Police Killing, Police Pouting
The New York Police Department is presently having a huge hissy-fit. It is miffed at New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, so it has simply stopped working.
The cops are not staying home or walking around with picket signs. That would be illegal and could result in firings. Instead, it is coming to work, getting into the cars, driving around, and doing pretty much nothing. It is what convicts in Texas prisons, in the years I worked there, called a “slow buck.” A “buck,” in prison parlance was a strike. That produced an immediate response. A “slow buck” was when you went to work and pretended you were doing something, but in fact you were doing nothing. The bosses couldn’t nail you for inactivity, for you were out there moving, but at the end of the day, nothing had happened, nothing had been accomplished. New York cops are engaged in a slow buck that would make Texas convicts applaud.
The New York Post reported on December 29 that “NYPD traffic tickets and summonses for minor offenses dropped off by a staggering 94 percent” as compared to the same week in 2013. “Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent—from 4,831 to 300.” Citations for traffic violations dropped 10,069 to 587. And parking violations were “down 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241.”
The Post also said police were “making arrests only ‘when they have to,’” which brings up a question: When else should they be making arrests?
The net effect of this pout-out thus far seems to be zero. The crime rate in New York City hasn’t risen. Nothing has risen except public anger at NYPD for being sulkers instead of cops.
Civil rights attorney Ron Kuby responded to Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article on the slowdown: “I have not seen a single black youth bent over a car in days. Scary.” And, in an email to me he noted, “It is the danger of work slowdowns like this—people may grow to like it and realize much of your job is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive.”
A New York Times editorial (December 30) was harsher: They called the police action “repugnant and inexcusable. It amounts to a public act of extortion by the police.” The same editorial listed the reasons the cops are mad at the mayor and punishing the city:
1. He campaigned on ending the unconstitutional use of “stop-and-frisk” tactics, which victimized hundreds of thousands of innocent young black and Latino men.
2. He called for creating an inspector general for the department and ending racial profiling.
3. After Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, was killed by a swarm of cops on Staten Island, he convened a meeting with the police commissioner, William Bratton, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, giving Mr. Sharpton greater prominence than police defenders thought he should have had because Mr. Sharpton is a firebrand with an unsavory past.
4. He said after the Garner killing that he had told his biracial son, Dante, to “take special care” in encounters with the police.
5. He generally condoned the peaceful protests for police reform — while condemning those who incited or committed violence — and cited a tagline of the movement: “Black lives matter.”
What’s to argue?
The NYPD has also taken up back-turning whenever the mayor is around, a gesture meant to show contempt but which more and more comes off as petulant. They turned their backs on de Blasio when he visited the hospital where Officer Rafael Ramos died, and at Ramos’s funeral. He got boos and jeers when he spoke to the class of 884 new officers at the Police Academy Graduation a few days later. When de Blasio said, “You will confront all the problems that plague our society, problems that you didn’t create,” someone in the audience, according to the Times, shouted, “You did,” which “drew some laughter and applause.”
Because of the mayor’s remarks to his son about being careful on the streets police union had earlier distributed a letter suggesting that members sign a petition telling the mayor he would not be welcome at their funerals if they were killed on the job.
These are people with guns, Tasers, and blackjacks. And badges.
Who is killed by police?
Numbers on police use of firearms resulting in injury or death are, presently, impossible to come by. The FBI, which counts just about everything in its annual Uniform Crime Report, doesn’t count that.
According to Jon Greenberg in the Tampa Bay Times (January 1, 2015), “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keep data on fatal injuries from 1999 to 2011 and one category is homicides by legal intervention. The term ‘legal intervention’ covers any situation when a person dies at the hand of anyone authorized to use deadly force in the line of duty.”
In the period covered by that study, 2,151 whites and 1,130 blacks were shot to death by police. (Greenberg doesn’t mention others.) That number is deceptive. Greenberg quotes American University professor Brian Forst (Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology): “More whites are killed by police than blacks primarily because whites outnumber blacks in the general population by more than five to one.”
