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Is Real Police Reform Ever Coming to New York City?

New York remains the epicenter of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, but will it amount to anything?
Photo via Flickr user Nathan Congleton

In the days since a grand jury failed to indict Officer Danie​l Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, the outcry for police reform has attained something rare in this day and age: staying power. On the ground, massive protests continued in New York over the weekend, leaking out to cities like Berkeley and Boston, with related demonstrations cropping up as far away as Tokyo and Paris. President Obama seems to have awoken to the fact that this pressure is snowballing, ann​ouncing Monday that he and Attorney General Eric Holder were releasing new guidelines for how federal law enforcement conducts itself in America, with an emphasis on rules about racial profiling.


But New York remains the epicenter of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. On Monday, New Yorkers were offered a startling statistic from a Daily News re​port: Since the notorious hail of bullets that killed Amadou Diallo in 1999, 179 people have been killed by on-duty NYPD officers (222, if you add off-duty cops). Of that total, 27 percent were unarmed, and 86 percent were black and Latino, which, perhaps ironically, is nearly the same percentage of marij​uana arrests and stop-and​-frisks that hit minorities. Just three cops were indicted for those acts, with only one officer convicted—and he was later released. (The NYPD has been reached for comment by VICE regarding these numbers, but we have yet to hear back.)

As if on cue, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman pen​ned a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, asking for the go-ahead to start looking into new cases of police brutality. In effect, this would let Schneiderman usurp the powers of local district attorneys, who have been criticized for being too cozy with local police departments in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

"In New York, and across the country, the promise of equal justice under law has been eroded by a series of tragedies involving the death of unarmed persons as a result of the use of force by law enforcement officers," Schneiderman wrote.

He called the situation on the ground "a current crisis in confidence" that justice is being served, a watershed moment indicating that this system we've glued together to get results has run out of batteries. The protesters I've spoken with at the Eric Garner​ rallies all agreed that a special prosecutor is a significant step in the right direction, especially since it seems to them that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's body cams initiati​ve is just political posturing. After all, Eric Garner's death was on video, and Daniel Pantaleo walked free.


"The failure to secure an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner leaves New Yorkers with an inescapable question: Do black lives matter?,'" New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. "Much remains to be done to repair the culture of policing in New York. The proposal to designate a special prosecutor to handle cases that result in the killing of unarmed civilians by the police is one important step so that we can hold police officers accountable for their actions and help restore public faith in our justice system."

Over the phone, Bob Gangi, the director of PR​OP (the Police Reform Organizing Project), which helped provide the Daily News with its statistics, told me the actions of Schneiderman and others, including Governor Cuomo's own call for reform in state government, were promising.

"We're pleased with all the movement from mainstream politicians to appoint a special prosecutor in these situations—supporting a special prosecutor has now become a political question," he said. "Schneiderman could be that person, but at the same time, a special prosecutor independent of the office may be needed. Because in the end, Schneiderman is a political agent."

Gangi said he wasn't taken back by the 179 death mark; to him, it's a natural byproduct of "broken windows" p​olicing, which, by targeting low-level infractions—in Eric Garner's case, selling untaxed cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island—naturally places a strain on relations between the NYPD and low-income minority communities. But he was surprised by the nationwide reaction, which, to him, is virtually unprecedented. (It's worth noting that at 70, Gangi has seen his share of police protests.)


"This is the most movement against excessive police abuse probably in history. In terms of people protesting and the media attention, it's historic, and very encouraging," he said. "The slogan of 'Black Lives Matter' has, unfortunately, a longstanding history; minorities have been mistreated for decades."

De Blasio reiterated that message of longevity in an interview with George Stephanopoulos over the weekend, one that has come o​ff as anti-police to the NYPD union, as well as former mayor (and " broken wind​o​ws" pioneer) Rudy Giuliani. When asked if he thought his interracial son, Dante, was actually ever at risk, de Blasio ag​ain argued this was the personal link that ties him to these tragedies.

"What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have an encounter with a police officer. It's different for a white child. That's just the reality of this country," de Blasio sa​id. "With Dante very early on we said, 'Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don't move suddenly, don't reach for your cell phone.' Because we knew, sadly, there was a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if he's a young man of color."

But rhetoric aside, de Blasio refused to wade into the legal underpinnings of the grand jury decision, maintaining a neutral position when it comes to the issue of a special prosecutor. Instead he has argued that his own reforms—which Gangi criticized as not getting to the "heart of the beast"—are the pathway to a more peaceful tomorrow. These include the aforementioned body cams, retraining of officers, a new marijuana arrest po​licy, and fewer stop-and-frisk stops.

Protesters are demanding more. Major demonstrations are planned all week in New York City. An action on Sunday sna​rled traffic on the Staten Island Expressway for exactly seven minutes—the time it took for Eric Garner to receive medical attention after Pantaleo's tragic chokehold. And it's to be assumed cities across the country and world will also be participating, leading up to the major civil rights march on December 13 in Washington DC helmed by Al Sharpton.

So yeah, about that staying power…

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