Watchin the DetectivesAnd the Rest of the Officers, Tooby Eleanor J. Bader
Moses Merisier’s political education began when he was 13 years old and N.Y.P.D. officers shot and killed his uncle. “He was a passenger in a luxury sedan,” Merisier begins. “The police pulled the driver over and asked to see his registration. When the driver reached into the glove compartment to get it, the police said they saw a gun and started shooting. A bullet ricocheted and hit my uncle. That’s when I first understood that cops are employed to help everyone except black men.”
Now 31, Merisier is an administrative assistant at the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing faculty at the City University of New York, and he has dozens of stories about his interactions with the police. He has been stopped and searched on many occasions—“I’d say this happened at least once every other month when I was between the ages of 17 and 25,” he says. “The end result was usually a bogus ticket that would later get dismissed. There was the time I was in my parked car and police jumped out and searched the vehicle, stating they were looking for guns. They didn’t find anything so they eventually left me alone. I was once stopped by Port Authority police who accused me of possessing crystal meth and cocaine when it was actually Creatin, a workout booster, and Dolce and Gabbana fragrance oil. I’ve also been stopped while walking and drinking an Arizona Iced Tea because the police thought it was beer.” In fact, he adds, he has been more frequently hassled on foot than when driving.
Merisier understands that his experiences mirror those of other men of color—regardless of whether they’re immigrants or U.S. born. Indeed, the reality is startling: In 2011 alone, New York City police officers conducted 684,330 stops in the five boroughs. Predictably, 87 percent of those questioned were black or Latino.
Juvenile arrest statistics reflect an even more alarming scenario: In 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, 91 percent of arrested youth were African-American or Latino and 87 percent of the 50,000 people busted for marijuana possession were people of color. In addition, surveillance of progressive activists and the Muslim community—whether in mosques, schools, civic groups, or Halal restaurants—has been widely publicized and contested.
Outrage, of course, needs an outlet, and as people began talking to one another, the Police Reform Organizing Project (policereformorganizingproject.org) came into being. Its goal? To contest the abuses perpetrated by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the 34,500 uniformed officers under his command. More specifically, PROP’s website states that the group “aims to stop the current wasteful, ineffective, unjust, illegal, bullying, homophobic, transphobic, and racially biased practices of the N.Y.P.D.; to create a strong, independent entity that monitors and assesses police priorities and policies; and that effectively investigates and punishes abusive conduct.” Lastly, PROP seeks to establish local problem-solving measures to strengthen communities and reduce crime throughout the city.
While this is clearly a tall order, PROP founder and director Robert Gangi believes that it is high time to challenge the systemic problems that have long plagued the N.Y.P.D. “For years the only time there’s been attention to police misconduct has been when there’s been egregious brutality,” he says. “There has never been an effort to focus on policy and the harm being caused to individuals and communities on a day-to-day basis.”
Earlier efforts to effect change were limited in scope, he continues. For example, although both the Knapp Commission, appointed by Mayor John Lindsay in 1970, and the Mollen Commission, appointed by Mayor David Dinkins in 1992, investigated police corruption, they sought to weed out cops who were taking payoffs and did not address racial profiling or ethnic bias. The Civilian Complaint Review Board has likewise proved ineffective, says Gangi. Billed as the “largest civilian oversight agency in the country,” the 13-member board—three seats are currently vacant—received 6,476 complaints in 2010; only 11 percent were substantiated. Worse, since disciplinary power rests with Commissioner Kelly, PROP charges that the Blue Wall of Silence has deflected even the mildest criticism.
Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale got involved in PROP at the end of 2011. “A lot of people are thinking about the 2013 mayoral race and working to make sure that police practices are on the agenda,” he says. “We currently have a commissioner who is unaccountable to anyone. Even under Mayor Giuliani, the commissioner was subservient to the mayor and the City Council played a more active role. Bloomberg has delegated total authority to Ray Kelly. After 9/11 the scope of police responsibility increased while accountability decreased.”
Vitale is presently developing a questionnaire for mayoral hopefuls; responses will be compiled into a voter guide to inform the electorate about each candidate’s stand on policing. He’s also collecting videotaped narratives from people like Moses Merisier to document the ways random investigations and unprovoked stops impact individuals and their families.
Lizzy Lovinger got involved in PROP because she believes her neighborhood is being excessively scrutinized. “I live on the border of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. It’s an area that’s rapidly gentrifying,” she reports, “and over and over I see Caribbean and African-American men being stopped. They always ask the same questions: ‘What did I do?’ ‘Why are you stopping me?’” A recent encounter further cemented her viewpoint about N.Y.P.D. targeting. “The guy who lives behind me, an African-American, was hanging out on his patio, drinking beer with friends on a warm day in early March,” she recounts. “I don’t know if the police received a noise complaint or what, but at 5:30 on a weekday evening an officer showed up and I heard my neighbor trying to reason with him. All of a sudden, several squad cars arrived. This man was not raising his voice, was not in any way threatening the officers, so it was beyond overkill. It was really disconcerting to me because it conveyed that people can be unnecessarily policed in their own homes.”
Lovinger is similarly critical of N.Y.P.D.’s policy of charging people with prostitution if they have prophylactics on them when they’re stopped. “This practice has become a disincentive for people to carry and use condoms, which is incredibly troubling from a public health standpoint,” she continues.
PROP’s multi-tiered agenda addresses police abuse as it impacts every constituency, but activists are especially attuned to youth, people of color, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, Muslims, and the disabled. They’re not looking for cosmetic changes but are instead advocating a major overhaul in the way the department functions. That said, Robert Gangi concedes that he does not believe there will be significant changes in the N.Y.P.D. under Kelly and Bloomberg.
Alex Vitale agrees, which is why he’s turning his efforts toward the 2013 elections. At the same time, he’s working with others in PROP to push for the creation of an independently funded body, with subpoena power, to oversee citywide policing practices. He’s further advocating that the State Attorney General develop a “Blue Desk” to wrest prosecutorial authority from borough district attorneys in cases of possible police misconduct. “Local district attorneys have an inherent conflict of interest since they need the cooperation of local police departments to carry out criminal prosecutions,” Vitale says. “The impact of this is often subtle, but since the D.A. is the only one to bring evidence to the grand jury in cases of alleged N.Y.P.D. wrongdoing, it’s open to abuse.”
PROP members are also studying other police departments and are paying particular attention to Operation CeaseFire, a community-centered approach that specifically targets known gang members and drug crews. Under the program, public officials, clergy, community residents, social service providers, and law enforcement offcials offer alternative sentencing to non-violent offenders and adamantly avoid racial profiling and routine stop-and-frisk operations. By focusing exclusively on people suspected of actual wrongdoing, cities including Chicago, Newark, and Los Angeles have made significant headway in repairing relations between police and local residents.
Whether Operation CeaseFire can work in New York City is anyone’s guess. But PROP cautions that the city can ill afford to continue its current practices. The group notes that the city has been forced to pay a whopping $500 million in excessive force settlements since 2006—a sum that could clearly be better spent on education, healthcare, parks, and public safety.