The police are often the problem, not the solution

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.

This latest crisis has increased support for the calls to defund the over-weaponized, over-militarized police departments.

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.


  1. sarah00 says

    Today I watched a documentary from 2016 called NYPD: Biggest Gang in New York? It’s on BBC iPlayer for those of us in the UK but is also on YouTube. It covers the murder of Eric Garner’s and the subsequent efforts of CopWatch to document police brutality in the city. In some parts of New York there were floodlights and observation towers making the police appear to be an occupying force rather than a civilian service. While the UK has nothing to brag about when it comes to institutional racism and excessive use of force, what is happening in the US is on a whole other level that has been shocking to see. The members of CopWatch felt somewhat naive in their belief that filming arrests would lead to officers reducing the force they used, knowing they were being recorded. As we’ve seen in this last week they are so sure that repercussions will be minimal that even filming by journalists broadcasting live isn’t sufficient for them to reign in their aggressive tactics.

    I highly recommend The End of Policing by Alex Vitale which is currently free as an ebook from the publishers. Even a few weeks ago I was naive enough to think that police forces should and could be reformed but now it is pretty clear the system is irrevocably broken and a new model is required that is designed to protect all people.

  2. says

    The story about Kroll is worse: he’s not just a member of a “biker gang” that sports white supremacist logos -- the gang is made up of cops.

  3. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Fix the actual problem: No personal accountability. Remove qualified immunity so that the victims, or close family and friends of the victims, can seek civil damages from cops in their personal capacity in court. Allow victims to seek indictments to appoint any counsel of their choosing as prosecutor, so the victim can see criminal charges in court against individual cops. Alternatively, find some other way to ensure that criminal charges will be brought against cops, but I doubt any alternative will be sufficient. Finally, publish and maintain detailed standards of rules of engagement for cops, to help juries be able to recognize unlawful use of force and find against cops in civil and criminal trials. That’s what it will take to fix this problem, and I am firmly convinced that nothing else will.

  4. jenorafeuer says

    In Ontario, police are prohibited by law from unionizing. That said, the Toronto Police Association is a union in pretty much all but name. And it has some of the same problems.

    The Toronto Police Association has a long history of playing fast and loose with the rules. Mike McCormack, the current head of the Toronto Police Association, had a number of previous corruption charges against him, up to and including inappropriately accessing police information on a reporter who had reported on some of the corruption charges. He was eventually convicted of insubordination and fined. The problem is that since technically he’s being paid by the Toronto Police Association rather than the actual police force at the moment, the police force has no way of actually enforcing the fine because they aren’t currently paying him anyway, and the TPA certainly isn’t going to act against its own leader.

    A previous head of the Toronto Police Association, Rick McIntosh, was actively supporting candidates in the mayoral elections despite it being against the law for the police to do so. He literally argued, on the air, that he was acting as the head of the Toronto Police Association and not as a police officer and therefore the law in question didn’t apply to him.

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