The video of the NYPD police cruisers running over demonstrators has been viewed over 30 million times. That video only reinforced an image of a police department that has long engaged in lawless behavior with impunity.
Though that sentiment applies nationwide, Adams believes New York stands out as having a “horrible history of police brutality”. It was the NYPD that set the tone, she said, when Daniel Pantaleo, the officer implicated in the 2014 death by chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island, avoided prosecution.
“When nothing happened to the police officers who were responsible for the death of Eric Garner, New York set the blueprint for what happened to George Floyd,” she said. “There’s no penalty, no consequence, so it’s OK.”
Adams’s framing of the Garner killing could equally be applied to a long string of notorious episodes of police misconduct that preceded it. In 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was handcuffed by an NYPD officer and sexually assaulted with a broken broomstick.
Two years later, Amadou Diallo was shot near his home in a hail of 41 bullets after officers mistook his wallet for a gun. In an echo of that event, an unarmed Sean Bell was shot 50 times in Queens on the morning of his wedding in 2006 – it took six years for the NYPD detective who opened the fusillade to be chucked off the force while nobody has ever been convicted of any crime.
In the policing of protest, the NYPD also has a contentious track record. In 2004 it rounded up more than 1,800 peaceful protesters rallying outside the Republican National Convention during the re-election bid of George W Bush and herded them into overcrowded pens on Pier 57 in Manhattan. In 2011 it was similarly criticized for heavy-handed tactics during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Cutting across all this, the force has consistently targeted its efforts on neighborhoods of the city with majority black or Latino populations, straying at times into overt racial profiling. Though stop and frisk has been reined back in recent years, the NYPD continues to heavily and disproportionately police those communities despite a historically low homicide rate.
Despite this long legacy of overreach, the force continues to be systemically resistant to public oversight. Under Section 50-A of New York state law, the disciplinary files of police officers are largely held in secret, making the task of holding them accountable almost impossible.
Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney at the Cop Accountability Project (CAP) within the Legal Aid Society, told the Guardian that there were currently more than 200 police officers still being employed by the NYPD on full pay who should have been considered for termination following reports of misconduct.
Data collected by CAP shows that where cases of misconduct arise they often involve escalation of low-level encounters into aggressive confrontations – something officers are supposed to be trained not to do. The project is currently litigating the case of Tomas Medina who was put in a chokehold and Tasered in 2018 after police were called to a complaint about loud music being played.
Wong believes such endemic deployment of excessive force has spilled over into the NYPD’s handling of the George Floyd protests. She was present at a peaceful protest in Brooklyn that suddenly turned volatile not because of the behavior of protesters but by a sudden change of tack on the part of the police.
“In a split second, the NYPD snapped and engaged in over-aggressive enforcement. They escalated it from 0 to 10 out of nowhere, arresting people and wielding their batons.”
That some NYPD police know that they are doing wrong can be seen in the fact that they are covering their badge numbers with black bands to avoid being identified.
On Wednesday, the National Lawyers Guild sent a letter to the department and to the city’s corporation counsel, warning that if the NYPD doesn’t put an end to the practice, it could expect a lawsuit.
The practice of police obscuring their badge numbers — a form of identification that many jurisdictions require officers to make available to the public when interacting — has taken on a heightened significance amid the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The protests have been met with a show of force from officers, sometimes veering into brutality, leaving the risk that those without visible identification are acting with the very impunity to commit violence that spurred the protests in the first place.
The NYPD has strict regulations around displaying badge numbers — and a history of suppressing protests with violence and without accountability.
Minneapolis police union chief Bob Kroll is another example of the horrific mindset of some people in uniform and why police unions are major part of the problem, since they protect rogue officers whatever they do.
Kroll has been a central figure in the unfolding protests and riots following the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin. In a letter to union members on Monday, Kroll called Floyd a “violent criminal” and described the ongoing protests as a “terrorist movement” that was years in the making, starting with a minimized police force. He railed against the city’s politicians, namely Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and state Gov. Tim Walz, for not authorizing greater force to stop the uprising. “The politicians are to blame and you are the scapegoats,” he wrote.
Government officials have long dismissed the idea as a leftist fantasy, but the recent unrest and massive budget shortfalls from the Covid-19 crisis appear to have inspired more mainstream recognition of the central arguments behind defunding.
“To see legislators who aren’t even necessarily on the left supporting at least a significant decrease in New York police department [NYPD] funding is really very encouraging,” Julia Salazar, a New York state senator and Democratic socialist, told the Guardian on Tuesday. “It feels a little bit surreal.”
Floyd’s death on camera in Minneapolis, advocates say, was a powerful demonstration that police reform efforts of the last half-decade have failed to stop racist policing and killings. Meanwhile, the striking visuals of enormous, militarized and at times violent police forces responding to peaceful protests have led some politicians to question whether police really need this much money and firepower.
Community groups advocating for defunding have put forward differing strategies, some merely opposing police budget increases, others advocating mass reductions, and some fighting for full defunding as a step toward abolishing police forces. Some initiatives are tied to the fight to close prisons. All are pushing for a reinvestment of those dollars in services.
Tessa Stuart has more on how defunding could be done.
In the US, the budgets for the military and the police are bloated but even in times of budgetary stress, politicians never cut them. For some cities, the budget for the police department forms the largest item and keeps increasing even while funding for other programs get slashed.
That has to change.