Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, the Democratic Congressman who represents portions of Brooklyn and Queens, told The New York Sun recently that “to a large degree,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg “gets a pass from the press corps.” (Not here at the Voice, he doesn’t.) But another seeker for the office in 2009—one with much more name recognition than Anthony Weiner—will very likely be Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has deserved, and unaccountably avoided, much more sustained investigative scrutiny by the press.
The exceptions, again, are this newspaper and the Daily News, whose police reporter, Tamer El-Ghobashy, in a tiny June 13 story that was buried on page 24, wrote: “A coalition of anti-police brutality activists are today starting a ‘Cop Watch’ program to patrol the city’s high-crime neighborhoods with video cameras, and monitor police actions.” Latanya White of People’s Justice adds that Cop Watch will hand out flyers telling New Yorkers their specific rights when stopped by the NYPD.
This is in addition to the other New York City citizen patrols by people exercising their First Amendment rights not only to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” but also to document those abuses of power. (I would welcome information from any of these descendants of Samuel Adams on what they’ve found during their public service.)
The members of the press corps in this city could themselves be of greater use in monitoring our sometimes out-of-control protectors by following up on an acutely relevant story by the Daily News. On June 14, in a five-column story, “Cops flexing their muscle,” staff writers Benjamin Lesser and Greg Smith revealed that in 102,000 of the more than 500,000 police stops during 2006, “cops did things such as restrained people, threw them to the ground or against a wall or pointed a gun at them.”
Now dig this: “In nine out of 10 police stops involving use of force in 2006, the suspects were not arrested” (emphasis added). And in the 2,700 police stops in which a cop pulled his weapon, only 553—one out of five—”ended with an arrest.”
This is the only time that these raw use-of-force documents have been made public. The NYPD gave the internal data (which they usually never let we, the people, see) to University of Michigan researchers who—to the everlasting gratitude of civil libertarians everywhere—put much of that information on the Internet.
I haven’t heard a peep about all this from Mayor Bloomberg, who has encouraged Ray Kelly to step into his shoes in 2009. But there has been a reaction from Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has continually done much of the work that the press should have been doing instead to pierce the CIA-like secrecy of Commissioner Kelly’s force.
On June 13, Donna Lieberman said to the Daily News: “The data confirms our worst fears. The NYPD is stopping, interrogating and searching hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers every year, and even pointing guns at completely innocent people. New Yorkers deserve a police force that will protect their rights, not violate them.”
New Yorkers should also demand of Anthony Weiner—and everyone else running for Mayor—that during their campaign debates with Ray Kelly, they confront him with this data (and much more like it) about the NYPD’s malpractice, which they can easily get from the New York Civil Liberties Union and our files at the Voice.
“It’s hard to imagine,” says Lieberman, “the NYPD will be able to continue to deny with a straight face that racial profiling is going on in misdemeanor marijuana arrests . . . and the subway stops. We should finally be able to understand the extent of racial profiling in New York City.”
During his probable mayoral campaign, Kelly will likely emphasize his creation this year of Advancing Community Trust (ACT), an outreach program to instruct new members of the NYPD how to relate to the diverse cultures in this dynamic metropolis. Speaking to 1,000 rookies at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on June 23 before an audience that included NYPD critics, the commissioner said, as reported by the Associated Press: “We’re always going to have some tension; it’s in the nature of what we do. . . . We always have to work at improving our relations with the community.”
Kelly didn’t address the racial data that the NYPD released to those University of Michigan researchers. But one of his own rookies in attendance that day at the Apollo, a 26-year-old man from the Bronx, offered his own testimony on the problem: This new police officer recalled for the Daily News that the police had stopped him around a dozen times as he was growing up in Morris Heights. “You know the usual line,” he said: ” ‘You fit the description of a man in the area.’ ” That treatment, he added, made him determined, now that he wears the badge himself, “to treat people the way I wish I was treated.”
Whether his fellow rookies and the rest of the NYPD will also respect New York’s diversity is going to depend most significantly on the city’s next mayor, and on the person he or she chooses as the next police commissioner. It will also depend on whether our new mayor believes that the number of times people of color in certain neighborhoods are stopped, thrown against the wall, or made to stare down the barrel of an NYPD-issued weapon is an important quality-of-life concern in this city.
A future column will look into Commissioner Kelly’s pledge that he would carefully expand the use of non-lethal tasers that stop a person with a 50,000-volt shock. A comprehensive Amnesty International investigation on the use of tasers notes that “80 percent of the time they are used on unarmed suspects. In 30 percent of the cases, they are used for verbal noncompliance, but only 3 percent of the time for cases involving ‘deadly assault.’ ” Without killing you, tasers can do a hell of a lot of damage. And the evidence is mounting that they can also kill you.
At present, only NYPD patrol sergeants and emergency-service units carry tasers. I’d like to see a poll of New Yorkers who have been forcefully stopped without cause by the NYPD to see whether they approve of giving tasers to more cops. It almost goes without saying that Mayor Bloomberg approves of them. Will he and Commissioner Kelly volunteer to be tasered in front of a class of NYPD rookies?