Black and Blue Relations
The strained relationship between black New Yorkers and the police was never more acutely evident than last Monday after the Caribbean Day parade when officers mistreated and wrongfully arrested Council Member Jumaane Williams and Kristin Mark Foy, an aide to the Public Advocate.
The video image of police officers surrounding and taking down Mr. Foy, who did not resist arrest, brought to mind the Rodney King incident – minus the beating.
The incident seemed an overreaction by police officers who did not possess the wit or the skills needed to diffuse the situation. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly must address that shortcoming immediately.
Councilman Williams correctly asserted that his and Foy’s mistreatment were comparable to the chronic disrespect experienced by young men of color across the City at the hands of the police. He, however, was wrong to use that incident to condemn the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” patrol tactic.
I am and remain a supporter of “stop and frisk.” And, as a former vice-chair of my precinct council, I know that residents clamor for pro-active community policing. I know many homeowners and residents who would gladly suspend the Bill of Rights, if it meant ridding their block of dope dealers and thugs.
But the high volume of “stop and frisks” and the anecdotal reports of disrespect causes me concern. Most of the young men stopped are innocent of any crime. They are more likely to become victims of a crime than be perpetrators of one.
Clearly, no one wants a return to the high crime levels of the 1980s. Crime is highest in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Those same areas are home to felons, parolees, probationers and the formerly incarcerated.
Low performing schools, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, premature death and unemployment plague these same communities. Understandably, for those who have escaped or strive to escape that misery, mistreatment by the police is one insult too many.
Historically, relations between blacks and police have not been good. Throughout American history, the police have acted as centurions deployed by business interests and political leaders to maintain order and to suppress the rabble (i.e., the Irish, blacks, labor organizers, anarchists and communists).
Bloomberg deserves credit for doing what Giuliani was reflexively incapable of doing – that is, recognizing that the black community has legitimate grievances. Bloomberg’s trademark tone-deafness was no more evident than in his suggestion that Councilman Williams and Mr. Foy share beers with the officers who mistreated them.
On this blog, I have praised Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies and I have criticized his young men’s initiative as an ineffectual attempt at social engineering.
Just as his anti-poverty initiatives failed because they did not change the family dynamic and his young men’s initiative fails to address persistent poverty, so has his administration failed to address race and class as influential factors in police-community relations.
Under Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly, the NYPD has made great strides in lowering crime, reducing gun violence, thwarting terrorism and making city streets safer. But they need to make equally great strides in thwarting inappropriate police conduct towards the public, especially young men of color.
NYPD officers who disrespect and mistreat the very people they serve and protect must be disciplined and trained to diffuse tense situations amicably and without use of force.
The Civilian Police Academy program should be revamped where civilians and police academy cadets share lessons in fostering mutual respect and better community relations. NYPD officers should be rotated through the community affairs bureau so they may encounter residents during the mundane aspects of life. Daily exposure to heartrending depravity can only desensitize officers and render less human those they swore an oath to protect.
No New Yorker — elected official, city worker or civilian — should experience maltreatment at the hands of New York’s Finest. Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly must make that crystal clear to the 30,000 police officers who patrol our city street.