"I tell people all the time: [the] NYPD is the biggest gang in New York. It’s so funny; they're so focused on gangs, and they’ve become a gang themselves...I was telling someone the other day: give me any characteristic of a gang that the NYPD doesn't do, and he couldn't," Kasiem told me during a recent interview during the Adobe Youth Voices International Conference in Santa Clara, CA. Gang activity in East Flatbush - Kasiem's neighborhood, as well as the home of Kimani Gray, the young teen slain by NYPD officers earlier this year – has become more prevalent in recent years, making his observation a poignant one, and worthy of investigative merit. As the gang presence in New York has increased, so has the police response, primarily through Stop & Frisk. But have their tactics begun to mimic too closely those of the gangs they claim to be in principled opposition to?
According to the National Institute Of Justice, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of "gang" in the United States, but the Department Of Justice does have a rather robust set of criteria for determining what a gang does and does not look like. When applied to the NYPD, the comparisons are rather striking. Of the five points in question, three are of particular relevance:
“Whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation, frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti.” This point is worth exploring mainly for its pronounced absence in the case of the Stop & Frisk program. In the last few decades, a 'creeping militarization' effect has slowly taken hold on our nation's police forces, particularly those stationed in urban areas. As such, abuses of power and authority have taken on a much more savage dimension, not to mention a more spectacular one. This especially came to light in New York City during the height of Occupy Wall Street, during the brutal evictions of protesters from Zuccoti Park by what looked more like soldiers than police officers. The uniforms and equipment used by the NYPD become synonymous with violence and barbarism not long afterwards, and it would seem that, in the wake of the Occupy spectacle, Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have been eager to correct their previous oversights. As such, the practice is now conducted primarily by undercover police officers driving unmarked vehicles, making the NYPD's only identifying characteristic when it comes to Stop & Frisk their lack of one.
Designed to create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia in order to suppress even the thought of criminal activity, the NYPD's ability to strike anywhere, any time, without warning or self-identification is a critical component of Stop & Frisk's effectiveness. So critical, in fact, that when Communities For Police Reform introduced their Community Safety Act (a landmark legislative package designed to curb Stop & Frisk) to the New York City Council earlier this year, a mandate for all officers to publicly identify themselves during every stop was included. That measure was subsequently postponed during initial negotiations, but given the recent override of Mayor Bloomberg's CPA veto by the New York City Council, coming hot on the heels of Federal Judge Schira Scheindlin's recent declaration of NYPD's Stop & Frisk as unconstitutional, a push for an I.D. statute seems not far on the horizon. While it might not do much to restrain abuse of authority, it will at least make that authority easier to recognize...and keep track of.
“Whose purpose in part is to engage in criminal activity and which uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives.” The idea of the NYPD as a purely criminal enterprise, or any law enforcement body for that matter, is difficult to conceive. However, the notion that law enforcement agencies are not immune to the vagaries of corruption, and frequently and consciously violate the law in order to 'uphold' it is not such a stretch of the imagination, especially for people of color in living New York City under Stop & Frisk.
During our interview, Kasiem spoke to me about an especially severe Stop & Frisk experience that took place outside of a pizza parlor in his neighborhood one night, when he signaled an order to the clerk from outside the shop as he was exiting from a subway station, a common neighborhood practice. Two undercover officers in an unmarked squad car appeared as if from nowhere, and, having mistaken Kasiem's hand signal for non-verbal communication of drug deal, immediately detained. Within moments, the officers had Kasiem jammed face and shoulder first into an aluminum pole on the street corner.
"[H]e tried to, like, put my shoulder into it, and he couldn't. So he literally just pushed my whole body against it...my whole half of my body hit that pole through and out, and they kept me there while his one hand is on my head,” Kasiem told me regarding his captors. “Then the other guy is on my back so I can't move.” The officers roughly turned his pockets while asking him a barrage of questions about his behavior and whereabouts. Several tense moments later, a marked police car came around the corner offering assistance. The demeanor of the offending officers turned on a dime from hostile to conciliatory, and within moments, they not only released Kasiem, but vanished as abruptly as they had arrived. "[T]hey're checking my pockets, another car is pulling around, another cop car, and he's like, 'is everything all right?' That's when they decide to let me go, which was so funny.” Kasiem shakes his head, chuckling softly to himself. “[He] just slammed my head into a steel structure, you know, and he's like 'all right, man, you be careful, all right? Be careful.' And I'm like, 'what just happened?' And they were already gone."
