Captain of 78th Precinct Defends Arrest of Famed Bike Lawyer For Fixing Defaced Plate

Cops call it criminal mischief to un-deface this scofflaw's plate. File photo: Adam White
Cops call it criminal mischief to un-deface this scofflaw's plate. File photo: Adam White

You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you … do.

How Streetsblog covered the story. Click to read.
How Streetsblog covered the story. Click to read.

The embattled captain of the 78th Precinct on Tuesday night said that his officers often don’t always respond to 311 calls about defaced license plates or illegally parked cars because 911 calls are a much higher priority — but then defended the arrest of attorney Adam White after a driver used 911 to report him for eschewing 311 and fixing a defaced plate on Fourth Avenue himself earlier this month.

White, who represents victims of traffic violence, was charged with criminal mischief on Nov. 11 after he allegedly removed a piece of plastic that obstructed the license plate of a Chevy SUV parked near St. Marks Avenue. Since then, Brooklyn pols and advocates have said they are “deeply disturbed” by what happened, calling cops’ actions a gross misuse of power.

But Capt. Frantz Souffrant of the Sixth Avenue station said during Tuesday’s precinct community council meeting that the driver’s use of 911 — and 78th Precinct officers’ prompt response — was a valid use of what he had earlier said were strained NYPD resources.

He claimed that White “did break something that was on the vehicle,” though White has said he did nothing but remove a piece of plastic that was covering the plate.

Souffrant’s justification came amid questioning from Kathy Park Price, an organizer from Transportation Alternatives, over why cops responded so promptly to the still unidentified motorist’s plea for help yet rarely seem to take action, or even respond at all, to 311 calls about defaced plates, or cars that dangerously and routinely block bike lanes, bus lanes, and crosswalks.

Captain Frantz Souffrant
Captain Frantz Souffrant

Souffrant said the latter are typically 311 calls, which are lower on the totem pole of priorities — so low, in fact, they are often systematically ignored and dismissed by members of New York’s Finest, as Streetsblog reported in a deep investigation last year.

“The problem is there isn’t an additional set of officers, … so in terms of priority, we’re gonna respond to [a 911 call] first and then once we’re done we eventually return and respond to the 311,” said Souffrant.

Souffrant also said that his rank-and-file officers can only write a summons for an obscured plate if they see it with their own eyes — apparently unlike the actions that precipitated the arrest of White.

“We as officers can only write summonses to vehicles we personally observe — not a picture,” said Souffrant — who has been under fire for going MIA amid a botched investigation into the fatal attack of a dog and his owner in Prospect Park back in August. “If you’re calling [311] for a particular vehicle, by the time the officer arrives, the obstruction is removed, but you have a picture of it, we cannot write a summons, we actually have to personally observe the issue,” he said. “Whenever an officer does observe this they are told to take police action.”

As a result, officers did not write a summons to the unidentified driver for using the piece of plastic to block a digit on his license plate — a common (yet illegal) practice that helps drivers evade traffic cameras or tolls, or flee after hit-and-runs, and on which Mayor Adams has pledged to crack down.

The failure of cops to respond to 311 calls is so systemic a problem that even the 78th Precinct’s community affairs officers have noticed the pattern.

“I’ve utilized 311 in my neighborhood, too, I see kind of similar things, it’s closed out quickly,” said Police Officer Brian Laffey during the meeting.

White is due to appear in Brooklyn Criminal Court on Dec. 1 at 2 p.m. and activists are planning a rally before.