On Tuesday, DNAinfo released a video showing a police officer pistol whip a 16-year-old boy with his hands up. The officers had approached the boy, Kahreem Tribble, after seeing him looking inside of a parked van in Bed-Stuy. The boy dropped a bag he was carrying, which contained 17 small bags of weed, and took off running. The video picks up with Tribble slowing down and turning around to face the pursuing officers. One officer, Tyrane Isaac, punches him in the face. The boy puts his hands up. The other officer, David Afanador, smacks him with his gun. A third officer, Christopher Mastoros, can stood back and watched.
Tuesday’s footage was the latest in a series of videos capturing NYPD brutality in recent months. There was the one where officers threw a pregnant woman to the ground. There was the one where an officer kicked a street vendor in the head. And there was the video capturing the choke hold death of Eric Garner.
The Bed-Stuy incident happened in August, but the video’s release came one week after Police Commissioner Bill Bratton declared to the public that “we will aggressively seek to get those out of the department who should not be here–the brutal, the corrupt, the racist, the incompetent.”
It was the sort of vow for systematic reform that New York’s police department has seen before. And history gives reason for optimism.
In 1970, Mayor John Lindsay named Patrick Murphy New York City Police Commissioner. Murphy’s top priority at the NYPD was eliminating the culture of corruption that had plagued the department for years.
As we wrote in our August feature about former Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella:
The public perception was of a force more concerned with protecting the criminals who paid them off than the civilians who funded their salaries. At a 1968 crime conference, the Manhattan Borough President, the Bronx Borough President, and the Brooklyn District Attorney together declared that police corruption had sparked the rising crime rate. Drug dealers and gamblers and madams and made men ran the city. The bribery was so widespread, so tolerated, so brazen that police officers took the cash right in the open, right on the street. “It is senseless to believe youngsters do not see this or to expect that it will create in them a respect for the law,” said Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton.
Two years later, Officer Frank Serpico detailed the corruption for a New York Times expose. “Graft Paid to Police Here Said to Run into Millions,” read the A-1 headline.
The story of Serpico, a famous story by now, showed how entrenched and accepted the corruption had become. Young officers entered the force and veteran officers schooled them on the bribery and extortion schemes, and the young officers continued the tradition because that was just the way things worked.
Murphy understood that the problem was deep-seeded and institutional. His aim, as we put it in August, was to phase out the old generation’s boys-club virtues and foster a new generation of dedicated, ambitious young cops who took their duties to the community seriously.
He planted “field associates” to serve as spies who reported to headquarters. He installed higher performance standards. He held precinct commanders accountable for the actions of their subordinates. He shifted the department’s focus toward community policing in an effort to rebuild trust between officers and residents.
The plan worked. The system of police payouts disappeared by the time Murphy stepped down in 1973. Murphy’s department became a model for other cities.
The department’s professionalism was on display during the blackout of 1977. Community leaders and opinion columnists praised the force for their restraint in the face of looting and chaos. As New York‘s Thomas Plate wrote at the time, “A police department in the necessarily difficult circumstances of a democratic society with profound, even structural, socioeconomic injustices, should be designed neither to extinguish nor to ignite–but to maintain order and to contain disorder. And this is exactly what the NYPD did for 25 hours of black-out inspired hell.”
The circumstances of the era, though, continued to mold the NYPD mindset, and the restraint and professionalism morphed into desperation and brutality. As the crack epidemic hit the city, crime rose to new highs. Public safety became the city’s top concern and the pressure landed on the people tasked with fighting the crime. The pressure to make arrests pushed some officers and detectives to “get over aggressive and do things they would normally not do,” former detective Warren Bond told the Voice this summer.
A culture of force emerged, a culture of catch and lock up criminals at any cost. The stories from that era have emerged in recent years, as judges have overturn convictions and wrongfully imprisoned men have sued the city for millions of dollars. Stories of cops coaching witnesses and beating suspects until they confessed.
“It reached a point that crime was so high that people believed the concept that if you patrol certain communities, that everyone from that area is a criminal and even if I’m wrong, they did something else,” says Borough President Eric Adams, who served more than 20 years in the NYPD. “You begin to see everybody in that community as a suspect.”
It is the remnants of that culture that Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has sought to address. “There’s some in the organization who shouldn’t be here–not the right fit for the NYPD of 2014,” Bratton said last week. “There are a few, a very few, in a very large organization who just don’t get it.”
Today’s New York is much different than the New York of a generation ago. In today’s New York there is as much scrutiny on the methods the NYPD uses to combat crime as there is on the department’s ability to combat it.
“Now that crime is not the number one issue in the city and people feel the streets are safe, at least in the nicer neighborhoods in the city, people can look at this with a much clearer eye and mind than they did back in the day,” says Steven Drizin, an attorney at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Indeed, as DNAinfo reported, the NYPD suspended Afanador without pay and put Isaac on modified leave. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson opened a criminal investigation into the officers’ actions.
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha