When I was in my early 20s, my days were spent listening to New Yorkers tell me stories of how officers from the New York City Police Department had beaten them up. On most days, the person sitting across from me was a young, African-American man. (There were women, too, but they were fewer.) He would have an official complaint, either during his arrest or after, which then filtered through the city bureaucracy to land on my desk at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, an independent agency that investigates complaints against the NYPD.
It was my first job after graduating from college in 2002, and many of my colleagues were also 22- or 23-year-olds fresh off some elite, verdant, northeastern campus, filling out a resume while contemplating law school. The cops dismissed us as kids who didn’t know anything about the job, and in some ways, they were right. I didn’t know anything about New York City, the job of an officer or the lives of the young men who sat across from me. That would change.
Before I could begin an investigation, I had to interview the complainant. If he couldn’t get to my offices in lower Manhattan, I had to find him at home. Home was usually Brownsville, East New York, East Elmhurst or Tremont — New York City neighborhoods far removed from the brunch spots where Sex and the City fans fought for outside seating, or where the trucker-hat crowd ironically carried their bodega 40s in brown paper bags. I came to learn that New York City was a place dramatically divided by race and class, and the line that marked the border between the two cities was blue.
Our most common complaints were about improper stops and searches, but complaints of excessive force came next. These two types of cases can’t be neatly divided, though; they often intersected.
The Stories Of The Complainants
The stories that came from each young man were similar: He was minding his business on the sidewalk when a cop came up. Sometimes, he’d admit that he’d happened to have a joint or an open container of alcohol in his hand, which made him the target of an officer who’d been schooled in the increasingly contested “Broken Windows” policing philosophy that had reigned for more than a decade — go after the small offenses and you’ll prevent worse crimes from happening.
The cop would ask him what he was up to, in a register that varied from genuinely curious to (more frequently) confrontational. The young man in question would be reluctant to answer at all, much less in the polite, deferential manner that officers demand. Maybe an argument would ensue, or maybe the cop would go straight in and start to handcuff the kid. That’s when the predictable accusations would roll out:
He bashed my head against the wall.
He wrestled me to the ground and five or six cops were punching me.
He put his arm around my neck like this, in a chokehold.
When I was on the sidewalk, they started kicking me.
One of them stomped on my head.
The story was so common I could recite it in advance. The men were so specific, and their complaints so similar to others, that it seemed like whole neighborhoods might be rehearsing their statements. When you start to hear any story enough, it sounds less real. And it does sound crazy, right? Cops don’t go around putting people in chokeholds, stomping on their heads! At least, that’s what I thought at first. I was a young white woman in a middle-class job. I’d never even gotten a speeding ticket. I lived on the gentrifying edge of Brooklyn. The CCRB forced me to become familiar with other parts of the city.
The Stories On YouTube
There were almost never audio or video recordings in my cases, unless someone made a 911 call. These were the days when phones still flipped, and you had to punch 555-666-555 to write “lol” (and a lot of people didn’t know what that meant yet anyway).
Things have changed a lot since I left the agency in 2004. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the YouTube videos of Eric Garner — who died after a cop put him in a chokehold and wrestled him to the ground — with a gnawing feeling of guilt. Garner may have been breaking the law by selling loose cigarettes on the street; he’d been arrested 30 times. He was definitely arguing with police. Yet these are minor offenses, and he died for them.
There are other videos, like the video of Jahmil-El Cuffee having his head stomped on. And of course, in the past few days, I’ve followed the news of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He was an unarmed black teenager who was stopped by police on Saturday afternoon, days before he was set to begin college. There’s no video of the Brown shooting, but I can fill in the details in my mind. There’s video of the aftermath, of the people of Ferguson holding vigils for the young man, surrounded by police in riot gear. These all provide visuals for the stories I used to hear from the men, but their stories are no longer confined to a case docket. They’re spreading on YouTube for everyone to see, and allow us all to judge for ourselves.
