STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
By most measures, police in New York City have done a better job protecting the public than in the past. The crime rate is lower than it's been in generations. Yet despite the drop in crime on the streets, there seems to be a jump in crime within the New York Police Department itself. The country's largest police department has a long and rich history of corruption and new allegations have raised old questions about it. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story quotes Leonard Levitt, a critic of the department, as saying that the commissioner had "done nothing" to address the issue of fixing tickets until the issue gained media attention. Although the NYPD had previously refused to comment or respond to questions, after the story aired an official wrote to NPR to say that the department had begun an investigation before news stories appeared. We also quoted Richard Aborn, who heads a watchdog group, as saying that the NYPD has no independent oversight. In fact there are independent review boards.]
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: New York cops have been accused of fixing parking tickets, smuggling guns, even planting drugs on innocent people - and that's just in the last two months.
PREET BHARARA. U.S. ATTORNEY: The charges unsealed today include conspiracy to distribute firearms, and conspiracy to distribute over $1 million in stolen goods.
ROSE: In October, the U.S. attorney in New York charged five current NYPD officers with smuggling what they thought were stolen cigarettes and firearms as part of an FBI sting. A few days later, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly faced the media again, this time in the Bronx.
RAYMOND KELLY: It's difficult to have to announce for the second time this week that police officers have been arrested for misconduct.
ROSE: Sixteen officers were indicted on charges that they fixed tickets for friends and family. Still, Commissioner Kelly insisted there is no culture of corruption in the department.
KELLY: Those actions are crimes under the law and can't be glossed over as courtesies, or as part of an acceptable culture. They are not.
ROSE: Some observers think ticket fixing is more prevalent than Kelly is willing to admit. Leonard Levitt has covered the NYPD for years, first as a newspaper reporter, now as the author of a blog and book called "NYPD Confidential."
LEONARD LEVITT: This is an embedded way of life in the police department. And he's done nothing to stop that until all this stuff hit the newspapers.
ROSE: In another city, the recent spate of corruption allegations might lead to an investigation, or jeopardize the job of the police commissioner. But Levitt says none of that is happening in New York so far.
LEVITT: We have the threat of 9/11 still hovering over us. And the whole town is jittery. And I think that allows Ray Kelly and the police department to do a lot of things that they wouldn't have been able to do in the past.
ROSE: The mayor's office does have a commission charged with overseeing the police. But critics say it doesn't have any real power. Richard Aborn is president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonprofit watchdog group.
RICHARD ABORN: We're the only big police department in the United States without any sort of independent oversight. Chicago has it, Philadelphia has it, L.A. has it. And unfortunately every 20 years, like clockwork, we get these very big scandals.
ROSE: After the infamous New York police corruption scandals of the 1970s and 1990s, Aborn says it took an outside inquiry to clean up the department. But the NYPD's defenders say recent corruption allegations are overblown in a department with 35,000 officers. On the day the ticket-fixing charges were announced, dozens of off-duty officers rallied in the Bronx in support of the defendants while police union president Patrick Lynch held a news conference.
PATRICK LYNCH: Taking care of your family, taking care of your friends, taking care of those that support New York City police officers and law enforcement is not a crime, period.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
ROSE: Ticket fixing may not be the most serious problem, agrees journalist Leonard Levitt, but he is troubled by the NYPD's alleged policy of spying on Muslim-Americans and by the case of seven narcotics detectives in Brooklyn who were convicted of planting drugs on innocent people in order to meet their arrest quotas.
LEVITT: That's as serious as it gets. But how widespread that is, you know, I don't know, and nobody seems to know. The lack of transparency means that we don't really know how widespread it is. I'd like to believe it's not, but who knows?
ROSE: The NYPD did not respond to interview requests for this story, but here's how Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the department at a news conference last month.
KELLY: The vast majority of police officers do outstanding work to protect this city with fewer resources than we've had in the past.
ROSE: And as long as crime stays low, even critics say it'll take more than a few corruption scandals to change how the NYPD does business. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.