In the aftermath of the Eric Garner protests, I was asked to explain/defend the actions of the protesters by people who saw Eric Garner’s death as an isolated tragedy and did not understand why masses of people were taking to the streets. As a lifelong New Yorker, it was clear to me that Eric Garner’s death was part of a larger pattern of overzealous policing tactics resulting in tragedy, tragedy that disproportionately falls on black men. However I have been hearing these stories for years, and I can see how to an outsider it could seem like it came out of the blue. So I put together a compilation of links to outline the story for those who have not been following for the past decade. In light of the recent events in Baltimore, I think there is a need to be familiar with the long-term story there in order to understand how policing went off the rails.
In what follows, I will give you a collection of news stories and other sources (mostly from that last 10-15 years) that I think support the suspicions that many residents of NYC, especially black residents, have of their police, and “the system” in general. I think that the sum-total of the information provided below demonstrates that there is a serious, systemic problem with overly enthusiastic policing, that this problem disproportionately affects minorities, that it fits into deeply rooted systems of inequality, and that entrenched interests stand in the way of even the most common sense reforms. I hope the weight of the information in these links will move you to be more sympathetic to those who carry out disruptive actions in order to draw attention to these problems.
1. There has been a string of high profile incidents of black men dying under strange circumstances at the hands of the NYPD, leading to a general sense that police cannot be held accountable, no matter what they do.
Amadou Diallo was unarmed and innocent, he was shot 19 times in what was most likely a horrible accident. Nevertheless, it is the sort of accident that it is difficult to imagine a non-cop getting away with:
Patrick Dorismond was killed under disputed circumstances, with his friend claiming that the undercover cop instigated the confrontation without identifying himself as a cop:
Sean Bell was shot and killed on his wedding night in events that most likely resulted from overly nosey undercover cops checking out his wedding party.
Ramarley Grahm was shot in his bathroom while trying to flush marijuana down the toilet:
The officer who put Mr. Garner in a chokehold has two complaints against him that suggest he may have some sadistic tendencies:
The chokehold wasn’t the only problem: What happened after was arguably worse:
Akai Gurley was shot in a stairwell by a rookie cop who had his gun out for no good reason:
The officer who shot him texted his union representative before reporting the incident:
The one major case where the officers were held accountable to my satisfaction was the Abner Louima case, where a group of officers sodomized a Hatian man with nightsticks.
2. Blacks have reason to fear the police and prosecutors:
- Although the homicide rate by black males is about 10x compared to white men, black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police. This suggests that biases in policing go beyond the simple differences in crime rates and include a component of bias which, conscious or unconscious, is sometimes deadly.
-Current and former black officers attest to feeling harassed off-duty, or at other points in their lives:
- One black woman shares her experiences and feelings: http://gawker.com/my-vassar-college-faculty-id-makes-everything-ok-1664133077
- “Driving while black”
-Disparities in punishments at school:
- Experiences of black friends with the justice system versus my own.
3. The system facilitates and encourages abusive cops.
- Even clear incidents of wrongdoing rarely result in serious punishment
- NYC’s Civilian Complaint Review Board is toothless: http://www.wnyc.org/story/window-secretive-police-misconduct-investigations/
- NYPD officers have blocked traffic and rioted to prevent oversight in 1992. Rudy Giuliani encouraged them:
- A small percentage of NYPD officers seem to be the ones that people always “resist arrest against”, and a similarly small group disproportionately accounts for accusations of excessive force. Yet the NYPD keeps them on the streets.
- Statistics regarding the nature of complaints against the NYPD:
Civil forfeiture: The NYPD is basically robbing people (or taxpayers. then the cops lose in court) using methods that the courts have ordered them to stop using:
This happens all over the country too:
The the police union fights body cameras tooth and nail: http://nypost.com/2013/08/14/nypd-in-a-snap-judgment-pba-and-brass-resist-order-to-carry-cameras/
Police have incredibly high rates of domestic violence: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/09/police-officers-who-hit-their-wives-or-girlfriends/380329/
4. There have been numerous non-lethal incidents of NYPD officers being out of control, and I have a sense that they are acting from a sense of impunity.
- Bicycle push incident: A cop walked up to a guy and pushed him off his bike, knocking him to the ground. The officer was fired, but it the cop seems to have estimated that he could get away with it. He was convicted of falsifying a criminal complaint, but got no jail time:
- The NYPD uses undercovers at protests to provoke instead of calm tensions:
- There was a recent high profile case of NYPD officers planting drugs on people, with allegations that the practice is widespread.
- There is something fishy about the way these officers make gun busts. Circumstantially, it looks plausible that they might have planted guns on some people.
