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Parading While Black

John MacConnell

Seeing what appeared to be the needless arrest at the West Indian Day parade of two black men, Councilman Jumaane Williams and Kirsten John Foy, an aide to the public advocate, the question came to mind: Is it time for the crime numbers to go up?

To keep those numbers down—despite a force that's lost 8,500 officers from its peak of about 42,000, and precincts further depleted by terror assignments and other special details—the Police Department has taken a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, as has been well documented now by the Voice and others, the pressure from top brass to keep the numbers down has led to precinct commanders fudging the numbers by downgrading reports of more serious crimes to misdemeanors. The second strategy is an explosion of so-called stop-and-frisks, disproportionately aimed at young black and Latino men, that ramp up tensions on all sides despite only a small percentage of these stops resulting in arrests for serious crimes.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bogus claims of "historic" schools gains for black and Latino students finally boiled over into public skepticism and some scandal, the lid has so far stayed on the NYPD's righteous self-assessments. With crime in fact down from its early-90s peak (though the trend line has flattened out over the last several years) and no successful terror attack in 10 years, Commissioner Ray Kelly has remained one of the city's most popular officials. Despite press reports about the department’s aggressive use of collar and ticket quotas and its tightly controlled trickle of public information that often fails to correspond to other public indicators—like when assault numbers plummet even as the number of assaulted people needing hospitalization spikes—no outside monitor has stepped in to examine the city’s numbers.

With its newly developed reputation over the past two decades for safety central to the city's public image – and thus to its tourism, real estate, tax and investment revenues – neither the administration nor the Police Department has an incentive to look too closely under the hood.

The administration's cooked books have been an open secret for years, with high-ranking teachers and cops scoffing at the accomplishments the city has claimed on their behalf, at least at those moments when public workers' interests have diverged from those of the administration. In 2009, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew mocked Bloomberg's "Tweed tales" of "Lake Woebogone" stats that he joked showed 97 percent of students were above average. "How do we know all this?" Mulgrew continued, fairly dripping sarcasm. "The data tell us so. Let us praise the data."

Likewise, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association has questioned the integrity of the department's crime stats. In 2004, PBA Recording Secretary Robert Zink ripped the city's "phony numbers," writing in the PBA Magazine: "when you finally get a real handle on crime, you eventually hit a wall where you can't push it down any more. Compstat does not recognize that wall, so the commanders have to get 'creative' to keep their numbers going down. No mayor or police commissioner wants to be the one holding the bag when crime starts climbing."

The ever-pessimistic, sometimes brilliant TV show The Wire made the connection between the school system and the crime system in an episode where a not-very-good cop who’d left the force to become a pretty good public school teacher was instructed to stop actually teaching his students math, in order to prepare them for the math test. "I get it," he said. "The cops call that juking the stats."

A fancier name for it is Campbell's Law, coined in the 1970s by famed social scientist Donald Campbell: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." In other words, if you look too closely at the numbers, it's easy to lost sight of the streets.

Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, credited the department for making the politically courageous choice to aggressively police high-crime areas, "the communities where people are getting killed," in spite of the grievances about policing that inevitably come with that policy.

O'Donnell questioned, though, the increased number of stops even as the crime rate has stayed down: "Every frisk that's not needed, above what is needed, is a major concern. There's no scientific way to determine the number that should take place but my concern is that there's a certain amount of municipal bean counting going here… Somewhere along the line, more became better. There's a blind call just to do more. To top least year's numbers. With stop and frisk and really actually everything. The cops will tell you they're under stress to bring up arrest numbers, parking tickets, moving violations, whatever we did last year lets add to it.'"

 

Of course, no one is calling for more crime, or claiming anyone has tampered with the murder rate, but right now the Department's focus appears to be on the crime numbers. While crime rates have dropped from their early 90s peaks around much of the country, though less dramatically than in New York City, the NYPD is going after petty offenses like there was a war on. The number of stop-and-frisks has skyrocketed: up more than 600 percent from less than 100,000 in 2002 to more than 600,000 in 2010.

The police encounter with Williams and Foy as the two men tried to make their way from the parade crown into a reception at the Brooklyn museum was captured in part on a video. At one point, Foy is forced backward by an officer moving into his space. When the officer makes contact with the backpedaling Foy, he takes out the political staffer's legs to bring him down and then cuffs him. It's not brutality, but it's rough. Another uniformed officer, shooing off the understandably upset crowd, calls out: "For everybody's safety, please walk out."

"I don't know what else we need to show that this culture of the police based on their practices like stop and frisk are allowing police officers to believe they can treat black and Latino men any way they want," Williams said Saturday at a National Action Network rally. The officers, he said, "refused to see the badge, the pin, the ribbon, or the wristband" that clearly identified him as an elected official. "They saw black, locks and earrings. That was all."

