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Don’t Expect the NYPD to Change in 2014

Around the holidays, stories of heroic cops like Officer Carlos Ramos—who gave his sweatshirt to a freezing homeless man on the street—are trumpeted as examples of the boys in blue displaying goodwill towards men. Whether that yuletide spirit will...

Photo via Flickr, by trawin

The NYPD is finally picking up some positive press, just in time for the holidays. This month, media outlets praised the compassionate gesture of Officer Carlos Ramos, who gave his sweatshirt to a freezing homeless man on the street as he was dispatched to inspect a suspicious package. While it’s great that goodwill towards men extends to one of the boys in blue this holiday season, the essential irony that a police officer helping a person in obvious need is so rare an event that it becomes newsworthy, was pretty much lost on everyone. But that yuletide amity will likely be short-lived. As the sun sets on the Bloomberg/Kelly days and rises on a new, “tale of two cities,” de Blasio era, the erstwhile progressive candidate has named William Bratton to be the city’s top cop again. Bratton, who is best known for developing and implementing the COMSTAT system during his first run as NYPD commissioner under Rudi Giuliani in the mid-1990s, also helped usher in the cops-as-an-occupying-force mentality in poor neighborhoods in NYC.

It should not be surprising that the actions of Officer Ramos, like those of “boot cop” Lawrence DePrimo last winter, are a rarity within an organization, the NYPD, that does not include assisting people in need in its job descriptions. This is unlikely to change under Bratton. 

While many young people join the NYPD believing that they can help their community, they soon find out that the department has other objectives. That realization drove Officer Adhyl Polanco to the brink of quitting the force; trying to do the right thing landed him an overnight shift monitoring CCTV surveillance footage in a housing project—a punishment for speaking out against his supervisors.

Polanco was reassigned, and had his gun and badge stripped, by police brass after he went public with audiotapes of a supervisor advocating for racial profiling and the harassment and arrest of innocent people in an effort to meet department-wide quotas

"Our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them," Polanco told ABC News' New York affiliate in 2010.

The current NYPD practice model, which relies heavily on the debunked Broken Windows theory—lots of arrests for minor crimes, occupational police presence in high-target neighborhoods—was institutionalized by Bratton during his first run at the head of the NYPD. (Current Commissioner Ray Kelly effectively put the program on steroids). Although there is no empirical evidence to support the theory as an effective police tool—the New York Times called the theory “a myth”—Bratton swears by it. Moreover, he refuses to withdraw his support for Stop and Frisk, a police practice that his new boss, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, criticized to great effect in his run-up to election.

Bratton lasted only two years in his first term under Giuliani, who decided that New York City just wasn’t big enough for the two of them. Nevertheless, soon-to-be-mayor de Blasio is parading him around, gathering cautious endorsements from the more reform-minded critics of the previous policing regime. Bratton’s history does not suggest that zero-tolerance policing, quotas or racial profiling are likely to recede under his watch. It is unlikely that Bratton, considered by some (including his new boss) to be an innovator, will promote the creation of evaluation tools that consider officers’ assisting residents in need.

When Bratton was commissioner in Los Angeles, he oversaw an escalation of police stops and police violence unprecedented even in New York City. With Bratton at the wheel, LAPD stops spiked from 587,200 in 2002 to 875,204 by 2008—and almost exclusively targeted people of color, specifically Black and Latino men.

There was also a significant bump in arrests for minor crimes such as loitering and disorderly conduct, a 17-percent increase in non-lethal police force (stun guns, bean bag guns, etc.) and a dramatic decrease in accountability as just 1.6 percent of citizen complaints against the LAPD were upheld by the department.   

According to the October 22nd Coalition, a police brutality watch-dog group, Bratton’s first tour of duty was a bloody one. Bratton himself compared his NYPD to the World War II-era Royal Air Force—with black communities playing the role of the Luftwaffe. Ari Paul, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, recently said:

“Bratton, whose firm demeanor and thick Boston accent are supposed to be symbols of his take-no-shit attitude, was hardly the first American police chief to further militarize public safety.  But he stood out as a public servant who very clearly believed that someone who was homeless, lacked money, or was in need of food or medicine was not a victim of circumstance or even a citizen that simply needed help, but a likely enemy soldier in a never-ending war.”

This does not sound like a guy who is going to stand up and suggest that his officers consider compassionate assistance to those New Yorkers who have been marginalized—on the basis of race and socioeconomic status—by public policies the officers enforce.

Bratton was introduced to the media by the incoming Mayor earlier this month with a hearty “Welcome Back!” De Blasio described his new commissioner as a “progressive visionary” and “the leading national voice of community policing.”

“What I’ve said to him is clear and concise. I want him to do what he knows how to do best…to focus our efforts on the criminals, to make our streets safer, but to avoid focusing resources where they don’t belong, which is on innocent, hard-working New Yorkers,” de Blasio said.  

While Bratton has clearly made his case to the next inhabitant of Gracie Mansion, residents in many outer borough communities are more likely to greet his return with a Bronx Cheer.

It was Bratton who first introduced semi-automatic 9mm handguns to the force, over criticisms that they might lead to more killings by police—a concern that proved prophetic.

More than 60 people were killed by the police during Bratton’s first tenure as commissioner, yet he has remained unapologetic. At a town hall meeting in the Bronx in 1995 he called a group of parents whose children had been killed by police officers “fools and animals.” 

Citing an Amnesty International investigation into the Bratton NYPD, the October 22nd Coalition says there was a 34.8 percent increase in civilians shot dead by police during Bratton’s first term. There was also a 53.3 percent increase in civilians who died in police custody, an increase in the number of civilians injured from officers’ firearm discharge, and 4,920 new police brutality complaints by citizens made to the City's Civilian Complaint Review Board, an increase of 37 percent over the previous year.

“Among those killed with the NYPD’s new assault-style handguns were: Nicholas Heyward Jr., 13 years young; Anthony Baez, 29 years young; Shu'aib Abdul Latif, 17 years young; Antony Rosario, 18 years young; Hilton Vega, 22 years young; Anibal Carasquillo, 21 years young; Yong Xin Huang, 16 years young; and Frankie Arzuaga, 15 years young,” the group says.

@NWMalinowski