding and drunk driving.

Moreover, the systemic ticket fixing for friends, family and well-connected others is something the public can feel, hear and touch. It is something the media can wrap its hands around. As the Post recently declared, Ticket-gate could "very well burgeon into the department's worse scandal in decades."

Last week,the straight-talking president of the Sergeants Union, Ed Mullins, was quoted all over the media when he called such ticket-fixing "courtesies," not corruption, and added that "the culture of extending courtesies to members and their families within the NYPD has existed since the day the very first summons was ever written."

But another part of his remarks drew little attention, despite revealing even more about the department - and about the police commissioner.

"It is well-known that the department has a well-honed tradition of sacrificing its members for the sake of political expediency," Mullins said. "Department leaders rarely have the courage to stand up to any degree of public pressure, and they are even worse at addressing sensitive issues with truthfulness and forthrightness."

Another police source put it this way: "Not only does the mayor's office ask to have summonses disappear but everyone from the police commissioner's office down is involved. Of course it will be only the cops and a handful of supervisors that take the fall for it. The rest of them, Kelly included, will run away like roaches in a lighted room and deny ever taking part in that. The bosses always went directly to the PBA guys to have a summons taken care of. It was always done because a supervisor asked you to and you didn't want to make waves. Now they will be scapegoated."

If you doubt that scapegoating is part of Kelly's modus operandi, ask officer Richard Neri, Chief Thomas Purtell or Deputy Inspector Paul Ciorra.

Kelly all but convicted Neri in the media after he accidentally shot and killed a black teenager, Timothy Stansbury, in a Brooklyn housing project in 2004. A grand jury declined to indict him.

Kelly transferred Purtell from head of the Special Operations Division to the Housing Bureau after a botched raid on a Harlem grandmother's apartment caused her fatal heart attack. When things quieted down a few months later, Kelly transferred him to the Bronx as borough commander.

Kelly transferred Ciorra from a key spot in the Intelligence Division to a captain's slot in the Deputy Commissioner of Trials that was clerical. His assignment: to prepare the schedules of the department's five police trial judges.

The day after the New York Times suggested that Ciorra had been made a scapegoat for the mistakes of Intel's higher ups - [Deputy Commissioner David Cohen] -- in nearly blowing the case against terrorist Najibullah Zazi, Kelly transferred Ciorra again - this time to the position of commanding officer of the Highway Unit, a full Inspector position.

All three - Neri, Purtell and Ciorra -- accepted Kelly's denigration of them with no word of complaint. Their stoicism represents another part of the NYPD culture: suffering in silence today in hopes of redemption tomorrow.

That's the part of the NYPD culture that makes it great.


Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt