Are We in a Police State?


In a column in the March 23 Daily News, David Paterson, New York state senator from Harlem, said: ‘No one has explained so far why officer Anthony Vasquez drew his gun on an unarmed Dorismond.’

On March 19, also in the News, Hillary Gaston, pastor of Parkchester Baptist Church in the Bronx, said: “People believe they’re living in a police state.” Gaston, a Vietnam combat veteran, is a former Baltimore police officer and a former federal agent.

Even more than the Diallo and Louima cases, the killing of Patrick Dorismond has made Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Mayor Giuliani the focus of public alarm. Both Safir and Giuliani are clear and present dangers to the public’s safety—particularly, but not exclusively, to the safety of black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

As for Safir, he must now be held fully accountable for, among many other acts of malpractice, the training of the officers under his command. Why did officer Vasquez draw his gun on an unarmed man? Former police officers and some who are still on the job have complained to me about perilously inadequate training in the police academy. But they’ve asked me not to name them.

Let’s start on an elementary level. Michigan University law professor Yale Kamisar fought in the Korean War. During that time, he also served as an instructor in hand-to-hand combat.

As we were talking about the killing of Patrick Dorismond, Kamisar said, “I don’t understand why the gun had to be drawn at all.”

Kevin Kaiser, who was standing beside Dorismond, says that a cop threw the first punch. According to the cops’ own story (New York Post, March 29), at least eight blows were exchanged before the shot, as the backup cops rushed up.

“Even, for the sake of argument, assuming that Dorismond swung first,” said Kamisar, “why couldn’t the backup cops have handled him? Dorismond wasn’t armed. Along with being tested for their proficiency with guns on the firing range, cops ought to learn hand-to-hand combat, and they ought to be checked repeatedly on those skills. You learn how to handle a knife thrust and how to disarm someone with a gun. Especially if the person isn’t armed, why can’t a cop, knowing those techniques, be able to subdue him?”

Actually, three cops were struggling with Dorismond before the gun went off (New York Post, March 30).

Furthermore, Kamisar continued, “if there’s a scuffle, as in the Dorismond case, the cops have to identify themselves. It’s in their own interest, as well as in the interest of the person they’re fighting with.”

Kevin Kaiser says unequivocally that the undercover police that night did not identify themselves. The shooter, detective Anthony Vasquez, did not shout, “Police!” until he was pulling his gun. Until then, Kaiser and Dorismond thought they were about to be mugged.

There’s another factor in why Vasquez drew his gun. Cops are under constant pressure from Safir and Giuliani to keep the number of arrests climbing. In the March 19 New York Post, Daniel Jeffreys interviewed an undercover narcotics cop currently on the “buy-and-bust” squad.

Understandably not giving his name, the officer said that “there’s a price to pay” in getting drugs off the street. “It’s gotten so it’s much more likely that officers and civilians can get hurt.” He noted that the Bloods are now dealing throughout Midtown, “and they’re a lot more vicious than the casual dealers.

“It’s made undercovers a lot more nervous whenever they make a bust,” the narcotics officer continued. “A nervous cop is one with his finger on the trigger.”

With the insistent orders from City Hall to keep all kinds of arrests up—especially, under Operation Condor, the buy-and-bust enticements—the number of people arrested and jailed overnight in this city increased by a third between 1993 and 1999, rising from 272,718 to 366,288. And, as I’ve written here, the charges against thousands of those arrested are so flimsy that they’re tossed out even before the person who’s been locked up appears before a judge. And many more thousands of people are stopped and frisked without being arrested at all.

So, when Pastor Hillary Gaston of the Bronx, himself an ex-cop, says people believe they’re living in a police state, he’s not engaging in hyperbole.

In the March 19 Daily News, Michael Kramer interviewed Gaston after the clergyman had met with Police Commissioner Safir. Said Gaston:

“He kept talking about community-relations initiatives we had never heard of, and we’re the community. And he kept talking about the ‘perception’ of police misconduct. So I’d have to say he’s isolated.

“You see, it’s not a perception to us; it’s a reality. . . . I told the commissioner that on one recent Sunday, I asked how many in my congregation knew the cops patrolling their beats. They looked at me like I was crazy. Not a single hand went up.”

Obviously, the targets of buy-and-bust operations are not going to know those cops. But a further indictment of the isolated police commissioner—and the Torquemada who is the mayor inside a literally blockaded City Hall—was contained in another March 19 New York Post report, headed “Buy-&-bust puts young cops under the gun.”

“Some of the most inexperienced officers in the police force are the ones on the front lines making undercover drug buys,” the article said. Deputy Police Chief Thomas Fahey explained, “We try to get people who don’t look like police officers, and those are normally the younger ones.”

Even if she’s acting solely for political reasons, I give Hillary Rodham Clinton credit for speaking out so forcefully on the indefensible evasions of the awful truth by the mayor and his janissary Howard Safir.

An independent prosecutor is now essential to bring this city back to constitutional control, and there has to be federal supervision of the department, as has happened with the New Jersey State Police and in Pittsburgh.

In countries ruled by aspiring dictators, you were safe on the streets—except from the regime’s unrestrained police.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2000

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