The United States | City Watch

New York grapples with a crisis of trust in its police force

01 April 2015
The collision between the Millions March and SantaCon, in Manhattan in mid December, occurred against a backdrop of rising race and class tension
Andrew Burton / Getty Images

ON THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON of 13 December, two large public events jostled for space in Manhattan. One was the Millions March, a peaceful demonstration of outrage at police violence against “people of colour”—most notably the fatal shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, in a suburb of St Louis in August, and the choking and subsequent death by heart attack of a 43-year-old black man, Eric Garner, in the New York borough of Staten Island in July. In both cases, the civilians were unarmed. Grand juries in Missouri and New York had recently refused to indict the white officers involved in their killings. Chanting “Black lives matter!,” the marchers wound through downtown streets to Foley Square, near City Hall.

Close by, revellers in Santa Claus suits and skimpy elf costumes stormed through the streets as part of SantaCon, an annual Christmas-time bacchanal. SantaCon began in the mid 1990s as a whimsical art stunt, but it has since swollen into a frenzy of drunkenness, part pub-crawl and part Mongol invasion. Inevitably, the protest and the party bumped together. Santas cut through the march; gnomes and elves searched for alternative routes to the next bar. Police officers flanking the demonstration looked on with amusement. But what could have passed as a brief comic respite became a point of friction. One white man in full red-and-white regalia berated a black female protester, telling her to “go get a job.” That jibe, overlaid with age-old racist and classist disdain, sparked great anger. Dozens of demonstrators started chanting not against the excesses of the police or the failures of the justice system, but against SantaCon.

It was a collision of words, and of worlds. The tottering merrymakers were mostly white and middle-class; the Millions March, while very diverse, was composed in significant part of black New Yorkers. During recent months of discontent in New York, the gulfs of race and class between these two groups yawned wide. The top one percent of the city’s earners, the majority of whom are white, account for 44 percent of its total income; meanwhile, a fifth of all New Yorkers—a disproportionate number of them people of colour—live in poverty. A 2012 study showed Manhattan to be more socially unequal than Apartheid-era South Africa. The police play a prominent and divisive role on the front lines of inequality, and, with their conduct now under massive public scrutiny, tensions between the force, the city administration and minority communities are coming to a head.

According to a January poll by Quinnipiac University, two-thirds of white New Yorkers approve of the job being done by the police, while 54 percent of black New Yorkers disapprove. Ethnicity and class are central to shaping experiences of police behaviour in the city. Escalating housing prices have pushed working-class and minority families into peripheral neighbourhoods. It is there that the New York Police Department—the largest urban police force in the world, with 34,000 personnel for a population of 8.4 million people—is most heavily deployed, and where residents such as Eric Garner face the brunt of police excesses. The NYPD’s aggressive use of “stop-and-frisk” tactics in these areas led to hundreds of thousands of black and Latino residents being searched, harassed and humiliated by the police until the practice was ruled unconstitutional, in August 2013. But the department still maintains its controversial “broken windows” policy (which it claims lowers rates of serious felonies) of cracking down on petty infractions in poor neighbourhoods while overlooking them in more affluent areas. Of the 179 people killed by on-duty NYPD officers since 1999, 86 percent were black or Latino (those communities formed just over half the city’s population in 2010); only one officer has ever been convicted in relation to these killings.

“The police are the face of a much larger and more aggressive system,” Mark Winston Griffith, the executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community group that has long pushed for reform of the NYPD, told me in February. “You can’t separate ‘stop-and-frisk’ and ‘broken windows’ from gentrification, from people being pushed out,” he said. “Explicitly and implicitly, a decision was made to push dark people out of the city, clean it up, and make room for a whiter, more affluent population. The police help enforce that vision of society.”

Garner’s death became a flashpoint after a video of the altercation leading to it, recorded on a bystander’s cell phone, went viral online. The grainy footage shows several police officers accosting Garner, accusing him of selling loose cigarettes. As the police struggle to handcuff him, one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, places Garner in a chokehold, and several others pin him to the ground for several minutes. Garner’s last words, clearly audible on the recording, were “I can’t breathe”—a phrase that became a protest slogan.

