The NYPD is in the dark ages

October 8, 2015

The Black Lives Matter movement deserves credit for the flood of official reports and mainstream media investigation into police killings, explains Julian Guerrero.

NEW YORK City is once again in the spotlight in the debate about policing strategies and racial discrimination after the Inspector General of the New York Police Department (NYPD) released a report sharply criticizing the department for its lack of documentation of the use of force by New York cops.

Between 2010 and 2013, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton failed to discipline 36 percent of cops found to have inappropriately used violent force against New Yorkers, according to the report.

Phillip Eure, who heads the Office of the Inspector General that is independent of the NYPD, described the NYPD's use-of-force policies as stuck in the "dark ages" during the press conference outlining the report's findings. In response, Bratton demanded an apology from Eure, who pointedly refused to do so.

On the same day the report was released, Bratton announced a new use-of-force doctrine that includes a prohibition on use of force by police to punish or retaliate as well as a ban on using force to prevent someone from swallowing a controlled substance. The new guidelines also call for an emphasis on de-escalation, according to police officials.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton
NYPD Commissioner William Bratton (David Handschuh)

Although the mainstream press are now mainly concerned on facilitating the testosterone-charged public spat between the Office of the Inspector General and Bratton over the use of the term "dark ages" to describe the NYPD, the General Inspector insists that the NYPD is far from solving the issue at hand.

The Inspector General's office released the report after reviewing 179 complaints made against the NYPD, some submitted as far back as 2005. Most damning about the statistics revealed in the report is that the majority, 57.8 percent, of the people submitting complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) are Black people, despite only making up 22.8 percent of the entire New York City population. In 14.5 percent of the complaints, cops were found to have escalated the situation by using "incendiary language, making unnecessary physical contact, and drawing weapons at inappropriate times."

In typical knee-jerk fashion, Police Benevolent Association (PBA) president Patrick Lynch spoke against the new guidelines, arguing that the added paperwork required after an incident involving use of force will discourage pro-active policing and make cops on the beat second guess their actions.

Returning to their scripted argument that these new guidelines will bring back the crime rates of the "bad old days," Lynch spoke against de-escalation training for the nearly 36,000 cops who patrol the streets of the "Global City" in the interests of capital and the real-estate barons.

Both de Blasio and Bratton issued public apologies to Black former professional tennis player James Blake after a cop with a history of multiple civilian complaints was caught on camera tackling Blake to the ground. This high-profile act of brutality combined with the Inspector General's report offer an opportunity to deepen the critique of police violence and to win more people to the movement against police terror and racial discrimination.

The question is whether activists organizing against the racist criminal justice system can take advantage of this moment to advance the debate and strengthen the movement and their organization in the process.

THE APPOINTMENT of an Inspector General was a point of controversy in New York's 2013 mayoral election, but the position was only created in the aftermath of the killings by police of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner and the furious response of thousands of New Yorkers and people across the country, who took to the streets in spontaneous acts of civil disobedience.

The murder of Eric Garner, killed by Staten Island cop Daniel Pantaleo who put Garner in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes, came after Garner had submitted a complaint to the CCRB about being harassed by Pantaleo. Without the recording of the incident made by Ramsey Orta, who is himself now a target of police harassment, the use of physical force that led to Garner's death may not have even been documented.

To take the point further, without the popular mobilizations by the Black Lives Matter movement, the appointment of an independent Inspector General and the subsequent report would not have placed the NYPD under increased scrutiny, backed up by the legitimacy of statistical data an actual investigation.

Nationally, the existence of a movement clamoring for change has set off a competition among mainstream media outlets seeking to report on and document the number of civilian deaths at the hands of the police.

According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, for example, the "latest data from 105 of the country's largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during those years were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved." Given such errors in the existing data, "it is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year," concluded the Journal.

Britain's Guardian newspaper has produced its own investigative series into the number of people killed by cops in the U.S., which revealed the especially damning statistic that police in California kill Black people at eight times the rate of other residents, according to California's own reporting.

IN NEW York City, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Mayor de Blasio uses Bratton in a "good cop, bad cop" routine. Bratton is a media star who commands enough press attention to make headlines and weigh in on public debates, generally in order to defend and justify a more militarized and expensive policing strategy. Bratton is good at using the mainstream press to sell "community policing," which portrays to the broader public the problems of a racist criminal justice system as an issue of "trust" between police and communities of color.

In the past year alone, Bratton has masterfully managed to get the city to dedicate more funding to the NYPD and to hire more police while forming task forces dedicated to ramping up the level of policing. Targets of this stepped-up enforcement are, predictably, protesters, people of color, and poor and homeless people.

So no one can doubt that Bratton's release of new use-of-force guidelines practically simultaneously with the Inspector General's report is an effort to blunt criticism of the force and get the NYPD out from under the public's microscope while grooming his reputation as a "leading innovator of proactive policing" and exporting it around the world.

There is truth in Bratton's typically arrogant statement that "where we are going is where American policing is going" because policing strategies that become dominant in New York City are generally adopted far and wide across the country.

But there is a tension between Bratton's agenda and the dawning realization within the political establishment that a generation of militarized policing and zero-tolerance has produced mass incarceration on such a scale that it is destroying municipal and state budgets across the U.S. A stagnant economy has meanwhile produced greater immiseration and a growing radicalization, at least in certain segments of the U.S. working class.

As the election season unfolds, statements of solidarity and promises of great change to come will trickle from the lips of Democrats. Efforts to coopt the movement proceed through lesser-evil arguments that attempt to portray all law-and-order policies as the doings of the bigots who infest the Republican primaries.

But the system of mass incarceration was built by both parties, and the consensus behind it is so great that it's not a scandal that the number of deaths of U.S. soldiers per year waging various wars of imperialist aggression is lower than the number of Americans killed by the police each year. So the task falls to activists to make this a scandal. We must use the creation of independent general inspectors, independent prosecutors and policies of documentation and transparency to deepen the arguments against the mass incarceration system of social control.

It also raises the need for the movement to develop its political platform independently from the two-party system and to systematically educate and organize people to put forward an alternative--not only to the criminal justice system, but to the entire social system we live under.

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