Looking beyond training: Race and police culture
Brooklyn’s borough president shares his history, experience and solutions
Brooklyn and the nation are grappling with visceral issues of police brutality and cases of police-involved killings. In Brooklyn, two officers await trial on charges stemming from an incident involving an assault on an unarmed black teen, and the borough’s district attorney weighs the decision of whether to charge a rookie police officer in the shooting death of unarmed black man Akai Gurley.
These cases place Brooklyn in the center of a nationwide conversation of how police officers interact with minorities — a conversation that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams expanded on in a New York Times op-ed last week.
“[T]he training taught in police academies across the country is not being applied in communities of color,” Adams wrote in the op-ed. “After six months in the police academy, that instruction is effectively wiped out by six days of being taught by veteran cops on the streets.”
In the op-ed, Adams shared a secret of his childhood with the Times. At age 15, Adams was brutalized by police officers. Following an arrest for criminal trespass — where Adams admits he unlawfully entered and remained in the home of a friend — the young Adams was taken to the basement of the 103rd Precinct office in South Jamaica, Queens, and was kicked in the groin.
“For seven days after that, I stared into the toilet bowl in my house at the blood I was urinating,” the borough president wrote, referring to the physical injury he incurred at the hands of police officers.
Adams’ secret, shared by many men of color throughout the country, is what fueled his decision to join the police force.
“I didn’t want any more children to go through what I endured, so I sought to make change from the inside by joining the police department,” he said.
In his emotionally honest piece, Adams describes “two Americas” of policing: One that takes special regard for the lives of white offenders and the other that seeks only to protect itself from minority suspects.
“One of my white fellow officers once told me that if he saw a white individual with a gun, he took extra care for himself and the individual. When he saw a black individual with a gun, he took care only for himself.”
Discriminatory NYPD training — A possible legal cause of action
Although anecdotal, Adams’ personal story and city statistics showing that blacks and Hispanics are killed more often than whites, at the very least bolsters the call for better police training.
The 2012 NYPD Firearm and Discharge report shows that African-Americans constituted 69 percent of the victims killed by a police bullet last year with Brooklyn listed as the borough with the highest incidents of police-involved shootings.
But this evidence could do more — it could lead to a finding that NYPD training disproportionately impacts minorities leading to a disparate impact, or adverse effect, on that community.
“Under Section 1983 [of the Civil Rights Act], the city can be sued for its training and policy failures that result in constitutional deprivations, including on class-wide basis,” civil rights attorney Andrew Stoll explained. “Statistics that demonstrate disparate racial impact can be used to support such claims.”
“This was the basis for the Floyd class action, the only difference being that focused on stop-and-frisks, not excessive force,” Brooklyn Law School professor I. Bennett Capers said.
However, Adams does not call for such a lawsuit. “[T]here is a legacy of inequity that did not just appear overnight, but was carved into the culture of law enforcement over decades.”
The road to reform
While commenting on the nature of race within police culture, Adams pointed to areas within the criminal justice system as a whole that may be vehicles of change to combat the described institutionalized discrimination and inequality.
Adams has been a supporter of body cameras for police officers.
“The reform that we believe will be most effective in preventing future … tragedies and building a city that’s both safe and respectful of civil rights is equipping police officers with body-worn cameras to record police stops,” said a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, signed by Adams and other NYC pols following the death of unarmed black Eric Garner in Staten Island.
Garner was killed after being placed in a chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo. A Staten Island grand jury found no “reasonable cause” to indict Pantaleo in Garner’s death. The majority of Garner’s final encounter with the police is captured by bystander video.
Brooklyn’s borough president wants to push this effort further, calling for cameras for guns and more cameras in police vehicles.
“While I was a state senator, I introduced a proposal to allow such devices, which would not interfere with the function of the weapon; this proposal deserves to be revisited. In fact, we can go further, with cameras on police vehicles as well,” Adams wrote in his op-ed. “Not only will technology shine a light on the darkness of these police encounters, it will be significant in advancing community trust that accountability does in fact apply.”
Though Adams is a son of Brooklyn, his suggested reform efforts, if put into practice, would have an immediate effect on the officer involved in Garner’s death. Adams calls for an effective way to “deal with officers who have documented and substantiated records of abuse,” including removing these individuals from the force.
To date, Pantaleo has had three lawsuits against him and the city for acts of misconduct. One has settled and two are pending.
Dismissing officers with a history of bad acts is “an essential component of the larger response we must have to address this history of abuse,” Adams noted.
Adams also recommends the revamping of the secret grand jury process and the use of independent investigators for police-related incidents.
“All of these ideas need to be moved forward under the leadership of our president, our governors, the mayors of our major cities and our law enforcement leadership,” Adams wrote. “If we fail to take advantage of this moment that history has laid on our doorstep, we are doomed to more abuse, more division and more chaos.”
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