While Police Department spokesman Paul Brown told reporters that the men were detained, not arrested, because "an unknown individual punched a police captain on the scene," Williams, speaking with the Voice, flatly called that account a "lie," noting that nothing further has been heard about the "ghost puncher." Both men were cuffed, which is usually the point of no return in an encounter with the police becoming an arrest.

Pressed on the connection between his arrest at the parade and the department's stop-and-frisk policy, Williams, who is co-chairing a Council committee on youth-related gun violence, was emphatic in rejecting what he said was a false choice between more stops or more crime.

That's our plan: To connect this incident to some policy change because for some reason the leadership in this city is having a tough time believing us when we keep saying that the police practices are unfairly affecting black and Latino youth in this city. Now you have persons like myself and [Foy] who are well-educated, professional people, a city elected official and a high-ranking aide to a top elected official, maybe we've both had this experience before, and now that we have this attention that maybe somebody else wouldn't get, we can't let this experience go to waste. What else do you need to start believing there's a problem?

Asked about stop-and-frisk, and whether it's time for the crime numbers to go up, Jesus Gonzalez, the 26-year-old Bushwick community organizer who will find out when the polls close tonight if he is newest and youngest member of the state Assembly, nodded and said: "I wouldn't go so far as to say that Ray Kelly just wants to arrest people. But I think it's a simplistic approach to dealing with crime."

Gonzalez stressed the need to keep guns off the street, saying "officers are part of our community too and they deserve to work in a dignified place that doesn't have unofficial quotas that put them in a bad position where they have to stop and frisk folks and give them summons for no reason."

While the numbers vary year-to-year, a little more than one of ten stops results in New York results in an arrest or even a summons. So, as the crime rate has held steady at a low level in recent years while the number of stops has shot up, does that constitute progress? If the only measure that matters is the crime numbers, yes it does.

But that math gives no value to the cost in humiliated civilians, most of them young black and Latino men, who are more likely to be stopped, even correcting for crime rates, neighborhood demographics and the like, more likely to be arrested rather than issued a summons, and more likely to have force used against them.

Past the humiliation, criminal records for relatively minor infractions, like marijuana, can impact custody rights, public housing rights, and job prospects. Immigrants face deportation.

 

While personal possession was effectively decriminalized in New York in 1977, the NYPD has simply made its own law since 1997, as a record 50,000-plus arrests for low-level pot crimes in 2010 made it the number one cause of arrest last year. In practice, the 1977 law never got around to young black and Latino men, and the District Attorneys who receive these cases from the police have, for the most part, done little to push the police to stop making these bad arrests. And despite using the drug at a slightly lower clip than non-Hispanic whites, Black and Latinos who are stopped are considerably more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. With cops ordered to make stops to hit their monthly numbers, rather than in response to suspicions of illegal activities. marijuana arrests are a relatively easy way of getting there.

Guns, on the other hand, are a rare find, in part because of the success of New York's aggressive policing. Despite finding a firearm in barely one stop out of every thousand, officers who want to make it home at the end of the shift understandably treat the men they accost as potential dangers. Many of the men understandably come to see the police in a similar light.

"The down side" of stop and frisks, said O'Donnell, is not just "a lot of bruised feelings, but a lot of people who feel hard done by the cops. And it's also hurting the cops… I don't want them to see themselves primarily as at war with or as adversaries with people on the street. I don't think it's healthy for them, or for the city."

Along with Williams and Foy at Al Sharpton's National Action Network rally on Saturday was half of the 2014 mayoral field: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Also there were family members of Denise Gay, the 56-year-old mother who was shot and killed in a shootout just off the parade route between the police and a man who had just murdered another man. The police fired 73 shots, with one officer emptying his clip, and it appears Gay may have been felled by a police bullet.

Sharpton, a stopped clock at best who the mayor has boasted about placating, was right on time here: "If they will do it to them, imagine what is going on every day to young black men and Latino men in this city. This has got to stop."

I doubt it will any time soon. While both the schools system and the police department have their own ongoing data integrity reviews, it's hard to imagine either thoroughly investigating itself. One cop who tried to go submit evidence to the unit that audits the numbers ended up handcuffed, dragged from his apartment and forcibly committed.

Council member Robert Jackson, co-chair of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, said last week that the group will likely call for a formal probe of the parade arrests and perhaps also of policing practices more generally, but given Council Speaker Chris Quinn’s position as the mayor's anointed successor that also may end up hamstrung.

Never mind Rudy Giuliani, just imagine two minority officials arrested and a civilian shot in a police shootout at a parade under any mayor who doesn’t have much of the protest class in his pocket.

Come 2014, all bets are off.


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