When I read the Justice Department report on the police in Ferguson, I literally shook my head twice to make sure that the authors were describing Missouri cops and not the New York Police Department.
As director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), it's my job to keep a close eye on New York City cops. Reading the Department of Justice's recent report on the police in Ferguson was a kind of Twilight Zone experience for me—I literally shook my head twice at some of the findings, especially the most scathing sections, to make sure that the authors were describing Ferguson police and not the NYPD.
For example, the Ferguson report found that black people make up 67 percent of the population and 93 percent of the individuals arrested by local cops. According to government statistics, African Americans and Latinos make up about 54 percent of NYC's population, but account (link to download spreadsheet) for 84 percent of the people arrested by the NYPD. For young people, the disproportion in NYC is starker: Black and brown youth make up 94 percent of the "juvenile arrest population," according to city stats.
Numbers PROP has assembled from our court monitoring initiative also document the racial bias in NYPD policing. Our representatives regularly visit the arraignment parts of NYC criminal courts in the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to observe who the cops have arrested and on what charges. In more than 25 court visits since last summer, we witnessed 873 cases. 806—or 92.3 percent—involved people of color.
The DOJ report found that Ferguson police officials sometimes engage in outright racial slurs, including emails that mocked President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on the basis of their being black.
A recent PROP report, which is not yet available online, called "They Got Bandanas On... Arrest 'Em," highlights similar bigotry.
In one prominent case, an officer named Michael Daragjati was recorded on a wiretap saying, "I fried another [N-word]... Another [N-word] fried, no big deal." (In 2012, Daragjati was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for extortion and arresting a Staten Island man on trumped-up charges.) In 2011, Cops referred to the West Indian Day Parade in a Facebook group as "Savage Day," "this coconut parade" and "pure savagery." And one officer speaking to three high school students just after their arrest asked, "What are you, fucking Russian? No, you're Jewish. Go back to Israel... or wherever the fuck you're from."
The DOJ report also included an anecdotal record to show that arrest and summons practices in Ferguson are often biased, and sometimes frivolous. Here are some stories (some of which we assembled in a report this summer and others that have yet to be published) about NYPD officers that unfortunately are not isolated examples, but all too emblematic of ongoing practices:
- In 2014, a Latino boy and girl were walking her dog in a Harlem park. Police officers approached and spoke rudely to them. The officers gave each teenager a summons for "being in the park after dusk." The officers wrote on the tickets that it was 11 PM, even though it was actually eight o'clock. The girl reported being terrified when she appeared in summons court and said that she still felt that way even after the judge "threw the summonses out."
- In 2013, as part of a squad that regulates street vendors, police officers arrested a Chinese woman who has a license to sell flowers because she had two artificial flowers on her cart for decorative purposes.
- In 2014, a police officer arrested a young black man for walking between the cars of a stopped subway train.
- In 2013, a police officer arrested a 16-year-old Latino boy on two different occasions for trespassing while the boy was standing in the lobby of the building he lives in.
- In 2013, police officers approached seven pedicab drivers who were on break and told the drivers that they each needed an arrest. Since there were more drivers than officers, the officers told the drivers to play a game to determine who would be the four people arrested. The drivers were arrested for unauthorized parking and spent 15 hours locked up before a judge dismissed the charges.
- In 2014, a public defender working in the arraignment part of Brooklyn's criminal court on a Saturday night reported handling five jaywalking cases. Each case involved a man of color, each man had been cuffed and arrested, three of the men had outstanding warrants for minor infractions, but two of the men had no criminal record—until now.
The DOJ Ferguson report emphasized that the arrests and summonses in Ferguson often result in fines being levied against low-income people who can barely afford to pay them—if they can at all. A similar practice persists in NYC, since the vast majority of people arrested and ticketed here are poor. Here are two recent examples:
- The police often arrest a middle-aged homeless black man on charges like trespassing, begging, or sleeping on the subway. On one occasion last year, the judge applied a fine that the homeless man explained he could not afford to pay. The judge, evidently in a Dickensian frame of mind, then ordered a reduction in the man's regular food stamp payments 'till the amount of the fine was covered.
- During our most recent court monitoring visit this year, we saw a judge issue a $250 fine against a middle-aged black man charged with farebeating. "$250 for a man who could not afford $2.50 to get on the subway," commented a PROP volunteer.
Finally, the DOJ report found that one of the most damaging practices in Ferguson is a quota system for tickets and arrests: "Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on 'productivity'"—the same euphemism that has been used by NYPD brass—"meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence... many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson's predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue."
While NYPD officials deny quotas exist—since recent state law effectively prohibits their use, department chiefs have little choice but to issue steadfast denials—evidence keeps mounting to challenge their claims. Several lawsuits, including one on behalf of aggrieved minority officers, accuse the department of applying quotas. "City cops are routinely denied overtime and vacations, demoted to menial posts, and ultimately threatened with being fired for not making quotas," as the New York Post reported earlier this month.
In a conversation last summer, an on-duty officer told me that there are quotas, that they are unwritten, that they are different for different communities—meaning that they are higher in communities of color—that, although he doesn't like it, he'll strive to meet his quota to remain in good standing within the department, and that "it's easier to arrest black and brown kids" than other people.
It is time that New York's political leaders, from Mayor Bill de Blasio on down, come to terms with the ugly truth that—despite the city's progressive reputation—day-to-day policing practices here are as unjust and starkly racially biased as in any jurisdiction in our country. Hopefully, they will not wait for the aggressive intervention of a federal agency, but will on their own take steps to abolish the current quota system, to abandon "broken windows" policing that targets people of color who engage in low-level infractions, and adopt a public safety approach built on a partnership between community leaders, neighborhood and government service organizations, and law enforcement.
Robert Gangi served as executive director of the Correctional Association of New York for over 29 years and, with other concerned New Yorkers, founded the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) in the spring of 2011. Follow PROP on Twitter.