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ANALYSIS: Missing Parking Tickets Raise New Questions About NYPD Handling of 311 Complaints

Graphic: Jesse Coburn

New York City police officers said they wrote more than 100 tickets last year in response to 311 complaints about blocked bike lanes, but city databases contain no record of nearly one-fifth of those summonses, Streetsblog found.

NYPD officers rarely report ticketing drivers in response to 311 complaints about blocked bike lanes, city data show. The police received more than 8,200 of those complaints last year and said they issued summonses for just 109 of them, or less than 2 percent.

But an analysis of city data raises doubts about whether cops issued even that number. Streetsblog sought to locate the tickets spurred by those 109 complaints in the city's parking summons databases and could not find matching tickets for 21 of them – or 19 percent.

The number of missing tickets could be even higher. Streetsblog used broad criteria in looking for possible matches, counting any summons given out in the same time-frame as the 311 complaint for any parking violation within two blocks of the blocked bike lane. Some tickets that met these criteria may have been unrelated to the 311 reports.

And another analysis, by the creator of a 311 complaint app, suggests officers responding to 311 reports may be writing as few as half of the illegal parking tickets that they claim to be issuing.

The findings raise new questions about the NYPD's handling of 311 complaints about driver misconduct, which has come under mounting scrutiny. A recent Streetsblog investigation found the police routinely ignore 311 reports about illegal parking, chronically reckless driving and abandoned vehicles. Mayor de Blasio has asked the city Department of Investigation to look into one finding from that report: that 311 users have received harassing phone calls after filing illegal parking complaints to the NYPD. (Streetsblog reported previously on a similar episode.) And an ongoing City Council probe documented instances in which police officers never responded to 311 illegal parking complaints despite reporting that they had.

But none of those inquiries has examined whether police are actually writing the tickets they say they are. Officers reported issuing more than 56,000 summonses in response to 311 complaints last year, close to half of which were about driver misconduct. If one out of every five tickets was not actually written, that would mean more than 10,000 reports about quality-of-life problems went unaddressed despite police claims that officers had taken action.

False responses to 311 complaints could also violate NYPD rules and attract the scrutiny of the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct allegations.

"If there is record falsification, that's very serious,"said Council Member Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), who is involved in the Council inquiry. He said the Council or the city's Office of Inspector General should investigate.

The NYPD did not respond to a request to corroborate the tickets purportedly given out following the 21 complaints in question.

"The NYPD issued more than 73,000 parking summonses in 2020 related to vehicles blocking bike lanes," agency spokeswoman Sgt. Jessica McRorie said in a statement. "We will review the data."

Council Member Robert Holden (D-Queens) called the findings "disturbing."

If police say "they issued a summons and they really didn’t, that’s a serious breach that I’m going to take up with 311," said Holden, who chairs the Council's Technology Committee. "When citizens take the time to make a complaint, they should get an honest answer. And if they're not getting honest answers, my committee needs to know about it."

Holden said fake summons reports would fit a pattern of seemingly dishonest replies from the NYPD about how they handled 311 complaints. He said many of his own 311 reports about illegal parking have yielded "bogus responses" from the police.

Holden voiced anger with the NYPD's 311 response at a Council hearing last month, where he pushed back against the assertions of police officials present that the department takes complaints about illegal parking seriously.

“Don’t say that the NYPD’s addressing this, because they’re not,” he said. “It’s not happening; it’s getting worse.”

Both Holden and Levin said the NYPD should be required to provide the number of every summons allegedly issued in response to a 311 complaint. They also said the summons data should include geographic coordinates for the tickets written.

Currently, the city data contain neither, making it difficult to confirm whether officers are actually handing out the tickets they say they are in response to 311 complaints. The addresses in the summons database are not standardized, with some containing typos and others missing entirely.

Of the 77 police precincts in the city, just four of them accounted for nearly half of the unsubstantiated summonses: the 77th and 78th in central Brooklyn, and the 104th and 108th in Queens, which stretch from Glendale to the western waterfront.

Streetsblog reported previously that the 78th Precinct closes 311 complaints about driver misconduct in under five minutes at a higher rate than any other in the city. Former city officials said it was implausible that officers were actually investigating and resolving so many complaints in under five minutes, given it takes the NYPD more than seven minutes on average to respond to even the most critical emergencies.

An analysis by Jeff Novich, creator of the Reported app, also casts doubts on the number of summonses police are issuing in response to 311 complaints. Reported enables people to quickly to file 311 complaints about illegal parking, and app users submitted 5,400 such complaints to the NYPD last year. Of those, the NYPD said officers issued summonses in response to just 24 of them, according to Novich, though he noted the low rate may reflect delays in the app submitting complaints to the city.

But unlike the public 311 data, the Reported data include the license plate numbers of the illegally parked cars. Novich searched in the summons data for the plate numbers of the 24 cars in question and found only 11 of them — 46 percent — actually received tickets.

"To me, it's corruption in plain sight," he said.

The NYPD Patrol Guide prohibits officers from "intentionally making a false official statement," which includes "lying in an official Department document or report." Officers can be fired for the infraction.

McRorie did not respond to a question about whether falsifying a 311 response would qualify.

Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and member of the department's Internal Affairs Bureau, said he did not believe it would be a fireable offense, but it could still land an officer in hot water.

"If they found that there's a cop that lied about it, there would be some sort of discipline," said Giacalone, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who has litigated against the NYPD, took a different view.

"Anything that a police officer reports officially in their capacity as a police officer in writing, even if it’s a click of a button that generates an automated message through the 311 system … it seems to me that that’s an official document or report," he said.

In any case, false police responses to 311 reports would merit the scrutiny of the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board, but only if someone filed a complaint about it, a board spokeswoman said.

"Allegations that a member of service made false entries into the system used to track response to 311 calls would be investigated if we received a complaint regarding that type of misconduct," said the spokeswoman, Clio Calvo-Platero. "The discipline could range between five penalty days and termination from the department."

Neither the NYPD nor the CCRB responded to questions about whether any officers have previously faced discipline for falsely claiming to have issued summonses. Other instances of  dishonesty from the NYPD have been widely documented, however. In 2018, Buzzfeed reported on secret police files showing that at least 50 officers had lied in various official contexts between 2011 and 2015, and all were allowed to remain on the force. The next year, Gothamist revealed the city's district attorneys keep lists of police officers with credibility problems. And judges this year have thrown out more than 100 cases that relied on the testimony of former cops who were found to have lied on the job. Those officers were fired and prosecuted for perjury.

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