‘When it comes to unpacking the harm of police misconduct, the people who were convicted are just the part of the puzzle we see most easily. For the people who were not convicted, the harm remains, with no recourse.’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio signs an executive order to reduce the City’s vehicle fleet in the parking lot of Citi Field in Queens on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

It happens every day: you’re driving down the road, and you pass a driver stopped by police. You pass by, trying not to rubberneck, and the thought goes through your head: I wonder what they did?

After a decade of working in criminal defense, and now working with public defenders everywhere to better support people entangled in our criminal system, I’ve realized a fundamental truth: people rarely actually did the thing with which they were accused. One study estimated that up to 10,000 people are wrongfully convicted of a serious crime each year, but this figure doesn’t include those who copped to a wrongful misdemeanor plea to minimize time spent in our toxic system, let alone those whose wrongful accusations never resulted in a conviction.

Recently, Brooklyn’s district attorney asked judges to dismiss drug cases where NYPD Detective Joseph Franco* served as a key witness. He is accused of having arrested and charged people who had nothing to do with the drug trade based on fabricated evidence. I remembered a case I’d had with him well. My client had been arrested with no drugs, no money, no scales, no cell phones, nothing that would indicate he was a drug dealer. He was arrested in his own home, the only evidence against him was the word of one cop, who produced a baggie of drugs that he claimed to have bought from my client.

The sheer lack of evidence didn’t faze the other cops, or the local prosecutor, who by necessity relies on the good faith of police to make her case. My client spent over a year of his life with a felony charge hanging over his head, coming back to court, taking days off from work, explaining this horror to his kids, and otherwise laboring under the phenomenal mental weight of being innocent and accused. He had to endure a felony jury trial to clear his name.

Now, prosecutors in New York have been forced to comb through the cases touched by Detective Franco, and consider clearing the tainted convictions of those who pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial because of Detective Franco’s allegations. This is not an anomaly: we live in a nation struggling to survive its own epidemic of race-based police violence and rampant misconduct. But when it comes to unpacking the harm of police misconduct, the people who were convicted are just the part of the puzzle we see most easily. For the people who were not convicted, the harm remains, with no recourse.

An arrest, after all, is never just an arrest. Being arrested itself is traumatizing and can be lethal, particularly to non-white people and people experiencing mental health conditions. If a person makes it through unharmed, there is still the horror of confinement—you can’t call your boss to say you’ll miss tomorrow’s shift, or call the kids’ babysitter to explain why you can’t pick them up. 

Even if released, a person accused of a drug felony lives in a different world. Try to go to a job interview with an open felony case. Try to fight a custody battle, or apply for an apartment. You cannot make it through a month without having to go to court, where you spend your day being silent, sitting still, and being treated like the thing every aspect of our system implies you are—a criminal, an offender, a felon. After all, if you got arrested, you must have done something, right?

For the untold hundreds of people whose lives were derailed and blown up by the expedient lies of police, there will be no recovery. No wrongful conviction compensation, no investigation by the DA, no space to publicly proclaim that they have been vindicated. There is just the cold feeling of years lost, humiliation and trauma endured, and the knowledge that this is not a one-cop problem. If the allegations against Detective Franco are true, he would be another symptom of the way our criminal legal system prioritizes quick, efficient punishment over deliberative, careful pursuit of justice.

In my work with the nonprofit Partners for Justice, I train new professionals to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with impacted people and fight against the million forms of harm each arrest can bring. We stabilize housing, seek employment, get kids back in school, fight for professional licenses, restore benefits.

Often, we succeed. But the fact remains, having brave advocates putting themselves between historically-excluded people and an oppressive legal system isn’t enough by itself. The answer is to stop letting the system scrape so many people into its orbit in the first place. The answer is recognizing that the harm isn’t just conviction—the harm comes from any contact with the legal system at all. This means pushing to take public health out of the carceral system altogether, treating drug use like the public health matter it is. It means choosing alternatives to armed police wherever we can—for neighborhood disturbances, mental health calls, transit violations. And it means accepting, as a nation and as a jury pool, that we cannot maintain a predisposition in favor of police as witnesses. 

At the start of most trials, I ask jurors to look into themselves, recognize their innate, natural bias, their own propensity to assume our government actors got it right, and then push back against it in order to become better. As a society, we have to do the same. Recognizing that our system is built for punishment rather than fairness—and fighting to remake our system in ways that recognize its inequity and push back against it—is the only way we can begin to find our way toward justice. 

Emily Galvin-Almanza is the co-founder and co-executive director of Partners for Justice.

*Editor’s Note: Joseph Franco has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, court records show. His attorney did not immediately respond to City Limits’ request for comment.