In Ferguson, Missouri, protesters continue to seek justice in the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was gunned down by a police officer. The community is rightfully demanding an answer to the question of why Michael Brown was killed. But the incident – just the latest in a long list of unarmed black men shot by law enforcement – has also raised broader questions about the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Those questions are as relevant in New York City as they are in Ferguson.
In July, Staten Island resident Eric Garner died from cardiac arrest after being put into a chokehold by an NYPD officer, his last words pleading with the officer, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” The confrontation with police, caught in a disturbing video that shows Garner not posing any threat, originated with Garner selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk. Also in July, cameras captured the scene of a dozen NYPD officers dragging a naked Brooklyn woman out of her apartment after responding to a domestic disturbance call. The police did not know which apartment they were responding to, and when the woman told officers they had the wrong apartment, they forced her into the hallway, naked, where she ultimately fainted while they attempted to handcuff her.
These incidents, and several others like them, perpetuate the belief that there are elements of law enforcement – in New York City and around the country – that do not value the dignity and life of poor black men and women.
At the start of 2014, a new mayor, a new police commissioner, and a commitment to drastically reduce the use of stop-and-frisk policing were signs of hope in New York City. However, the early returns have been disappointing. The number of stop-and-frisks in the first half of 2014 is way down compared to years past, but, still, more than 8 out of 10 of those stopped are black or Latino, and more than 8 out of 10 of those stopped were innocent of any wrongdoing. Nearly 40% of those stopped were for the famously vague “furtive movements.” The city is still on pace for over 50,000 stops in 2014, a far cry from the insanity of the Bloomberg years, but hardly a statistic to celebrate.
And while stop-and-frisks are down, the number of complaints filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency with the power to investigate complaints of police misconduct, have gone up. The number of allegations of police misconduct rose 16% in the first seven months of 2014 compared to the same time frame in 2013. That includes an 11% increase in allegations of use of force.
Other statistics paint a picture of a police force committed to making as many arrests for low-level offenses as possible. A recent Daily News story reported that subway fare-beating arrests increased 69% from 2008 to 2013, and are on pace to be even higher this year. The overwhelming majority of those arrests involve young black and Latino men, and nearly one-third of fare-beating arrests since 2008 led to jail time.
Though candidate de Blasio emphasized the need to decrease the number of marijuana arrests and the destructive impact they can have on individuals, there were the same amount of arrests for marijuana possession in the first four months of 2014 as there were in the first four months of 2013, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. As was the case in 2013, more than 85% of marijuana arrests were of blacks and Latinos, despite research showing that whites use marijuana at the same rate as people of color.
Arrests for low-level offenses such as panhandling and subway fare evasion are part of a strategy known as “broken windows” policing. This strategy claims to keep violent criminals off the street by cracking down on low-level crimes. Whether or not broken windows policing actually reduces serious crime is up for debate; what cannot be debated, however, is the consequences this strategy has on communities of color and their relationship with law enforcement.
The death of Eric Garner may have been the most immediate and serious consequence of a policing strategy committed to arresting low-level offenders, but the consequences for thousands of black and Latino men are just as important to understand. Being arrested and placed in jail for any period of time can have a powerful impact on a young person’s development, particularly their ability to trust law enforcement and others in positions of authority. Arrest records, even for minor offenses, can make it incredibly difficult to get a job. And there is always the chance that an encounter will spiral out of control, that there will be a new Eric Garner or Michael Brown.
Unsurprisingly, it is often the poorest communities that bear the brunt of overbearing policing tactics – after all, it is these neighborhoods where crime rates are the highest. But for neighborhoods such as those in the South Bronx, where over 40% of people live in poverty, adding the perception that residents are being unfairly targeted by police to the daily realities of economic despair, high unemployment, failing schools and unsafe neighborhoods makes for a combustible combination. And it only takes one incident to turn simmering tension into a full-fledged boil. Just ask the residents of Ferguson, Missouri.