Occupy Wall Street activist Shawn Carrié always dreamed of becoming a classical pianist, and he was on his way, with a full music scholarship to New York University. That all changed on March 17, 2012, when, during a demonstration at Zuccotti Park, a New York City police officer pulled his thumb back and back and back until it broke. Six other cops kicked him until he bled from his ears, according to Shawn. He told me that while he was held at the Midtown South Precinct an officer named Perez tore a splint the hospital had given him from his finger and said, “You fucking Occupiers. Every time you come back, we’re going to kick your ass”.
Shawn would never play piano at a professional level again.
In December 2013, New York City paid Shawn (whose legal name is Shawn Schrader) an $82,500 settlement as compensation for the beatings and for arresting him on an old warrant meant for a different person named Shawn Carrié. But the officers themselves paid not a cent. Nor were they arrested, as civilians who break peoples’ fingers might be. They admitted no wrongdoing. They suffered no consequences at all. Instead, New York City taxpayers bore the cost.
Shawn’s lawsuit could be considered a success. But it did nothing to dissuade the cops who attacked him from attacking others. When we spoke in my living room, his pale eyes flashed with anger. “Justice might as well be a cotton candy castle in the sky”, he said. “I’ve never seen it”.
The multitude of black men killed by police led Maryam Monalisa Gharavi to call these last months “The Summer of Death” in her New Inquiry essay “The Killing Class”. In New York, police strangled grandfather Eric Garner. In Ohio, police gunned down John Crawford III in a Walmart while he was checking out an air rifle sold at the store. In Louisiana, Victor White III died of a mysterious gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. In Utah, cops shot anime fan Darrien Hunt in the back, blaming the incident on toy sword he was wearing with his cosplay outfit. Ferguson, Missouri, continues to protest officer Darren Wilson’s execution of Mike Brown.
Every week, it seems, brings a story about police choking, beating, or falsely arresting civilians. In one instance captured on video, New York fruit vendor Jonathan Daza was kicked in the back while handcuffed. In a rare move, the NYPD suspended Vincent Ciardiello, an officer involved in the attack. But, like the cops who beat Shawn Carrié , he wasn’t charged with assault.
At New York Fashion Week, Cosmopolitan’s Shiona Turini made a splash by wearing a T-shirt that listed the names of black men killed by the police. Their killers’ names are less publicized. In a country where daily life is increasingly criminalized - especially in poorer communities - police officers are protected from the consequences of their actions. Instead of being jailed, their punishment might be getting assigned to desk duty.
“It is virtually unheard of for police officers to be arrested and charged for assaults committed against ordinary civilians. It just never happens”. Scott Levy, a lawyer who is director of the Fundamental Fairness Project at the Bronx Defenders, told me.
“The mechanisms that exist outside the criminal justice system to ensure accountability - the civilian complaint review board (CCRB), the police internal affairs bureau, and civil litigation - are opaque, byzantine, and largely ineffective”, Levy said. “Victims of police brutality are systematically cut out of the process, and the countless obstacles they face silently communicate a subtle but clear message: Give in and give up”.
While they are one of a citizen’s few recourses, CCRBs cannot actually discipline cops. They just make recommendations as to how a department can and should discipline its officers. Of 5,410 complaints to the New York City CCRB in 2013, a mere 144 officers were actually disciplined - and “discipline” can mean nothing more than time off with pay in some cases.
District attorneys, who have the power to charge police who brutalize civilians with crimes, rarely do.
“Prosecutors largely ignore allegations of excessive use of force by police officers”, Levy said. “Unless there is incontrovertible evidence of a police assault - and sometimes even if there is incontrovertible evidence - prosecutors will almost always give an officer the benefit of the doubt and decline to prosecute, a benefit never extended to the thousands of regular people dragged into criminal justice system every day”.
This is hardly surprising, as prosecutors generally view themselves as cops’ partners. (Not to mention that police union endorsements are often vital for DAs seeking reelection).
Given the scant chance of prosecution, the investigations departments promise after high-profile killings are generally merely mechanisms for drawing out the process until public rage fades away. Trauma, both collective and private, remains.***
In 2013, Clinton Allen, a 25-year-old black man, was killed by the Dallas police. He was ringing the doorbell at his friend’s apartment to ask her to return his TV set, his family said later. She called 9-1-1, summoning the cops; according to a witness, he had his hands up when officer Clark Staller shot him seven times.
Staller returned to duty after only five days on leave - paid vacation, in other words - and a grand jury later declined to indict him.
Like most cops who kill, Staller claimed he feared for his life. The Dallas police falsely claimed Clinton was high on PCP (a toxicology report said any drugs in his system would have been taken days before) and said that he was choking Staller (an account contradicted by the eyewitness). This is routine. After a police shooting, departments often tell the press the suspect lunged at the police, or that officers thought he had a weapon, even if the victim was unarmed, shot from behind or had his hands shackled.
“I would not be surprised if they had a manual”, Clinton’s sister Chaédria told me. “The language, from Ferguson to Dallas to New York to Oakland is all the same if you’re paying attention”.
While police claim they shoot out of fear, they demand that the civilians they deal with possess an almost monk-like restraint. Remain still, as you are handcuffed, choked, slammed onto concrete. If you don’t, and you’re shot, it will be your fault.
Often after a shooting, the cops will engage in character assassination against the victim, as when the Ferguson police released tapes of Mike Brown allegedly shoplifting cigars. But the reputations of police are not similarly scrutinised. While many departments post presumed-innocent citizens’ mug shots online within a day of arrest, the identities of killer cops are withheld as long as possible.
Using their own money to pay for Open Record Requests, Chaédria and her mother Colette Flanegan found that before killing Clinton, Staller had accumulated eight charges of excessive force. He’d also falsified a police report after he tried to run over a fleeing suspect with his squad car in 2011.
“This is clearly a reckless, dangerous man who did exactly what he his escalating behavior would suggest: He finally graduated to murder when he shot Clinton seven times”, Chaédria told me.
She and her mother Colette Flanegan founded a nonprofit called Mothers Against Police Brutality to, in Chaédria’s words, “help the families of those victimized by police and to put an end to the policies and procedures in law enforcement that encourage this human rights issue”.
At best, cities offer victims’ families money as a substitute for justice. But “what’s $900,000 when your child is gone?” Chaédria asked. The money for settlements comes from taxpayers, not the abusive officers or the police departments that employ them. In New York City, payouts for Bronx detective Peter Valentine’s illegal raids cost taxpayers nearly $1.3 million. Valentine, meanwhile, continues to “serve” the city.
If a victim accepts a settlement, the cop generally does not admit wrongdoing, which means the assault that led to the payout will not be held against him if and when he attacks others. During Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan’s trial, the cop she said grabbed her breast had previously been caught on a bodega security camera kicking a man. The city paid the victim off out of court, but the officer was not charged with anything, and ultimately the judge forbid McMillan’s attorney from bringing up his violent history.***
No politician will ever seriously challenge the police. Even those who run on reform, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, generally fail to meaningfully curb brutality once they’re in charge. Politicians may promise investigations. They may offer kind words to victims’ families. But they will never treat violent cops same way they treat ordinary citizens who commit the same crimes.
This is partly because no politician wants to be seen as “soft on crime”. But there is something more poisonous at play. The powerful covet power. Just as no president really wants to curb government overreach, no mayor wants to hinder what former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg once called his “army”.
Sometimes an assault is too brutal, nonsensical, or well documented for even the authorities to ignore. In these cases, those who believe in the system will call the perpetrator a bad apple. But it’s not just the cops who kick handcuffed street vendors. It’s not just their colleagues, who scream “Stop resisting arrest!” and block the assault from cameras with their bodies. It’s a structure that sees violence against civilians as ordinary - as the cops’ right - rather than an aberration.
So what should be done? I asked Mariame Kaba, the founding director of Project NIA, a group that works to end youth incarceration, and she recommended elected police civilian review boards and a reparations movement for police torture. But we ultimately need something more radical, she added.
“In order to end police violence, we have to start considering abolition [of the police]”, she said. “At the very least, we are going to need to work on getting the cops ‘out of our heads and our hearts.’ As individuals and communities, we have to actively unlearn our fear of the police and also diminish our dependence on them”.
Though many dismiss this sort of thinking as a dream, it’s far more rational than a population resigning itself to police who constantly murder black men.
Or here’s another, if somewhat facetious, idea: America is vengeful and loves punishment, so why not create a police force whose sole job is to arrest the police?
These meta-cops could be given quotas of officers to arrest each month. They’d no doubt lean heavily on quality of life violations, arresting cops who made communities unpleasant by groping black teens or hassling street vendors. As cops do now, these meta-cops could be promoted based on their arrest numbers. They might sometimes detain cops for rudeness, or failing to present ID, but that’s to be expected. Their jobs would be stressful. They’d have to lay down the law.
Of course, cops who used force against citizens would be handcuffed immediately, held for up to 72 hours in order to be processed and charged. If they didn’t plea out to a lesser crime, they’d be brought to trial, to determine if force was really used in self-defense or defense of others.
Who could object? America always claimed to have the fairest justice system in the world. These officers would be innocent until proven guilty. They’d be no different than anyone else.
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