These videos, though, aren’t just displays of what may arguably be “police brutality,” on one hand, and “justifiable force” on the other. They’re windows into neighborhoods where people are constantly policed, and often stopped and detained or arrested. People in these neighborhoods are policed as heavily for crimes like selling loose cigarettes as they are for major crimes like assault. After the urban riots of the 1960s and the middle-class flight to the suburbs, Americans decided that the inner city was a place of disorder and chaos, and the only way to make it safe was to establish powerful police forces.
This means two generations of city dwellers have grown up with an entirely different relationship to the police than those who grew up in the comfortable, white, middle-class suburbs did. The questions we should all be asking aren’t just about the force used, or whether officers technically put Garner in a chokehold. (The questions we have about the Michael Brown case in Ferguson are more basic: What exactly happened?) The questions should be why we have so many neighborhoods where contentious encounters with cops are routine.
Let’s establish one thing: Arrests almost always seem violent to an outside observer who isn’t used to seeing them in the real world. They usually involve some use of force — even if it’s the officer just grabbing the suspect’s arms, it doesn’t look like a TV arrest. The officers I spoke with at the CCRB used to joke that they’d never witnessed a suspect calmly put her hands behind her back when told to do so. Officers have the authority to use necessary force when someone resists arrest, and we are all legally obligated to comply with an officer’s orders. If the arrest is bogus, we can fight it in court, but not on the streets. Most officers are just trying to make it through their day. They don’t set out to injure anyone, but they’re also not going to risk letting someone try to hurt them.
The question of whether an officer can use force gets murky when the arrest may not have been valid. The toughest cases I had involved officers stopping someone for a minor crime and then making an arrest. These crimes included minor drug offenses, “quality-of-life” issues and disorderly conduct. The disorderly conduct statute is broad and vague, and includes such offenses as “congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse.” It’s a law that comes in handy when you want to break up protesters who are blocking a sidewalk or a group of people who seem to be on the cusp of rioting, or if you have a vague suspicion that the people who are gathering are up to no good.
The complaints I got from New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, though, were that often officers approached groups of guys standing on a sidewalk. The officer would tell them to disperse, and they would become “agitated.” “Why do we have to leave?” It’s a good question. I came to learn that there are some communities where people drew suspicion just for hanging out on a stoop or a sidewalk. I saw cases with a familiar constellation of charges: disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault on an officer. Together, they were known casually as “P.O.P.,” or “Pissing Off Police.” There wasn’t much we could do in some of these cases. Technically, the offenses described by officers counted as disorderly conduct, which meant the arrest may have been justified.
The Stories Of The Officers
Officers also stopped people they said were acting “suspiciously.” According to them, some neighborhoods are full of people “furtively gesturing” toward their waistbands — that was a favorite explanation for why an officer had stopped someone. When officers confront people, they become “voisterous,” a malapropism that seems like a portmanteau of voicy and boisterous. When the officer started to arrest the suspect, he or she “flared” their arms. (What they really did was flail.)
If, in the beginning, complainants seemed to have eerily similar stories, by the end of my two years I was seeing suspicious similarities between the officers’ justifications for their actions, too. They even used the same wrong words.
It wasn’t long before I began to understand that people living in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods were always under surveillance. In the housing projects, the NYPD had rooms full of TVs with security camera feeds, and they could stop anyone in the hallways or stairways of project buildings any time. Outside the projects, they were always stopping, questioning and detaining young men for their “furtive gestures.”
After a year at the CCRB, I understood why, if I were a young man who was minding my own business with my friends — having been stopped by police at random intervals for many of my teenage years — I might be disinclined to follow an officer’s orders. I might, under such circumstances, put up a fight. More often, the fight is brought to them. Perhaps that’s why so many people now seem to have their iPhones ready to record videos as soon as an arrest begins.
I left the Civilian Complaint Review Board well before civil rights organizations started to challenge the stop-and-frisk practices that disproportionately affected the communities from which we got most of our complaints. In 2010, a This American Life episode featured an officer who had secretly recorded his superiors enforcing quotas on summonses and arrests. In one of the most chilling interactions, a sergeant told Officer Adrian Schoolcraft to, in not so many words, pick a fight with black guys chilling on a stoop somewhere so that he could arrest them for disorderly conduct. So it did happen. And it may have happened a lot.