- Pregnant woman tackled
- Man roughed up by police for his “copwatch” activities.
“Stopped and frisked for being a “f*cking mutt”, a video where a young man demonstrates the overly authoritative and disrespectful way police act towards him.
The “cannibal cop”, who used his access to records to stalk women that he talked about murdering and eating.
- There was an incident with a motorcycle group basically taking over the West Side Highway (the very same one I marched on), and engaging in a high speed chase that ended with a man being beaten in front of his family until bystanders intervened. Cops were nowhere to be seen in spite of a large group of cyclists acting threatening. As it happens, there was an undercover cop in the group, who seems to have participated in the beating. It’s impossible for me not to wonder if this gangs wild rides were not tolerated due to some sort of inside connection with the police.
- Don’t forget the corruption of Bernard Kerik. At least he wasn’t above the law, but how did he get so high up?:
- Every year thousands of lawsuits are filed against the NYPD, as are tens of thousands of complaints:
- Cop kicks fruit vendor without provocation, claims fruit vendor assaulted him, assistant DA files charges anyway even though he had seen the video, then backs down when called on it:
5. Several lines of evidence suggest a culture of retaliation inside the NYPD which is impeding attempts at reform.
NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft secretly taped evidence of illegal quotas for ticketing people being put on officers, and orders to take steps to skew statistics by downgrading the level of crime reported. A group of 20 officers showed up at his house and took him off to a mental hospital, where he was confined for a week.
It appears that the police may have attempted to retaliate against the person who taped the killing of Eric Garner. The person who made the tape was arrested days later for supposedly giving a gun to a minor. There were no fingerprints on the gun, and DNA evidence is taking quite a while:
A cop who was left to die by his fellow officers because of his role in an anti-corruption probe still gets hate mail for violating the “blue wall of silence”.
6. More diffuse issues such as “gentrification” are also interwoven with the other problems I am discussing here. The vigorous enforcement of “quality of life” laws is good for property values, and that is considered a good thing in most places, but in a renter city like NYC, things are different. Increased property values drive out working class families, ironically denying them the safer neighborhoods that reduced crime was supposed to bring them. In tightly knit communities, keeping things somewhat dingy looking is beneficial to the residents, who feel safe themselves, and are happy not to have too many new people trying to move to their neighborhood too fast.
The sense is that longtime residents are being bothered for minor offenses that would previously have been ignored, and that this is being done for the benefit of real estate interests who naturally want the best paying tenants they can get. It also fills the cities coffers with fines.
Broken window theory has merits if not applied excessively, but it morphed into “zero tolerance”, which is very much against the New York way of life:
Here are of the more absurd and annoying (if fairly harmless) examples of excessive ticketing and restrictions on things that make city life tolerable for working class people:
7. Adding to the dull, aching sense of loss that gentrification strikes in the hearts of longtime New Yorkers is the knowledge that one of the factors driving up real estate values is rich foreigners buying apartments that they won’t live in, and using them as tax shelters.
-The developers who have benefited the most from the building boom are not honest folks, and they seem to be above the law. This sort of thing magnifies the sense of rage at injustice and inequality in our city.
- What I personally saw of Bovis (name changed to Lend Lease Corporation):
They were in charge of demolishing a building in front of my building. They put back-hoes on the roof and smashed the roof in by driving around and hitting the roof with the backhoe. I looked at it with worry for days until my worries were proved correct:
8. Drug laws, “broken windows” policing, and economic and political interests invested in the prison system combine to make a toxic soup of injustice.
- Drug war and incarceration rates
- More than half of people in prison are there for drug offenses:
-Marjiuana arrests have risen even as violent crime arrests have fallen:
- Special interests fighting to keep the drug war going:
The drug war was founded on racism:
9. There are many other cultural dynamics outside of policing which highlight the fact that systemic and culturally entrenched racism is still very much with us:
-Having a black sounding name is a real handicap:
College education doesn’t close the gap:
- There also seems to be a problem with racial bias in doctor-patient interactions:
- “Positive feedback bias” from teachers, which lowers standards on minority students.: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/when-teachers-overcompensate-for-racial-prejudice/256951/
10. And finally, some perspectives on Ferguson:
I think that the above examples should amply demonstrate that the problem of blacks not getting a fair shake in this country is still very much with us, that excessive policing is a real problem, and that when the two are combined, the result is particularly toxic. These issues are urgent and must be reckoned with now and not later. It’s gone on for too long already.
James Hanks is a life-long New Yorker, and has no special expertise in the area of criminal justice.
Note: This is the first part of a two part series. The second piece will focus on Baltimore and will be published on 7/26/15.