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Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union Director, on Trayvon Martin | Village Voice


Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union Director, on Trayvon Martin


Turmoil and tension over Trayvon Martin continues to escalate across the U.S. — now greatly inflamed by a leaked police report — and intense discussion of the teen’s death has continued in New York.

From Sean Bell to Jateik Reed to Ramarley Graham, the NYPD has long had a very strained relationship with young men of color.

The New York Civil Liberties Union feels that these cases emphasize the need for reform in the NYPD. The organization says that current policing tactics disproportionately target blacks and latinos. NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman chatted with Runnin’ Scared about how the Trayvon Martin incident affects civil rights and law enforcement in the city. (Runnin’ Scared also reached out to the NYPD for comment. We’ll update if we hear back.)

Runnin’ Scared: The Trayvon Martin case took place in Sanford, Fla., but has prompted nationwide protest. But how does this shooting specifically relate to New York?

Donna Lieberman: The Trayvon Martin case has galvanized public concern about a terrible fact of life that has been a problem for communities of color for years. Here in New York City, the police department treats black people — particularly young black men and other young people of color — as suspicious by virtue of the communities they live in, the way they dress, and the color of their skin.

The now public recognizes that what happened to Trayvon Martin at the hands of a vigilante gunman could well happen to any number of young African-American men at the hands of the New York City police.

Runnin’ Scared: What else?

Lieberman: The public is now far more likely to question NYPD actions: the racially lopsided stop-and-frisk program and its housing equivalents, operation clean halls and vertical patrols, and the excessive misdemeanor marijuana arrests.

Runnin’ Scared: How do marijuana arrests relate to this issue?

Lieberman: It’s particularly helpful in understanding the racial biases, because that’s one of the few areas where we have long term scientific data about who sells and uses marijuana. Whites use and sell far more marijuana than do African-Americans and latinos, and this gives undermine the police commissioner’s constant refrains: ‘That we go where the crime is.’

Not so with marijuana, for sure, and also not so in terms of stop-and-frisk. Eighty-eight percent of the people who are stopped by the police department that takes a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach do not receive even a summons.

Runnin’ Scared: If this is the case, why hasn’t there been reform?

Lieberman: In New York, at least, our police commissioner has said time and again that he believes that it’s appropriate to put officers in the communities where there’s a lot of crime. This transforms life in communities of color into one that is not free, and where parents have to teach their adolescent children how to survive an encounter with the police. The police department, which claims to be data driven, has not in fact provided data to establish a connection between stop-and-frisks and reduced crime, but we do know that it makes community members feel less safe from police and it also undermines the trust that is critical to effective policing.

Runnin’ Scared:How else has this impacted relationships between cops and community members?

Lieberman: If people are treated as suspects in every encounter with the police, then it’s reasonable that they would not want to go to the police for help or to assist them. It’s really hard to document, but it’s people not wanting to interact with the police. It’s not coming forward as witnesses. It’s not reporting crimes. It’s not helping them with investigations where they have evidence.

Runnin’ Scared: Is there more information on these relationships?

Lieberman: The New York Civil Liberties Union is in the midst of a survey. We’re analyzing the results of a survey of attitudes and experience with the police. It’s our prediction that what will emerge is a tale of two cities — that if you are white, the policeman will be perceived as your friend but if you’re a person of color, particularly if you are young, the view will be far different.

Runnin’ Scared: How do you hope New York changes in response to Trayvon Martin’s death?

Lieberman: We hope that this will prompt the public and city officials to insist on greater accountability, greater transparency, and greater oversight.

Runnin’ Scared: What can be done to fix the relationship between cops and communities of color?

Lieberman: There are some procedural fixes that might ameliorate police-community interactions, like requiring police officers to hand out business cards whenever they stop somebody so that asking for an officer’s name and badge number does not create a flashpoint for conflict. Also, requiring that police officers provide the equivalent of Miranda warnings in appropriate situations, letting individuals know that they do not have to consent to a search when there is not sufficient justification. There’s legislation, too, to create an inspector general that would provide oversight.


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