How I Got That Story: The NYPD Tapes

'It's a really disturbing episode in the history of law enforcement that a cop who was trying to do the right thing wound up getting put in the psychiatric facility'

Village Voice reporter Graham Rayman’s five-part series, The NYPD Tapes, is a shocking portrait of how the New York Police Department operates behind closed doors.

The publication of the series led to internal investigations, the transferring and charging of several officers, and changed the method of sex crimes investigations. The tapes are also being used in a law enforcement curriculum at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York.

Rayman, 44, has been with the Village Voice since 2007. “It’s one of the few places that practices long-form investigative journalism on a daily basis, and there’s a lot of freedom to the job,” he said.

Last month, Rayman took top honors in the Investigative Reporting category of the AltWeekly Awards.

“An extraordinary piece of work,” wrote ProPublica reporter and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Jake Bernstein, who was one of AAN’s judges. “In lesser hands, the tapes might not have amounted to such a gripping and informative series.”

In this edition of AAN’s How I Got That Story series, Graham Rayman shares the story behind “The NYPD Tapes.”

How did you get this story?
Well, it’s an interesting story. Adrian Schoolcraft, who is the centerpiece of the story, who made the tape recordings in his precinct in Brooklyn, sent me an email basically saying, “I have these tapes and I think you might be interested,” and he sent me a sample. I had no idea what he had. He was staying in upstate New York with his dad and I went up to visit him and I asked, “So, how many tapes do you really have?” And he said, “Oh, 1,000 hours or so.” And that was the, “Oh my goodness” moment.

Immediately, I was curious as to what was on those tapes. So I asked him to send me simply the roll calls. These were digital recordings, so it was easy for him to put together a CD that contained just the roll calls. The roll calls are the meetings are the beginning of every shift that are common in police precincts and police stations, in which the sergeant or the lieutenant, or sometimes even the precinct commander, gives the police officers their marching orders and you can learn a lot about how a police department operates by sitting in on those roll calls. So, he was giving me unprecedented access into how a typical police precinct operates.

A couple of days later, the CD came, and I started listening to [the roll calls] and transcribing the tapes. He gave me 117 roll calls, stretching over a period of a year and a half. I transcribed them, interviewed him some more, talked to police sources that I have about the contents of the tape, and the story developed from there.

How long would you say it took you to put the story together?
It was a five-part series that ran between May and September, and there was such a huge volume of material and so many interesting themes that we split them up into the different stories. The first two stories took me two months to put together. I got new information and new sources and that was worked into subsequent pieces.

What were some of the challenges you found in reporting this story and how did you overcome them?
One was just understanding what was going on in the tapes and getting it in the right context, what was being said. So for that, I was grateful to my police sources and other experts who were able to help me put it into context.

Another challenge was just, the quality of the tapes, some of them weren’t very good, and so, it involved a lot of going back and replaying, listening, trying to sort it out. I mean, technology’s amazing; this little recorder that he had in his pocket really captured a lot of it very clearly, but there was some of it that was hard to understand.

Then, the other challenge was trying to get the police department to be responsive and they chose not to be. They chose to stonewall me on my questions and my requests, which was disappointing.

Did they respond to the story at all, after it came out?
Not directly to me; they did respond in several ways, in other publications and in some of the things they did, in reaction to the stuff in the tapes.

They ended up transferring the precinct commander and most of the supervisory staff in the precinct, they charged the precinct commander and four other cops with failing to properly treat a crime report. They changed the way that sex crimes are investigated, in that now, these special sex crimes units do all the investigating, rather than the precincts.

The commissioner ordered a series of internal investigations. First, he ordered a re-investigation of the Schoolcraft incident and then he appointed an inspector to look at it, and then finally, he appointed a panel of three former federal prosecutors, very prominent lawyers here in the city to examine and verify crime stats.

And the series started a discussion among some of the communities that were being affected by the “stop and frisk” campaign. Also, some of the people in the series were deposed in two different class action lawsuits, on involving stop and frisk, the other involving the ticketing quotas. The series basically proved that there were ticket quotas, once and for all, because the officers were repeatedly harangued in the roll calls to meet their quotas. It was something that was known about with a nod and wink, but it hadn’t really been reported quite so thoroughly before.

The tapes are also being used in a law enforcement curriculum at John Jay College [of Criminal Justice at CUNY] and in a couple of other places.

What would you suggest to other journalists that may be approached with similar evidence?
Well, I think the first thing is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I think Schoolcraft was not treated, by some of the other publications, as well as he should have been. I mean, let’s face it, nine out of 10 times, when someone comes in the door with claims about having a great story, it doesn’t really pan out, but I think it’s really important to listen to everyone, no matter who they are and just give them a chance. That’s what I try to do, I try to give everyone a listen and not turn anyone away just because their story seems outlandish.

And again, it’s only successful 10 percent of the time, but sometimes it works out and that’s what happened here.

Was there anything that came out of your reporting that surprised you?
One thing that definitely surprised me was how Schoolcraft was treated. He had some complaints about the way the department was being run and he tried to go through the chain of command, and at every juncture, he was rebuffed. Even then, he didn’t go public.

Then, he tried to do it through the department’s investigative operations and he didn’t get anywhere there and he still didn’t go public. And then the people running the precinct figured out he has spoken to Internal Affairs and on the night of Oct. 31, he was dragged out of his apartment in handcuffs and put into a psychiatric facility.

They came into his apartment without his consent and there was a deputy chief there, who lost his temper and ordered Schoolcraft to be taken to a psych facility, when he hadn’t exhibited any signs of psychiatric issues. And we know that because there’s a tape recording of the whole sequence.

Then, he was held against his will for six days without any real explanation and the police gave the hospital inaccurate information about his behavior that night. They basically told them that he was out of control, when the tape clearly shows that he was completely in control. It’s a really disturbing episode in the history of law enforcement that a cop who was trying to do the right thing wound up getting put in the psychiatric facility and he’s still suspended without pay, which is very unusual. And he’s been suspended indefinitely. It’s kind of disturbing. There are laws to protect whistle-blowers, but in this case, those laws didn’t help.

Did you ever feel endangered working on this story?
No, no.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave reporters and/or readers?
First of all, it’s an ongoing story and it’s important that I keep on because Schoolcraft has a lawsuit that, if it ever gets to trial, it’s going to be interesting.

The only piece of advice I would give, especially to a young reporter, on covering the police is that, relationships are critically important. They have an initial distrust of reporters from the jump and it’s very important to make a good first impression before you start criticising them.

Also, try to build a group of police sources that you can turn to, time after time, to get their advice because it’s a very arcane world and it’s really important to have people there who understand that world and are willing to put it into context for you.

“The NYPD Tapes” by Graham Rayman:

Part 1: The NYPD Tapes: Inside Bed-Stuy’s 81st Precinct

Part 2: Bed-Stuy Street Cops Ordered: Turn this place into a ghost town

Part 3: A Detective Comes Forward About Downgraded Sexual Assaults

Part 4: The WhistleBlower, Adrian Schoolcraft

Part 5: The Corroboration

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