“It is far more important to hold accountable the enforcers of the law than the perpetrators because if you don’t, you will have a nation of warlords.
— Mahmood Mamdani.
New York’s Finest (also known as the NYPD) have come under a lot of scrutiny since activists from the Occupy Wall Street Movement took to the streets of New York City on September 17, 2011. From the pepper spraying videos on YouTube to the massive arrests, the brutality of the NYPD has shocked many. However, this only comes as a shock to those who never before had to deal with a police force inspired by a culture of brutality that encourages police officers to instill fear and contempt in those whom they are supposed to serve and protect. From the yellowcab driver, to the street vendor and from the high school students in working class neighborhoods to young men in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, this culture of unprofessionalism, fear and brutality is a daily occurrence. What Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly call the “best police force in the world,” whose mission is to “preserve the peace, reduce fear and provide for a safe environment,” has in fact been the greatest fear factor in many communities.
Under Commissioner Kelly, the policy of “Stop, Question and Frisk” was expanded – giving NYPD officers the authority to stop civilians, question and search them. Officers will then proceed to enter the names of those searched into a database, which they claim is “valuable in helping solve future crimes.” The reason for the stops, you might ask? “Because you fit a description,” as I was told following a search where the officers did not ask me a single question. I will give details of my encounter later.
The “Stop and Frisk” policy has systematically terrorized and humiliated young men of color, especially those living in working class neighborhoods in New York City, from Harlem to Brownsville. The NYPD continues on a daily basis to disrupt the lives of young men of color in this city through what has become an institutionalized approach stemming directly from a culture of brutality, take-no-prisoners and shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later attitude under the false presumption of “crime prevention.” One of the many successes of the Occupy Wall Street movement is in its exposure of this culture of brutality, disrespect and unprofessionalism of New York’s Finest to the general public. Indeed, over the last few months, the world has seen what has long since been the reality of many young men in New York City: the police officer acting with impunity, knowing that they’ll be protected as they brutally assault peaceful civilians.
In response to the media attention that these police altercations with peaceful protestors received, the NYPD aggressively mischaracterized these incidents with mere fabrications. When Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams was thrown to the ground, along with his aide, and handcuffed during the West Indian Day Parade, the NYPD immediately responded that “a crowd formed and an unknown individual punched a police captain on the scene,” suggesting that somehow the councilman had been part of that crowd. We witnessed the same level of denial on behalf of the police when Deputy Inspector Bologna, a repeat offender, indiscriminately pepper sprayed into a crowd of peaceful female protesters. The Department immediately rose to the officer’s defense, claiming rather forcefully that the office did nothing wrong and that the use of pepper spray was “appropriate.” The Deputy Inspector (the “white shirt”) was punished: a loss of ten vacation days.
In NYC, there are endless examples of police brutality. The NYPD has managed to create an environment of fear in many neighborhoods in New York City and they do so with impunity. Commissioner Kelly said that he wants to instill fear in young blacks and Hispanics. In a private meeting, the Commissioner told lawmakers, “the reason we stop and frisk and target the groups that we do is because we want all people who fit that group to feel that anytime they leave their house they can be searched by the police.” Walking down the street in my neighborhood today, I know that this is what I can expect. The nakedness and constant fear that one feels knowing that at any moment a group of police officers, whether in uniform or in plain clothes, can approach you, take your identification and pat you down, is overwhelming.
This reality was brought close to home for me four years ago when I came home for winter break during my first semester in college. I was walking to the subway from my apartment in Brooklyn, when I was approached by two undercover police officers. “Spread your legs and place your hands behind your head,” they shouted, running out of an unmarked police car. I was with my cousin at the time, who simply responded to the command as if it was second nature – this was not his first time. I, on the other hand, was home from my first semester in college and after having just completed a seminar entitled “Debating Human Rights,” I naively thought I should demand the reason for my search and debate with the officers. But before I could utter a word, the officers went ahead and patted both of us down and asked for our IDs. “Can I ask why we are being searched?” I asked. My request went ignored, as we were never given a reason for the search. Before we could even ask for their badge numbers, one of the officers handed me my ID and wished me a “happy birthday.” The experience left me distraught. After consulting with a friend, I decided the next day to call my local precinct to notify them of the incident and file a complaint. I was surprised when the operator informed me that the officers reported the search, claiming that the reason was because my cousin and I “fit a description.”
Human rights organizations, activists and lawmakers and other concerned citizens continue to work tirelessly to bring an end to the constant fear tactics many citizens are submitted to at the hands of the NYPD. They are demanding that some checks and balances be instituted in order to reel in the power of the police, and increase transparency in their interactions with citizens. Legal Aid and the NAACP pleaded with lawmakers to intervene during a City Council Hearing on September 27. Despite the efforts of the Council members, their requests have all been ignored. To be fair, my criticism of the NYPD is not directed at the poorly trained police officers caught up in a corrupt, arrogant and unethical system of criminal injustice.
There are indeed hardworking police officers struggling to just get by. These officers do not set the culture of the NYPD; rather their actions simply reproduce an offensive culture that is shaped from upstairs: a culture which supports, defends and encourages, a police officer to pepper spray, punch and beat peaceful protesters. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system in which officers can stop and search innocent civilians because they fit a “description,” meaning that they are Black or Latino. There is more to it than the individual actions of any one police officer raping a woman at gun point, or lodging dozens of bullets in the bodies of innocent New Yorkers such as Sean Bell and my fellow countryman Amadou Diallo. There are systemic abuses in the NYPD and it is no surprise to those who live it or have been paying attention.
Ibrahim Diallo is a Guinean-American living in New York City.