This piece was the springboard for a discussion on The Brian Lehrer Show on Sept. 1. For details, click here.
I don’t know what New York Police Department officer training covers, but I know what it’s lacking. I know because I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood plagued by the NYPD’s mistreatment of its residents. At its least harmful, this mistreatment could be called contempt. At its most harmful, police brutality. In my three years as a resident of Bed-Stuy, I have witnessed examples of both.
It seems the execution of Operation Impact, a police department initiative that directly affects Bed-Stuy and other neighborhoods with high violent crime rates, is a big part of the problem. Established in 2002, the program increases police presence in troubled neighborhoods and has been credited with the impressive decline in crime this decade throughout New York City. In fact, crime dropped in the designated Impact Zones by one-third during Operation Impact’s first year, according to the police department. Clearly, the program has its strengths. One of its main weaknesses, however, has to do with the specific officers it sends out.
The NYPD has a policy of placing new recruits in Impact Zones such as Bed-Stuy, Bushwick and East New York. This is a blatant mistake. New recruits are often overly reactive due to nerves. I could forgive, and perhaps even understand, a similar policy in another organization; the promise of seniority can be a strongly motivating force. Say the Department of Education placed brand-new school secretaries in high-volume main offices. If their nerves made them reactive, that would be a nuisance. Or say the Department of Sanitation placed new sanitation workers in the neighborhoods with the most trash. If their lack of experience made them sloppier, that would be annoying. But jittery police officers can be deadly.
The second mistake the NYPD is making is sending a majority of white officers in neighborhoods with a majority of black residents, such as Bed-Stuy. In my observation, white officers far outnumber black officers – or perhaps it just seems that way because their disrespect catches my attention. Not only will the predominantly black residents of Bed-Stuy generally not trust white officers as easily, but it seems that many white officers have prejudices that affect their judgment. The starkest statistic, reported by the New York Times last year, reveals the prevalence of race as a serious factor in actions taken by officers: Reports for 1996 and 1997 “said that, adding up the two years, 89.4 percent of those shot by the police were black or Hispanic.” But at least these shootings are not everyday occurrences; meanwhile, commonplace indignities exact a steep toll.
As a white woman, my personal experiences with the police have been limited. (The current trend is for the NYPD to stop and question at least a half a million people each year, who are practically all male and only about 10 percent white.) Riding bicycles home at midnight one weeknight, my boyfriend and I dared to ride in the middle of vacant Leonard Street and got nabbed by two officers demanding identification and reprimanding us for not riding in the brand new bike lane. After they had called HQ with our information and determined we were not a threat, they let us go. Another time, I was ticketed for riding my bike on the sidewalk for one block to avoid a traffic jam. When my friend got jumped and robbed a few months back, he waited a full day to file a police report because he was already hurt and upset, and thought a visit to the precinct wouldn’t be pleasant either. When he showed up, he was chastised for waiting and asked to drive around in the back of the police car for the afternoon looking for the muggers. He declined. In another instance, I recently emerged from the subway and saw a street blocked off with police tape. I walked up to an officer nearby and asked if there had been a shooting. “Of course,” he responded sarcastically, with a jarring smile.
But despite my limited personal experience, I have seen and heard enough to make me outraged. Just today, I was speaking with a man who said he felt safer in the neighborhood before Operation Impact, and that now all his troubles stemmed from the police. The other night, as he walked his dog in the pouring rain, awkwardly juggling leash and umbrella, two officers on his corner decked out in hardcore rain gear had made him stop and accused him of not picking up after his dog. He explained that, as a female dog, she had been squatting only to pee, and so therefore, he had not eschewed his civic duty. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they demanded his I.D. Not wanting a big issue, he put his umbrella down and handed them his I.D., getting soaking wet in the process. After a few more minutes of bullying, they let him go.
The worst incident I have witnessed took place the night of Aug. 6 in front of my apartment building. First we heard running and yelling and general commotion. One by one police vehicles, sirens blaring, pulled up to the scene – six in all. I still do not know what had prompted the chaos or whether the original police officers on the scene had been called to the block or had just been driving by. I only know that what proceeded is unjust and inexcusable.
A young man of color was standing separate from the group, calling out to his friends. A group of about 10 white officers who had clumped in a group began calling out to him to “move the fuck along” and “get the fuck away.” He didn’t leave, but he didn’t interfere either. For no apparent reason, one of the officers ran over and pushed the kid. The kid did not push back, but stood back up and told the officer to stop. Then, the whole group of white police officers began pushing the kid, eventually knocking him onto the ground. It was clear that he had not been their original target, but, perhaps in some sad attempt to justify their irrational and violent response, they ended up arresting him along with another young black male.
Notably, the two black officers on the scene stood to the side, clearly uncomfortable as witnesses demanded they intervene: “What are they doing? Those are your people. What are they doing?” Cries from various windows on the block included, “Leave him alone!” and “He ain’t done nothing!” Not knowing where else to turn, my boyfriend attempted to call our precinct to file a complaint and was told to call 311. Because he didn’t have the names of the involved parties, he had to file an administrative complaint. He did. We’ve heard nothing since.
One hot afternoon last week, a frail-looking middle-aged black woman was walking her dog by the Laundromat, where a few others and I happened to be sitting, waiting for our wash. Two officers, one black, one white, were walking directly behind her. The white officer called out in an alarmingly loud voice, “Lady! Hey lady!” She turned around. “You need to feed that dog. Take car of that dog. Get it some shots or something. Damn.”
“OK,” she said, ushering the dog inside. Once they were out of earshot, I turned to the man next to me. “That dog looked healthy to me,” he said. “I know,” I said. A few minutes later, the woman emerged. We told her what we thought. “Yes, yes, I know,” she said, sounding weary. “I wanted to tell them to mind their business, but them’s the po-po and you don’t mess with them.”
As she walked away, I thought about how many times Bed-Stuy’s residents had been shamed in public by young police officers acting with arrogance, and how much trust the NYPD had lost. I thought about how some people would rather deal with the criminals than the police. I thought about the crimes I did not report because I did not want to deal with the cops: my bicycle getting stolen, our building being vandalized, our mailbox being broken into, drug deals, gunshots. And I thought about what a loss it was for this city that we too often don’t trust those sent to patrol our streets. Maybe the crime stats are down because more crimes go unreported. Or maybe crime has actually declined, but even if this is the case, I have to ask: At what cost?
I propose three simple solutions:
Impact Zones should have experienced police officers patrolling their streets.
The racial makeup of the officers should better match that of the neighborhood it protects.
Officers should receive more thorough training and encouragement in being respectful to residents.
Coriel Gaffney is originally from New Haven, Conn. Gaffney has lived in New York City since 2004, residing in Park Slope/Gowanus for one year, Red Hook for one year, and Bed-Stuy for nearly three years. A poet and teacher, she works for New York Road Runners’ Youth Services Division, coordinating and enhancing running and nutrition programs in schools and community centers.