What we should be looking at is not the raw numbers, but the rates: What is the likelihood of a white or black person dying by police gunfire? Do that, and the numbers go rightside up: Blacks are three times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire.
That’s true, but it’s not sufficient. It still doesn’t tell us what we need to know.
Whites in America, however you cut it, have more money than blacks. You didn’t see any black faces in that parade of Wall Street megagonifs that almost brought down the economy a few years back, and you see precious few when the Wall Street Journal publishes photos of executives giving themselves megabonuses now. Other than crimes of finance—the sort of thing Bernard Madoff got into your vocabulary for—felonies are primarily the territory of poor people. Nobody who lives on Park Avenue goes to prison for holding up a convenience store or shoplifting at Bergdorf-Goodman. When those very rich white felons are drawn in by the system, their lawyers get a letter saying, “Bring your client to our office next Thursday.” When it’s poor people in the lens, the cops are at the door, either knocking with guns drawn or bashing it in.
Eric Garner was killed in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, July 17, 2014. Police were, presumably, questioning him for selling untaxed cigarettes. He said to the police questioning him that he’d done nothing of the kind. He argued with them about them mau-mauing him, saying he’d done nothing wrong. In the videotape of the event, he never makes any physically aggressive action against the police. Nonetheless, a gang of them wrestle him to the ground and one of him uses a chokehold, which is banned by the New York Police Department. On the videotape, Garner says at least 11 times (by my count), “I can’t breathe.”
Then he was dead. He weighed more than 350 pounds. Police sources suggested that contributed to his death. It may have contributed, but it is hard to argue that the primary factor was the strangling. It’s all over YouTube. You can see it all for yourself.
After the video went public, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a full inquiry. A few days later, a grand jury cleared Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who did the choking.
Grand juries do not consider guilt and innocence. That’s what trial juries do. Although sometimes prosecutors use a grand jury as an investigatory device (as happened after the Attica slaughter in 1971; there was a big grand jury investigation, most of which is still secret), the primary function is to determine whether or not the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to bring a case to trial.
New York Judge Sol Wachtler famously said in a 1985 interview that prosecutors could get grand juries to “indict a ham sandwich.” There is no defense attorney at a grand jury hearing: The grand jury learns only what the prosecutor wants it to learn. Some states—Missouri among them—don’t even require grand juries: Prosecutors can get their indictments from a judge. Prosecutors in those states use grand juries only when they serve a political purpose.
Which leads to the one other function of the grand jury, and it came into play in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Daniel Pantaleo case in New York: It insulates a prosecutor from not pursuing a case when there is going to be political heat for doing nothing. Prosecutors are elected; they don’t want heat. They also need the cooperation of police for their run-of-the-mill cases. If they are to be successful, they can’t be at war with the cops.
So police officers are very rarely indicted for killings or abusing prisoners. Almost always, those cases go to the grand jury. After the grand jury decides not to indict, the prosecutor can say, “It wasn’t my call,” and the cop can say, “I was cleared.”
Everybody’s clean and home free, except the dead guy. Who cannot speak.
This whole narrative has ridden on a sea of public opinion, or lack thereof. Most police violence goes unrecorded, unreported and therefore unknown. Two killings recently propelled it into public attention and resulted in a huge number of anti-police-brutality demonstrations across the country. Even the president of the United States joined the conversation. There has been a huge amount of web information and web misinformation along the way.
The first killing was Michael Brown on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri. That resulted in an extraordinarily drawn-out grand jury proceeding. The grand jury announced on November 24 that it would not indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown. The second was Eric Garner’s, which launched a larger wave of protests, nearly all of them peaceful.
Both of those protests were grounded in public memory of other awful events. Here are a few that come to mind for me:
—In 1991, Rodney King was brutally beaten by four members of the LAPD. They were charged in state court for assault with a deadly weapon and excessive force. Despite an unambiguous videotape of the incident, all four were acquitted in state court, setting off riots that resulted in 53 deaths and thousands of injuries. The four were tried again in federal court. That time two were convicted and sent to prison; the other two were again acquitted.
