NEW YORK (AP) — New York City officers surrendered Friday to face charges in a police corruption case following an investigation that stemmed from a low-profile wiretap of one officer suspected of having ties to a drug dealer and ballooned into a lengthy probe, union officials and people familiar with the case said.
Sixteen officers and five others will be arraigned in Bronx state Supreme Court. Hundreds of police officers swarmed the court Friday ahead of the hearing to show support for the officers.
Some of the charges allege the officers abused their authority by helping family and friends avoid paying traffic tickets, two people familiar with the case said Thursday. The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the allegations hadn't been made public.
Thirteen police officers, two sergeants and one lieutenant are facing charges, and some are officials within the department's largest and most powerful union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.
"This has been laid on the shoulders of police officers, but when the dust settles and we have our day in court, it will be clear that this is part of the NYPD at all levels," union President Patrick Lynch said through a spokesman.
The case evolved from a 2009 internal affairs probe of a Bronx officer in the 40th Precinct, Jose Ramos, suspected of associating with a drug dealer, officials said. While listening to the officer's phone, investigators heard calls from people seeing if he could fix tickets for them, they said.
Ramos and his wife were arrested at their home Thursday night, said his lawyer, John Sandleitner. His client — who has worked for the department nearly 18 years — had been working up until the night he was arrested.
"If he had done any of these things that they say, they would've arrested him two months ago. Or two years ago," he said. "Why did they let him go to work, then?"
Sandleitner said he is not clear exactly what charges Ramos faces, and he tried in vain several times to arrange for his client to surrender instead of facing arrest.
"Bring the charges on. None of this slipping it out and releasing to the press," he said.
The other officers were allowed to surrender starting at about midnight Thursday. The conversation overheard on the Ramos wiretap led to more wiretaps that produced evidence of additional officers having similar conversations. An unrelated drunken driving case in the Bronx provided a window into the secret probe when prosecutors were forced to disclose to the defense that the arresting officer was among those recorded talking about ticket fixing.
According to a transcript of the tape, a union delegate tells an officer, "I'll get this taken care of" by having a ticket issued to a girlfriend of the officer's cousin pulled the next day.
The case doesn't appear to rise to the level of the more notorious corruption scandals in the nation's largest police department. But in terms of the number of officers facing criminal or internal administrative charges, the probe represents the largest crackdown on police accused of misconduct in recent memory.
Earlier this week, federal prosecutors in Manhattan brought conspiracy and other charges against five current and three former officers alleging they were part of a gun-running ring. In two other recent unrelated federal cases, one officer was charged with arresting a black man without cause and using a racial slur to describe the suspect, and another with using a law enforcement database to try to trump up charges against an innocent man.
As the ticket-fixing investigation unfolded, union officials complained that the probe unfairly singled out officers for an unofficial practice — undoing paperwork on traffic citations before they reach court — that has been tolerated for years.
"This issue could have and should have been addressed differently," Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, has said. The union has more than 22,000 members.
Aside from those officers charged criminally, dozens more could face internal charges. In one disciplinary case already decided earlier this year, a former union financial secretary in the Bronx admitted administrative misconduct charges and was docked 40 days of vacation and suspended for five days.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has addressed the issue. Last fall, the NYPD — which has about 35,000 officers — installed a new computer system that tracks tickets and makes it much more difficult to tamper with the paper trail.
Kelly also recently formed a new unit within internal affairs to look into ticket fixing. Its officers sit in on traffic court testimony and comb through paperwork to ensure none of the methods is being wrongly employed.
The last serious corruption scandal for the NYPD was the so-called "Dirty 30" case from the early 1990s. More than 33 officers from Harlem's 30th Precinct were implicated in the probe, with most pleading guilty to charges including stealing cash from drug dealers, taking bribes, beating suspects and lying under oath to cover their tracks.