NYPD officers (photo: @NYPDnews)
The protests following George Floyd’s murder have amplified two different, yet intertwined demands: to hold police officers accountable and to defund the police. In New York City, the NYPD’s continued use of predatory “buy and bust” operations, which target poor people of color and are conducted by detectives with long misconduct histories, exemplifies the imperative to divert funds away from policing to public health services.
As a public defender, I have handled dozens of these “buy and bust” cases. These “operations” occur daily and follow a familiar playbook. Typically, an undercover officer approaches a person in the street and attempts to purchase a “baggie” of crack or heroin. At times, the person sells the undercover drugs directly. Other times, the person directs the undercover to a street seller, hoping to receive a small tip in return. Once a buy is complete, a police “back-up” team arrests the person, whether they had completed the sale or only introduced the undercover to a seller. The whole police enterprise then proceeds to replicate the process elsewhere, often conducting six or seven “operations” per day. Public data reveals that over the past five years, these operations led to approximately 43,878 arrests — an average of 8,775 arrests a year, or 24 arrests a day.
In an unsurprising pattern for the NYPD, these operations target people of color. NYPD data reveals that between 2015-2019, 87% of people arrested in these operations were Black or Latino, a total of 38,290 arrests. Through these operations, New York City arrests, jails, and punishes poor people of color, some of whom are struggling with substance use disorder. Often these operations intentionally target people with substance use issues, one of the most vulnerable groups of individuals in our city. Even prosecutors recognize that substance use underlies many of these arrests and thus routinely extend pleas that incorporate substance abuse treatment programs.
These predatory “buy and bust” operations epitomize a failure to recognize the ineffectiveness and harm of policing — and to shift funding accordingly. Across the country, local governments have begun treating substance use disorder as a public health epidemic. Some of the new approaches address substance use itself, such as providing methadone, clean syringes, and safe injection spaces; others address homelessness and access to alternative pain reduction treatments; and still others are preventative, providing much-needed employment opportunities, child-care, and counseling services. Yet Mayor de Blasio has chosen to continue to police and imprison Black and brown people, rather than to provide assistance and opportunities.
Drug treatment pleas, which often result from buy and bust arrests, demonstrate the harm caused by attempting to solve a public-health problem through policing and the courts. Many of the individuals who are swept in by these operations are not mentally or physically prepared to cease substance use and to engage productively in a 12- to 24-month program. Instead, they often opt to take treatment pleas because they fear the alternative — a prison sentence. As a result, relapses are common, and even with the help of dedicated, supportive, and caring program staff, clients too often end up imprisoned for long periods of time when they fail to complete their program. Moreover, treatment pleas encourage courts to leave unexamined the police’s conduct, a process slowly eroding constitutional due process protections. Thus, treatment-by-threat is far from the public health-focused approach recommended by experts, and implemented elsewhere.
Defunding buy and bust operations will free up millions of dollars that could be invested in community-based approaches. Up to ten officers participate in each operation, many of whom are detectives earning high base salaries. Moreover, many of the involved officers collect substantial overtime pay for each operation — booking and jailing six or seven people takes the officers well past the end of their shift. The financial costs associated with these operations are further inflated in the courts. Data from the Bronx Defenders indicates that in 2015-2019, buy and bust cases were pending in court for an average of 97 days, while 1,107 of those 3,201 cases (an enormous 34%) were dismissed. Throughout the litigation of these cases, city funds pay the salaries of public defenders, prosecutors, judges, and court staff — instead of funding community-based services.
Unsurprisingly, officers involved in serious and repeated misconduct are the ones often conducting these predatory buy and bust operations. Misconduct allegations, including planting and fabrication of evidence, as well as the rape of a teen woman, have dogged Narcotics officers for years. A recent analysis found that 8 of the 10 most-sued officers for misconduct were from Narcotics, the command that conducts these operations. Yet these are not just single “bad apples”: 6.9% of substantiated civilian allegations were made against Narcotics officers and involved a total of 254 different officers. No wonder, then, that prosecutors have ended up dismissing 34% of these cases in the Bronx; the prosecutors themselves do not trust Narcotics officers and the arrests they make.
Buy and bust operations do nothing to address the needs of the community or help people with substance use issues. It is a self-serving enterprise that helps dirty cops rack up overtime by targeting vulnerable people.
The mayor has so far failed to heed the calls to defund the police and hold officers accountable. The recent, insufficient cuts to the NYPD budget have all but disappeared amidst sky-rocketing overtime costs propelled by now-debunked claims, while officers with lengthy, violent misconduct records still prowl our streets. If the mayor ever chooses to begin to stand for progress and justice, defunding predatory buy and bust operations, and the bad cops who run them, can be a start.
Oded Oren is a Criminal Defense Attorney at The Bronx Defenders.