Several weeks ago, the NYPD pulled up on me and a friend while we were standing outside of my friend’s home. Four officers jumped out of an unmarked car. I guess they psychically knew that we were about to smoke a joint, though neither one of us actually had weed in our hands.
While searching us, one of the officers said, cynically, “It ain’t legal yet,” though the “it” was not found on us.
It was around 10 p.m. and I was too tired to assert my rights or to say that I was in a meeting with their commissioner earlier that week about NYPD’s plans to build community-police relations. We accepted the harassment, survived the interaction, and went to our respective homes to smoke our blunts in peace, like most white people who now claim Crown Heights as their home.
Police murders of unarmed people in America sprout from seemingly benign harassment like that which happened to me and my friend, a military veteran — like what happened to Eric Garner, who was strangled to death for bootlegging cigarettes.
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In August, California passed a law making it less legal for law enforcement to kill Black and Brown people such as Eric Garner. California’s recently passed Assembly Bill No. 392, described by some as one of the toughest standards in the nation for when law enforcement officers can kill, is progress. Known as the “Act to Save Lives,” the law removes barriers to prosecuting officers who unlawfully use lethal force. The new law also redefines when a peace officer’s use of deadly force is deemed justifiable, based on the totality of the circumstance.
The LAPD alone killed 172 people in 2017. This new law would presumably decrease that number because police will be able to use deadly force only when, based on the perspective of the officer, it is necessary in defense of human life.
Advocates such as Cat Brooks at the Anti Police-Terror Project are the architects of this new law, potentially setting a legal precedent to be replicated across the country.
Acknowledging the success of the efforts of these advocates can occur while we also question whether substantive progress has been made. Five years ago, more than 500 journalists, lawyers, medics, organizers, pastors, students, tech experts and videographers participated in what would be called the “freedom rides,” which were response to the murder of unarmed Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The group of freedom riders, along with the local residents of Ferguson, had a list of demands, including: “a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing, and schools. This money should be redirected to those … departments charged with providing employment, housing, and educational services.”
California’s new law doesn’t address that concern.
Rightfully, the Act to Save Lives regulates policing with impunity. Police will no longer easily get away with the “I feared for my life” script; they will have to prove after the murder or assault that a “reasonable officer in the same situation would believe that a person has the ability…and intent to immediately cause death or serious bodily injury to the peace officer or another person.” All of this substantiation would be done after the hashtag for this person is created and goes viral.
What is still to be tackled is the oversaturated deployment of police into communities of color.
Which brings me back to Brooklyn. This fall in the East New York section of Brooklyn, less than a mile from where I was harassed, the NYPD is opening its first stand-alone community center — a $10 million investment by the City of New York.
Now, positive police-community relations are a plus for any community, but it is not where we need to invest $10 million dollars in a community where in 2015, the rate of preterm births, a key driver of infant death, is the fourth highest in the city; the teen birth rate is higher than the city average; and the rate of elementary school absenteeism is eighth-highest in the city.
Social welfare is not a function of police training, nor is it a part of their corporate culture. More importantly, policing as a practice has a foundationally biased perspective of poor Black and Brown communities, and that is a truth we all should be honest enough to sit with.
The step after this acknowledgement is changed behavior. Listening followed by action.
Over the past year or so, I have been in roundtable conversations with a diverse array of actors in the criminal legal system. Organizers, directly impacted people, loved ones of the impacted, along with academics, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, elected officials, social workers, historians, cops, prison guards, and wardens — basically all the cogs in an irreformable and irreparable old steam engine.
The convenings are a part of a project that Bruce Western of the Columbia University Justice Lab called the “Square One Project.” The home page provokes the following scenarios:
Imagine neighborhoods soaring in education instead of arrests.
Imagine community groups leading the effort to end violence in our towns and cities.
Imagine a response to crime that brings communities together instead of breaking them apart.
The next Square One roundtable convening will take place in Detroit in October, and I also wonder, “can police imagine a community that does not rely on them as a dominant resource?”
In communities such as East New York and Ferguson, police-community relations are one problem of many: High unemployment, negative prenatal outcomes, bad water, dilapidated and unaffordable housing, and the list can go on. More of a police presence is not a solution to any of the above.
Emory University Sociologist Abigail Sewell asserts that “part of the solution may be to reduce police contact in the first place.” With that reduction can come abundant and sustainable investments in community-based organizations and individuals of expertise who reside in the projects and hang on the street corners — the community writ large.
Regulating the justifications for police use of deadly force is a commendable step in the right direction. The leap that communities like East New York need, however, is an investment in reducing the social determinants that give law enforcement the excuse to have a suffocating presence there.
Black and Brown neighborhoods do not need more overseers, or more state of the art smaller jails. We are capable of thriving without emphasis on our perceived criminality, and we are capable of taking care of ourselves, just like those in places like Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, or Carrol Gardens, once we are provided with the tools to deal with the tentacles of American racism, such as poverty, the distribution of money, and overpolicing. The “Seven Neighborhoods Study” produced by formerly incarcerated people in the 1990s found that there was a “direct connection between low income, racially isolated, underserved communities…and encounters with law enforcement that result in prison or death.”
Only time will tell whether the Act to Save Lives will have a measurable positive impact on police interactions with Black and Brown people. That new NYPD community center will come as a win for those focused on building a new paradigm for police-community relations.
But the academic and practitioner in me still thinks about Malcolm X, who famously said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” I know that police harassment is an underlying and extralegal blade that can be wielded at any time in the name of progress.
Yes, it is less legal to be killed by police, but I still feel the knife.