While Kasiem's story might be disconcerting, it is hardly unique. Innumerable reports of corruption, violence, and widespread violation of civil liberties by the NYPD have surfaced from communities of color in New York City over the last decade, far too many for the department (or the American public, for that matter) to ignore. Yet, ignore and belittle the outcry is precisely what they have done, to the point of forcing a federal court to mandate any sort of reform. Even now, Mayor Bloomberg is fighting tooth and nail to appeal the ruling, citing New York's drastically diminished crime rate over recent years as a reason to uphold the practice, among other rather dubious talking points.
The mayor would have the public believe that the end justifies the means in the case of Stop & Frisk, trivializing one glaring and inconvenient truth: there's no way the crime rate in New York could have dropped as low as it has in recent years without Bloomberg using the police as his own private army, all for the purposes of conducting an illegal turf war on behalf the privileged. While Bloomberg may have been able to feign a measure of plausible deniability in this until now, his successor certainly will not have that luxury. Stop & Frisk has become an issue public in American politics, and when it comes to New York City's current and widely-publicized mayoral race, any leanings toward maintaining Bloomberg's appeal could easily constitute an admission of guilt, if not complicity.
“Whose members engage in criminal activity or acts of juvenile delinquency that if committed by an adult would be crimes with the intent to enhance or preserve the association's power, reputation or economic resources.” The rude insertion of the term 'juvenile delinquency' into this particular criterium belittles its significance, thereby obscuring what is easily the most pernicious aspect of Stop & Frisk: its survival and propagation instincts. For this, I direct you to an excellent essay entitled “The Thin Blue Lie,” written by one David Noriega for The New Inquiry in 2012. Noriega spent three years working as an investigator and a supervisor for New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board, the agency responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct against NYPD officers. His experiences reveal a glimpse at the internal politics of Stop & Frisk, and how the city sabotages adversarial agencies like the CCRB through a combination of coded language, systematic underfunding, and bureaucratic lethargy.
“The job of any investigator is to figure out who’s lying. NYPD officers lied constantly, but complainants lied all the time too...But there is a fundamental difference between a lying civilian and a lying police officer. When cops lie, they are part of a system of language that is integral to the state’s monopoly on violence...In cases without objective evidence like medical records or video, it was easier for investigators to accept an officer’s account of an incident because the cop’s language was far more likely to be consistent...If language is a weapon, cops were equipped with firepower and the training to use it, just as they were with actual guns. ”He goes on to say that:
“Because the agency has historically been understaffed, I often saw a deliberate short-circuiting of investigations, “fast-tracking” cases, or exonerating them without statements from all or even any of the officers involved. Often the rationale was that officers would likely repeat information conveyed by other officers in testimony or reports - essentially granting the police a presumption of consistency...The large majority of decisions made within the CCRB...were driven not by the goal of conducting full and fair investigations but by the desire to avoid more work.”The widespread apathy and foreboding that permeates agencies like the CCRB is crucial in ensuring Stop & Frisk's longevity, and is deliberately and rigorously enforced. The NYPD's “Thin Blue Line” between itself and the populace grows thicker with every passing day, directly in line with Mr. Noriega's statement that “the resources available to civilians are paltry in comparison to the power of the machine that surveils, controls, arrests, prosecutes and imprisons them.”
Correlation does not equal causation of course, and the comparisons between the NYPD and your average street gang or crime syndicate are far from tidy. Yet, however tenuous these links might be, collectively they serve well to demonstrate the zealotry, mendacity, and hypocrisy with which the department relentlessly pursues its goals, exhibiting behavior that brings them ever closer to becoming the very thing which they seek to eliminate. In a world where the NAACP and the ACLU are compelled to petition their grievances about tactics like Stop & Frisk and Stand Your Ground to the United Nations rather than to our own political leaders, prompting that body to in turn lobby the Obama administration about our nation's discriminatory legal practices, one must ask: in America, who watches the watchmen?