The grand jury ruling exonerating Pantaleo was announced on 3 December, and protests flooded the streets. Danielle Tcholakian, a city reporter for the news outlet DNAinfo, followed the demonstrators over several days. “There was a lot of yelling and highly charged emotions,” she told me, “but physical confrontations with the police were rare.” The protesters came from diverse backgrounds, she said, and shared a sense that they were part of a historic moment. “You could see many older people as well as teenagers. A lot of people I talked to had never been to a protest before. They were often black, long-time New Yorkers who had grown up here. One female protester told me her father had been an NYPD sergeant. She was quite emotional.”

The demonstrations continued for days. Their refrain “Black lives matter!” became so ubiquitous that Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, echoed it in an open letter to the city in the wake of the Garner ruling. In a later speech, de Blasio, himself white, described the fear he and his black wife have for their biracial son. “Because of a history that still hangs over us … we’ve had to literally train him—as families have all over this city for decades—in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”

These were strong words from a mayor, and did not sit well with many of the police officers he presides over. Patrick Lynch, the head of the city’s largest police union, accused de Blasio of throwing cops “under the bus,” and many within the NYPD described him as “anti-police.” So did detractors on the political right, glad to pillory the first left-of-centre mayor to run New York in 20 years.

“That was a surreal moment,” Griffith said. “Surreal not in what de Blasio said but in how the police reacted. What he said was not an anti-police statement. It was an acknowledgement of how black parents have to train their children to be safe in the city. The fact that he can’t say something as harmless as that tells you how far outside the mainstream the NYPD is.”

But many cops saw things differently. In their eyes, de Blasio had violated an unwritten pact. Responding to events in the New York Review of Books, the writer Michael Greenberg noted a sense that the police “believed themselves to hold an unquantifiable power over elected officials. Cops did the dirty work, they waded in the muck, keeping the poor and violent in check and monitoring the human detritus that is the result of inequities they’d had no hand in creating. In return, the politicians turned a blind eye to the excessive use of force.” Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio’s predecessor who served three terms in office, boasted of the department as “my own army.”

It got worse for de Blasio after a deranged man from Baltimore drove up to New York to murder two NYPD officers on 20 December. On social media, the killer seemed to suggest that he acted to avenge the deaths of Garner and Brown. Right-wing politicians blamed the anti-police protests for inciting the murders. Lynch singled out de Blasio. “There’s blood on many hands tonight,” he said on the evening of the killings. “That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the office of the mayor.”

Two days later, de Blasio delivered a eulogy at the funeral of one of the officers, Rafael Ramos, at a church in the borough of Queens. As he spoke, hundreds of officers in attendance turned their backs on him in protest. The gesture held an implacable power, and images of it ran in media across the country. Some officers again turned their backs on the mayor at the funeral of the second slain officer, Wenjian Liu, a few days later.

The public was not sympathetic. According to the Quinnipiac poll, 69 percent of New Yorkers disapproved of the apparent mutiny. A New York Times editorial lambasted the police for their “snarling sense of victimhood,” and for their insistence that “the department is never wrong, that it never needs redirection or reform, only reverence.” Even among the police, Tcholakian told me, the protest divided opinion. “The narrative in the media was that the cop protest was orchestrated,” he said. “My sources in the NYPD told me that it was not planned. It was an emotional response, not a political one.”

Still, de Blasio was bruised. In his “State of the City” address, an annual speech delivered this year on 3 February, he conspicuously avoided mention of police conduct, or the underlying matter of police reform. He spoke instead of the scourge of inequality, warning that “New York risks taking on the qualities of a gated community, a place defined by exclusivity rather than opportunity.” He did not explicitly link the politics of inequality to the present crisis of trust between the city and its cops, but there is little doubt he understands the connection—as do the police themselves. At the graduation ceremony of the city’s police academy in December, he offered his sympathy to young cops, saying “You will confront all the problems that plague our society, problems that you didn’t create.” A heckler yelled back, “You created them!”

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a collection of short fiction forthcoming from Aleph. His essays have appeared in publications around the world.