When Policing Is Fatal, Whom Do We Blame?
These videos make me believe the allegations I heard may have happened a lot more often than I would have guessed back then. Because I’m seeing it. It must be true that all of the other comfortable, middle-class, mostly white Americans watching these tapes also now realize how violent some neighborhoods are — not because of the criminals, but because of the police. The people in these heavily policed communities are now armed with the kind of evidence they’ve always needed to advocate for a change in the way they’re treated by the people who are supposed to keep them safe.
When I investigated cases, I usually had only medical records and arrest reports. Most of the time, officers would admit to using force. If they used it because a person was resisting a lawful arrest, however, it was justified.
If you establish that police have the right to use some force, you have to determine what makes force excessive. That’s more complicated.
In 2010, a video surfaced of an officer in Seattle punching a girl in her late teens after he tried to stop her for jaywalking. It sounds horrifying. But if you watch the entire video, you see that right before, the girl had pushed the officer away from her. Which means the video is also evidence that she assaulted an officer, and she was definitely resisting arrest.
I think many of us tend to think that resisting arrest requires violently evasive actions on the suspect’s part, but the reality is different. New York Magazine compiled reactions from police officers to the Eric Garner video, and many point out that he appeared to be resisting arrest. They may be right. If I were investigating this case, I would have to point out that when the officers started to grab Garner’s hands, he pulled them away and said “Don’t touch me!” He demanded they leave him alone, a request officers are never likely to grant. Resisting arrest can be as mundane as that.
In the Seattle video, after the push, the officer punched her in the face, turned her around and handcuffed her. (Dispense with the idea that it matters she was a woman: It doesn’t.) The average person watching it probably wonders: Was the push really that bad? Could he have subdued her without a punch? Here are questions I’d have to take into account as an investigator, from the cop’s point of view: If you were him, would you wait to see if she could do anything to you worse than a push? How much potential danger would you tolerate to avoid punching her?
But I no longer watch these videos like an investigator would; the questions that they inspire are deeper. Is there anything else we can and should do to stop jaywalkers? The Garner video also starts out minor, but after he pulls his hands back away from the officers who are trying to handcuff him, it escalates quickly, with a swarm of officers and a chokehold that turns out to be deadly. Why was it so important to arrest him in the first place? Adding police officers to any situation is going to increase the likelihood of violence, and there’s nothing we can do to change that except reconsider the conditions under which we add police. That’s because, in any situation, we’ve given police officers extraordinary powers and wide latitude to “stop criminals,” without spending a lot of time considering what we mean by “criminals,” and how far we’re willing to go to stop them.
Every time something like the Eric Garner case happens, the CCRB gets renewed attention. Indeed, New York Mayor John Lindsay established an oversight board composed of civilians in the wake of the Harlem riots, which marked their 50th anniversary this summer. (A choice quote from the president of the police union at the time, John Cassese: “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.”) After the Eric Garner case, the New York Times ran a story about how rarely officers were punished by the NYPD after the CCRB found they improperly used chokeholds. It’s an important issue. The city banned chokeholds in 1993, although the definition is limited to maneuvers that restrain the passage of air through the windpipe.
It’s not just an NYPD issue, though, as the Brown killing in Ferguson so clearly demonstrates. These cases, like every one that came before, will get bogged down in the narrow, individual details that define it. The Garner and Brown stories will become so abstract, we will lose touch with what they’re really about. In the Garner video, you can hear the weary terror building in his voice. For what it’s worth, you can hear the same fear later in the video, in the voice of an officer starting to realize something is wrong with Garner, ordering the people who have gathered to back up and give Garner some air. None of the officers involved set out to kill a man that day. Perhaps, rather than investigating the actions of any one officer, it’s time to rethink what lengths we as a society will go to in the name of law and order.