By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, December 1, 1987
Cops go bad when they are badly led. Sometimes they go bad on their own, but when they are badly led, it’s guaranteed.
The latest example of failed police leadership surfaced last week with the disclosure of a long-suppressed Transit Authority report which concluded that four TA plainclothes officers had made scores of false or improper arrests over a 12-month period in 1983 and 1984. The only thing that halted their lawless behavior was that they got caught — but not punished.
The four were apparently motivated by a system that rewarded those with the highest arrest numbers. The high scorers could get promoted to detective. At the least, they would get to stay on their much desired plainclothes beats; the great fear was being sent back to uniformed duty, unattractive to most on the 3,800-member Transit Authority force.
Were these four alone in trumping up arrests or was it a larger pattern? What about the racial overtones (most of those arrested were black or Hispanic men, while many of the supposed victims were white women) — was this, too, a pattern that went beyond the offending four? Why was the report on their activities covered up? These are but a few of the disturbing questions that will have to be answered by the upcoming investigations of the scandal.
There are always many victims in such episodes of unfair prosecution or treatment — which recur periodically in government and are not confined to police forces. In this instance, we have the scores of people falsely accused of sexual abuse, jostling or attempted grand larceny on the subway system. The arresting officers went so far in some cases as to apparently concoct the names of victims, who later, of course, could not be located.
But the larger victim is a societal casualty — the further erosion of faith in the system of enforcing rules and laws. An already cynical public is given reason to become even more cynical.
To recall the history of how this case was handled is to invite, first, praise for the early whistleblowers and, then, scorn for those who covered up.
The four transit cops — three men and woman, all white — began making an astounding volume of arrests on the Lexington Avenue subway line. These four alone were accounting for nearly 20 percent of the sexual abuse arrests and 10 percent of the attempted grand larceny arrests being made by the entire Transit police force. What’s more, a lot of their arrests were occurring at one station — 14th Street — and during the morning rush hour. Wasn’t this a possible hint to their superiors that they were piling up statistics early and goofing off for the rest of the day?
Somehow the superiors didn’t notice, but as the cases began making their way through the criminal justice system, though many of them held up, an alarming number began falling apart. People listed as victims of the crimes came in to say they were unaware that any crime had taken place. Other “victims” could not be found. “Evidence” evaporated. It was clear that bogus crimes had been created.
The bogus pattern was detected by the overloaded lawyers in one of the trial bureaus in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. According to the then deputy chief of that bureau, Michael Cherkasky, who is now chief of the Rackets Bureau, the situation was brought to the attention of the commander of the four transit cops. “We got no satisfaction there,” says Cherkasky, so the case was then given a wider examination in the DA’s office.
The result was that the pattern grew even stronger, so it was taken to James Meehan, chief of the Transit Police, who retired earlier this year. Meehan then gave it to his department’s Internal Affairs Unit, which investigates police misconduct.
The inquiry there was performed by Lt. Thomas Dargan with great thoroughness. He found that of the 224 arrests the four cops made during the year in question, at least 50 to 60 were false or unlawful (“wrongful arrests did occur” and the four “did swear falsely as to the circumstances of the arrests”) and that many of their 160 other arrests had “significant procedural flaws.”
Dargan took his report back to the DA’s office, which concluded that although the wrongdoing was clear, it would be difficult, given the necessity of multi-witness proof, to make strong perjury cases against the cops. So Dargan took the next best step — a decision to seek departmental changes, which require a lesser standard of proof but could result in dismissal.
But when he told his superior officer that this was going to be his recommendation, the officer who met with Chief Meehan and Dargan was then told to close the case without such a recommendation.
And that’s where it lay, all covered up, until the Dargan report got to the press last week as the result of a wrongful arrest suit brought by one of the falsely accused (which is fast becoming a class-action lawsuit). The irony is that one motive for the coverup was probably the fear of an onslaught of just such suits.
We all know that the vast majority of cops are at least as honest as the rest of us. But cases like this one — because senior officials trying to protect their own skins resort to concealment and worse — only feed the opposite impression.