—In 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Luima was beaten in a NYPD police car and sodomized in a police station with a broken broomstick in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct. He had three major operations to repair the injuries to his colon and bladder and was hospitalized for three months. Several cops were convicted in that one, but only one, Justin Volpe, got serious time: 30 years.
—On February 5, 1999, Amadou Diallo, 22 years old, was killed by four NYPD officers, who fired 41 shots at him. He was standing in his own doorway and reaching for his wallet to show the cops his ID when he was gunned down. The cops said they thought his wallet was a gun. All four were acquitted in a trial held in Albany.
After the deaths of Brown and Garner there were not only the marches and demonstrations, but a huge amount of editorial commentary in the print and digital press about police violence.
Public Opinion II
Then two other killings—the murders of New York police officers Rafel Ramos and Wenjian Liu by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who took a bus to New York to perform those murders after shooting his girlfriend in Baltimore—changed everything. The shrill voices treating cops as if they were all the same bad white guy went silent.
For a day or so, the marchers mostly stayed home and the pundits mostly stayed quiet. Then New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick J. Lynch and a bunch of sulky cops in New York turned it all around again. All the goodwill occasioned by those pointless murders of two guys on the job went out the window in a power grab: Who owns the city? The PBA or City Hall or the people? The PBA seemed to be saying, “We do.”
Lynch used the murders of the cops to try to shift heat away from NYPD for the death of Garner. “’There is blood on many hands, from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers did every day,” the Times reported Lynch saying at the hospital where Ramos and Liu had been taken. “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.’”
So the bad guys were now the peaceful demonstrators and the mayor, not the guys we all saw on the viral video strangling Eric Garner, and not the lunatic who shot those two guys sitting in a car, doing their job.
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the NYPD union, pictured in the New Yrok Times wearing a badge that says “PBA” instead of “NYPD.”
A page-one above-the-fold photo in the December 23 New York Times shows Lynch striding forward, purposefully, another uniformed cop and a police emergency vehicle at his back. The headline of the article is, “After Shootings, Police Union Chief Deepens Rift with de Blasio.” The astonishing thing about the photo is this: New York patrolmen all wear in their collar lapels the metal letters NYPD (cops with rank wear their rank markers). But Lynch is wearing lapel badges that say “PBA.”
Lynch has been head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Union for 15 years. He makes $76,000 a year as a New York cop and $98,000 a year as head of the PBA. Those out-of-uniform lapel badges were a shout-out, telling us whom and what he really represented. It was not the citizens of New York.
And he was quickly joined by many of his NYPD colleagues. That stopped following Police Commissioner William J. Bratton’s “broken windows” policy. They stopped doing much of anything.
“Broken windows” was a notion of crime control introduced by James Q. Wilson and George L Kelling in 1982. Their idea was small things lead to bigger things in crime, so if you crack down hard on the little offenses it would trickle up into a reduction in more serious offenses.
When William J. Bratton became head of the New York Transit police in 1990, he said Kelling was his “intellectual mentor.” Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, made him police commissioner and pushed ahead with Bratton’s policy of “zero tolerance.” That led to a lot of stop and frisk action, a lot of arrests for the most trivial of things. It created a we-versus-them between poor people in New York and New York cops that had never existed before. Cops in New York became, for many, like the cops in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: leather-bound thugs who came and went at will. I always thought “broken windows” was a stupid idea; there was never any data to back it up and a lot that indicated it was silly-putty.
There was indeed a drop in New York City’s crime rates in the following years. Giuliani and Bratton took full credit for it. Neither, to my knowledge, has ever acknowledged the facts that employment in New York City in those years went up by 40 percent or that crime rates fell across the country by the same amount as in New York City in places where no one subscribed to the “broken windows” theory or “zero tolerance policy.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 10 deadliest jobs in America are, in order of dangerousness: logging, fishing and related work, aircraft piloting and flight engineering, roofing, structural iron and steel work, refuse and recyclable material collection, electrical power-line installation and repair, driving/sales work and truck driving, farming and ranching, and construction work.
