NEW YORK -- When 69-year-old New York State Supreme Court Justice Thomas D. Raffaele alleged he was assaulted by an NYPD officer while observing the police’s interactions with a man on the street, it made headlines. At the scene, the judge’s initial complaint was ignored by the supervising officer. For most people, that would have been the end of the story.
However, after the judge followed up and his identity became known, the NYPD took his complaint much more seriously. It is now under investigation by both the police Internal Affairs Bureau and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB.) This is not typical protocol. The NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau is normally tasked to investigate complaints of excessive force that involve serious injuries. However, according to NYPD spokesman Paul J. Browne, Internal Affairs is “reviewing [this] complaint because it was brought to its attention by the judge, not because of the level of injury.” This reaction underscores the troubling nature of New York’s police-citizen relationship. It also underscore the need for the city, most specifically, the mayor, to address police-citizen relations in intelligent ways, such as implementing an Inspector General for the NYPD.
Prior to this incident, Justice Raffaele might have been counted as one of the 63 percent of New Yorkers found by Quinnipiac University polls to approve of the way the NYPD is doing its job. He indicated to The New York Times that he had always been “very supportive” of the department. Following a string of public criticisms of stop-and-frisk, and the revelation that the NYPD had lied about the extent of its use of “The Third Jihad,” an anti-Muslim film, in trainings, the Quinnipiac statistic was highlighted as evidence of continued public support for the department’s activities.
However, the same study showed that only 43 percent of Hispanic voters and 27 percent of black voters support stop-and-frisk, compared to 59 percent of white voters. Not surprisingly, the communities most targeted by officers conducting stop-and-frisk operations are those who have the least confidence in it. The racial disparities in all types of encounters with police are well known. In the area of complaints against police misconduct, according to CCRB) data from January-June of 2011, the vast majority of complaints, 56 percent, are from members of the black community. This is alarming when according to the U.S. census, only 25.5 percent of the city’s residents are black. Whites represent 11 percent of complainants.
Stop-and-frisk and excessive force incidents are separate issues. They are, however, related to NYPD practices, and are inseparable in the daily lives of those living in heavily-policed communities. Advocates, organizers, and citizens from minority neighborhoods have long been sounding the alarm that overly-aggressive NYPD practices, including stop-and-frisk, tend towards racially-based harassment that ruins community relationships with police. In such an atmosphere, violence of the nature reported by the judge is common. What was uncommon this time was the social status, not the existence, of the victim.
Governor Cuomo has pointed out that the NYPD’s “relationship with the community” is put at risk by excessive and unnecessary stops and arrests related to marijuana. Independent efforts to document and voice citizens’ concerns about their treatment by police are underway. Smart phones and social media have allowed New Yorkers to document interactions that otherwise would have been lost. Recently, an NYPD Sergeant was captured on a cell phone video verbally abusing a group of men in Brooklyn. YouTube videos of police misconduct at Occupy Wall Street events last year went viral. Most recently, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) unveiled a new mobile app that will allow users to document police stop experiences, locate stop-and-frisks in their nearby area, and submit their descriptions and videos directly to NYCLU for review. The results of the NYCLU initiative will be one indicator of citizens’ faith in the policies and procedures of the police department. Coupled with proposed oversight legislation, it appears that a push towards greater transparency and accountability is inevitable.
The first step towards restoring faith in the relationship between law enforcement and the communities it polices aggressively is recognizing the existence and scope of the problem. Improving this relationship must involve increased transparency, through, for example, the institution of an independent Inspector General for the NYPD. It must involve more intelligent and targeted policing practices; one suggestion has been “focused deterrence,” which relies on community partnerships to target those most responsible for violent crime. Finally, it must provide better accountability mechanisms when the systems designed to protect communities fail their citizens – with all New Yorkers having equal access to these mechanisms. Justice Raffaele’s experience was certainly not the first of its kind, but if we face these problems honestly, it could be one of the last.
Thomas Giovanni is counsel and Meghna Philip is a research associate for the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice.