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A Plethora of Police Scandals
Posted 21st February 2013
New York City's police have been the linchpin of our reputation as one of the country's safest big cities, and an extremely effective bulwark against terrorist threats. In the last decade or so, they have also generally maintained their standing for integrity, especially during and after their heroic sacrifices during 9/11. And ex-beat cop and long-time Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (under Dinkins from 1992-4, and since 2002 under Bloomberg), a master at garnering good publicity for the Department, and stonewalling criticism, has continued to reinforce that image.
However, the NYPD have recently been in the news for more damaging reasons, with a spate of scandals besetting the Department. Officers have been accused of crimes ranging from gun smuggling to ticket fixing.
The scandals forced Commissioner Kelly to hold two press conferences during which, instead of trumpeting the police's success with dropping the crime rate, he had to deal with the arrest of multiple officers. By far the most serious case involved eight former and present cops charged with smuggling guns and bootleg cigarettes. The more benign case involved 16 cops in the Bronx charged with fixing traffic tickets as a courtesy to relatives and friends of other cops, an age-old practice that had already been ended by a new computer system. Many of the officers involved were police union officials (the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association). During their indictment a crowd of police officers gathered denouncing Kelly, and some joined with their union president, Patrick Lynch, carrying signs reading, "It's a courtesy, not a crime." That's unconscionable behavior by the police, declaiming they are a privileged group who don't have to abide by the rules - given that their job, supposedly, is upholding the law.
The police's image was further tarnished by comments on a Facebook group site entitled "No More West Indian Day Detail," referring to the police patrol assigned to the raucous, chaotic annual Brooklyn parade held on Labor Day, September 5. The Parade is part of a multi-day event, celebrating Caribbean culture, that unfolds over the weekend and attracts over a million people. It has been marred by violence, and even the death of participants, and no one would mistake it for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. This year was no different. Following the parade a woman was shot to death while sitting on her stoop with her daughter, as police exchanged gunfire nearby with an armed man who had opened fire on another person moments before.
Yes, it's an extremely difficult detail, but some police officers expressed their loathing for it in an odious and racist manner: "Let them kill each other," wrote one of the Facebook members who posted comments under a name that matched that of a police officer. Other members wrote, "The parade should be moved to the zoo," or they called working the parade detail useful "ghetto training."
There has been talk of disciplining the officers involved for their outbursts, but NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman defended right of free speech, stating that it "comes into play not only when we like what they have to say, but also when they say obnoxious, disgusting and hateful things." These cops did just that, and though police racism is far from a new phenomenon, it remains intolerable, even if it shapes less often the police's dealings with New York's black population.
There are signs of change. The composition of the city's police force has been transformed. It is no longer predominantly white - only 47% of officers are now white, 29% are Hispanic, 18% are black, 6% Asian - though the proportion of whites remains much greater in the upper reaches of the police hierarchy.
The change in racial composition in itself does not mean that racism has magically disappeared. The police operate in a city where the race or ethnicity of known murder suspects (Black (60.9%) and Hispanic (30.7%) mirrors the victim population (Black (67.0%) and Hispanic (24.7%). There are similar statistics when it comes to robbery. That's the unavoidable reality that the police face, which means that the police often (either consciously or unconsciously) engage in racial profiling. Profiling is the basis for the policy of "stop and frisk," which has been on the increase in 2011- with most of those stopped being young minority men. And according to The New York Civil Liberties Union, a staggering 4 million people have been stopped since the controversial program started in 2004.
The police claim the policy saves lives, but clearly many black and Hispanic young men feel harassed and intimidated by the police, whose behavior is predictably punitive rather than tactful. When they shout at the young men they stop on the street, "Get on the ground," and point a gun at them, it may sometimes lead to curbing crime, but more often it leads their victims to a sense of alienation and resentment.
Obviously, like all of us but more so, the police can be brutal and insensitive given the risks of the job (a cop was recently killed in a botched Brooklyn robbery), and the nature of some of the people attracted to the work. Still, I know how necessary they are to our safety. I just want them to be honest and professional. That means suppressing at work whatever racist and sexist feelings they may hold. That's the least we can expect.