That list has appeared many times on the web the past few weeks, mainly to show that police work isn’t really that dangerous.
The list has the death rates right, but it doesn’t tell us what we need to know about dangerousness or the kind of danger. Two-thirds of the deaths in the top 10 are from vehicular or industrial accidents. Only a few are from deliberate violence. (I assume that’s how sales workers make the list: They’re the convenience store clerks shot in robberies.)
Police live in a world of potential violence. They don’t know if the guy they stop on the highway is reaching into his pocket for his wallet or for his gun; they don’t know if a door will open and someone will say, “How can I help you officer?” or if it will be someone with a sawed-off shotgun or unregistered Glock. According to the police blog PoliceOne.com, “15 police officers have been killed in the line of duty in ambush attacks in 2014.” Snipers took shots at police vehicles in Los Angeles and San Francisco in late December. Police work really is dangerous work. It is reasonable that they are fearful of strangers and always on the alert.
Furthermore, cops don’t approach all parts of the world the same way because, in their experience, all parts of the world are not the same. They are mostly realistic in that assessment. They don’t feel the same degree of danger going into an office in downtown Buffalo or a house on Lincoln Parkway than they might feel going into a house they have been told is where several kilos of illicit drugs might be or a guy wanted on several felony warrants might be. Cops don’t cause the huge discrepancies in American life; they deal with them. They make their judgments and adjust their fear accordingly.
I’ve worked with cops a lot over the years and I do not think they are any more, or any less, racist than anyone else. Who is free of racism in this country? If you’re white, imagine this: You’re walking down the street alone at night. Five young men, all wearing hoodies, approach. At first you think they’re black, then you realize they are tall, blond, and blue-eyed, and the hoodies say “NYU Crew.” Do you relax? Welcome aboard.
A lot of protests these past few months have focused on “police” brutality against minorities. In cities like Ferguson, the police department is almost all white, but the city is almost all black. That is bizarre. In New York, it’s not so simple: The uniformed ranks of NYPD are 51 percent white, 49 percent black, Hispanic, and Asian. It still doesn’t match the city’s population—whites are 33 percent of New York City’s population—but the violence may not simply be a matter of color.
But, then, it may be exactly that. No one, to my knowledge, has done a study of the ethnic backgrounds of cops involved in incidents of unprovoked violence and the subjects of that violence. This entire area, as I noted before, is one the FBI has chosen to ignore.
The only reason we know about Rodney King and Eric Garner is because both events happened to be recorded and prosecutors were forced to bring them to grand juries. Most of these events are invisible.
Most cops are good people doing a difficult job we need and want done. But not all of them are, and when cop-politicians like Patrick Lynch defend them at all costs, they do all of us, including their fellow cops, a disservice.
We should be asking questions, not desperately shifting the blame and turning our backs.
What makes no sense to me is the huge discrepancy in police shootings in different cities that aren’t substantially different in any other way. Or shoving a nightstick up a handcuffed prisoner’s ass in the station house, or firing 41 bullets at a guy in his own doorway reaching for his wallet to show the ID the police were asking for, or choking to death a guy who keeps saying, “I can’t breathe,” and who hasn’t exhibited any physically aggressive behavior or shown a weapon. You can’t explain that away by blaming marchers or City Hall.
If you have the power and honor of the badge and the gun, you also have the responsibility of the badge and gun. We, the public, have empowered you to use both on our mutual behalf. Not on behalf of some of us; on behalf of all of us. If you cannot make that distinction, give us back the badge and the gun, because you are not worthy of either and you are as dangerous as any of the villains we’ve employed you to protect us from. If you understand that difference, then you are worthy of the honor and respect that Patrick Lynch and all the back-turners tarnished last week.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at UB, where he is also an associate member of the Faculty of Law. He was senior consultant to the field research team on the one of the seven units of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice.