In Ferguson, Missouri, protesters continue to seek justice in the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was gunned down by a police officer. The incident has 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. 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. Watching the video reminded me of another senseless death at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. Anthony Baez, a Bronx resident and security guard, was tossing a football with his brother when it accidentally hit a NYPD patrol car, setting off a confrontation with police that ended in Baez being put in a lethal chokehold.
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 minority 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.
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.
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.
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, Anthony Baez 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.