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Why Did N.Y.P.D. Drop One of Its Oldest Crime-Fighting Tools?

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For more than a century, the New York City Police Department has demanded its officers to maintain a detailed, handwritten memo book while on patrol.


“It’s our bible,” said Officer Ramses Cruz, who accompanied a platoon of officers writing down patrol assignments in oversized black leather binders, at a popular afternoon roll call at the Precinct Station House in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


Officer Cruz’s locker at the station households dozens of completed memo books chronicling his years in the department, with articles concerning big arrests, innumerable calls, and even what time he took lunch.


The memo book may be the department’s oldest policing tool, one that has surfaced in countless movies and television shows, and become as much of a staple as the gun, handcuffs or the nightstick. But they are about to become a thing of the past:


The department is retiring handwritten memo books by February, in a change to a digital version — an app on officers’ department-issued iPhones. Instead of making entries by hand, whether with a flowery script from ink-dipped pens in Victorian-era New York or ballpoints today, officers will transcribe in their notes, which the app will dispatch to a department database.


The transition embodies a significant shift in the way the department regards this daily record-keeping by more than, of its uniformed members, and it will immensely revise how the department can access memo book information.


Also, to the books’ historical importance, entries can become important legal documents. Department officials say the transformation will further reduce potential abuses, such as faking records and having to classify through indecipherable handwriting.


After arrests, officers have long turned over relevant entries — on crime scenes and statements made by suspects or witnesses, for example — to prosecutors, and were expected to bring their books to court if they were called to testify.


The memo books mainly lingered with the officers, who were ordered to safeguard them, even after retirement, since the books could be subpoenaed as evidence in future criminal, civil and departmental trials.


But now the department, not the officer, will keep that information. Officers and department officials may search entries — those made since the transition, anyway — by date or keyword, instead of rummaging for old memo books stored in lockers.


This means the memo book entries can be used as valuable crime-fighting data, said Deputy Chief Anthony Tasso, commanding officer of the department’s Information Technology Bureau.


“It gives us the abilities we did not have before when memo books were left in officers’ lockers, and we didn’t have access to a wide quantity of information,” Chief Tasso said.


But the change also concerns police union officials, who fret that the heightened accountability of officers’ whereabouts and actions, will be applied to further scrutinize officers.


Officers’ entries are logged with the time and location information provided by the officer, and the department will have real-time access to those entries.


“We’re already subjected to more oversight, more bureaucratic burdens, and more workplace surveillance than any other job in the public or private sectors,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, a police union.


The New York City officer’s tool kit is ever-changing. Revolvers have been replaced by -millimeter semiautomatic pistols, wooden nightsticks have largely given way to expandable batons, and uniform slacks have been superseded by cargo pants.


But the memo book has survived standard-issue gear. The format of the books, also known as activity logs, has not changed in decades. They have been turned out at a rate of, per month in the department’s printing section, in Police Headquarters.


Every few months, officers are assigned a fresh log to insert into their binders, which they typically carry in a pants pocket. They are evaluated and signed — or “scratched” — by supervisors during patrol tours, to monitor the officers’ activity.


Soon, supervisors will do this with a finger swipe on an officer’s phone screen. They will also be able to monitor officers’ entries remotely.


For perspective, most officers will complete their careers without ever firing their guns. But the memo book is used uniformly for entries on a range of subjects, from traffic-ticket details to testimony that can affect the outcome of a major criminal case.


The content — meal times, police car mileage, patrol assignments, and responses — can help get an officer commended, or disciplined.


“We live and die by these books by what we write in them,” said Officer Shaun McGill, who is assigned to the First Precinct in TriBeCa Writing Sector. His memo book from being the first officer to arrive at the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks on Sept. has become a keepsake.


Department officials say that digitizing the logs will streamline the log-entry process, and relieve officers of carrying the bulky books, and also reduce paper waste.

“It’s not just going from paper to a digital app — it’s changing the culture,” said Chief Tasso, who called the change part of a technological expansion of the department’s policing method for crime-fighting, not for surveilling officers.


Since the department began issuing smartphones in, some, iPhones are now in use, he said, adding that the phones give officers the capability to do expeditious searches themselves of department databases, instead of arranging for busy radio dispatchers to relay information.


The app, which the department developed and tested with input from its officers, has fields for officers to enter details about their patrol shifts, their police vehicles, responses and other information, including photos.


The standardized format will authorize the department to collect “clean data,” Chief Tasso said, instead of sifting through handwritten entries in logbooks that varied widely, depending on an individual officer’s note-taking preference.


Since calls are already routed to officers’ phones, the dispatcher’s information will be bundled into an officer’s digital log entry for that call, the chief said.


Frank Serpico, the former police detective who helped expose corruption decades ago, called memo books, ineffective monitors of officers, because “no cop is going to put anything in his memo book to incriminate himself.”


But the new system, Serpico said, could prevent old abuses, like officers leaving open space in their books, to allow them to add entries retroactively.


“Guys used to leave blank pages so they could go back and add observations just to get a judge to give them a search warrant on someone,” he recalled in a phone interview.


Many major departments across the country do not use logbooks, and many already require officers to log call response on patrol car laptops.


Still, some officers bemoaned the loss of official handwritten logs, which many officers regarded as professional journals, that after retirement, remained as touchstones to their careers.


“There’s a lot of nostalgia to keeping these logs,” said Officer Michael Ignatz, a -year veteran at the Precinct. “I’m a pen and paper guy, so it’s a big change. For the younger guys, it’s an easier transition.”


Sometimes the books intercrossed with an officer’s personal life, such as when William Olmeda met his wife, Sandra, while he patrolled Far Rockaway, Queens. He made sure to write her number in his memo book.


“I knew I had met someone special, and since the memo book has such a great level of importance in memorializing your actions, it was something I wouldn’t lose,” said Olmeda, now retired. “We have been married years, and I still have it.”


For Officer McGill, his memo book entry for his ground zero response helped him qualify for medical treatment, for Sept. survivors.


His entries early on that Tuesday morning were mundane: He grabbed a patrol car with half a tank of gas and, miles on it to patrol Sector EFG, a stretch of blocks that involved the World Trade Center.


The minimal entries show a transition from a -, a vehicle collision, to an entry that outstripped departmental response codes: “World Trade Center crash necessitated emergency response priority.”


Officer McGill lost most of his gear that morning, including his uniform shirt, as he rescued numerous people in the towers, and escaped the collapse of the North Tower by seconds. But he fought to save two things: his badge and his memo book, in which he made entries later, while still reeling from a near-death experience.


“I knew the gravitas of that day,” he said, “and I had to finish entering it in my book.”


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