“How Do We Have a Healthy Police Force?”: Inside a Community Meeting Dealing with Police Brutality

(Photo: Prospect Heights Democrats For Reform)

Last night in Clinton Hill, the Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform—a community organization that tries to affect policy in the Democratic Party and encourages locals to run for office—held a public meeting to encourage discussion about police-community relations in light of recent protests over police brutality and use of lethal force. Activists, attorneys, politicians, and a diverse crowd of residents from a variety of Brooklyn neighborhoods including Fort Greene, Sunset Park, and Prospect Heights met at the Jack, a new independent theater and event space. No police officers or representatives from the NYPD were present.

One longtime Brooklyn resident summed up the feelings of most people at the meeting: “We are past the point of people rolling on the ground wearing ‘hands up’ T-shirts. We need to do something because we are not moving any further.” The  woman recalled a time in 1968 when a police officer killed a local homeless man: “And we still don’t have a cogent answer for all the bodies that have followed him.”

The only thing that has changed, one activist reasoned, is that, “White people are more aware of the volume of police brutality.” A criminal defense attorney agreed: “Years ago, when we talked about police brutality, the audience was all black. We should be encouraged because we have unity here, we have diversity. But as a black man with black sons, I’m concerned.”

“It’s important to express these emotions,” said Ede Fox, Director of the Economic and Community Development Division at City Council. “This might get a little heated.” Nearly everyone in the room was given at least a few minutes to speak, and most voiced their frustrations with the police and Commissioner Bratton. Some criticized the mayor.

But even within a crowd of people who were agreed upon the fact that police brutality is a real problem requiring some sort of action, there were still major contentious points. First, about half the crowd expressed their belief that the police commissioner should not be an appointed position. Most counties across the United States, including many in New York state, have sheriffs—elected officials that ostensibly answer to tax payers. One outspoken audience member reasoned that if Bratton were an elected official, the Broken Windows policy could be ousted.

One younger woman challenged the idea that policy could result in real change. “The problem is racism, so policy debates won’t help,” she argued. “We tend to take race out of the conversation because it tends to shut the conversation down. But if we don’t talk about race, I don’t know what we’re talking about.”

Others argued that existing training that encourages stereotyping of ethnic and religious communities was the base-level problem, and reasoned that with sensitivity training and “anti-racist” education, brutality would decline.

One man staked his position that “the solution to every problem is not more or better policing,” instead, money should be invested in better schools and after-school programs. “I don’t even see the point in having a discussion with the cops […] it’s a political problem,” he said.

Akiko Ichikawa, an active member of Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform, agreed: “Their job is not to listen to individual people, it’s to listen to the higher-ups.”

A common issue voiced by members of the crowd is that many police officers do not live in the communities they patrol. “The cops couldn’t live here and do what they do without retribution,” one woman reasoned. “I don’t feel comfortable around the police, though I do feel relatively safe as a black women—they are not known for killing us. Instead my brothers and fathers are being incarcerated.”

“It is a culture that is divorced from us,” another man argued. “A lot of [police brutality] has to do with identity and roles. It’s a certain segment of society that doesn’t live in town, but they come in as an occupying army to enforce their values.”

So then would community policing be the answer?

Bina Ahmed, a State Island public defender with the Legal Aid Society whose office worked on the cases brought against Eric Garner before he was killed, raised serious doubts about whether the system could be fixed at all. “The system isn’t broken,” she said. “It’s operating as it should.” Ahmed argued that the criminal justice system was designed to put people of color behind bars.

She spoke from her experiences defending victims of police brutality. “These aren’t sparse examples, they are routine—[brutality and lethal force] are built into the system. Judges are complicit.” Ahmed argued that it was nearly impossible to have a fair trial because of the close relationships between public prosecutors, judges, and the police. “They don’t want to prosecute one of their own,” she said. “And de Blasio and Bratton are not our friends either. De Blasio campaigned on wanting to end stop-and-frisk and then he brings in the architect of stop-and-frisk.”

She added: “And these are not just a few bad apples. This is how the system works.”

A few people voiced extreme frustration with what they understood as Ahmed’s defeatist standpoint. Ede Fox insisted on confronting the criminal justice system as it is now. “We do have a police force,” she said. “So how do we have a healthy police force?”

For most of the night, a few representatives from important offices—City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James—sat listening to public opinion. Then, toward the end of the meeting, the Public Advocate walked into the room and stole the scene. After patiently waiting for the conversation to wrap up, she took the opportunity to offer her perspective. The room fell silent.

“I believe in the NYPD, I have family members in the NYPD,” she said. “I don’t believe the majority of them are racist.”

James recalled her experiences working as a public defender. “I know exactly what these kids are going through every day. And I understand that secrecy breeds suspicion and that it’s the government’s duty to make sure things are transparent.” She emphasized that is the impetus behind her efforts at reform, including her spearheading of the campaign to equip police officers with body cameras. “Right now 60 cameras are in use across the city,” she said, adding that her work wasn’t done. She would also march with the ACLU, NAACP, and Legal Aid Society on January 29th to demand the grand jury records from the Eric Garner case be unsealed.

Training was another reform effort James emphasized. “I found out recently the vast majority of police officers have been on the force for less than 12 years, so all they know is the quota-driven system. Stop-and-frisk has been drilled into their heads,” she said. “They need to be retrained from top to bottom.” James also called for a demilitarization of the police. “There’s no need for those sort of weapons on the streets of New York City, or any other urban center.”

The Public Advocate also explained how she is working with the Attorney General to push for the appointment of a special prosecutor to oversee cases of police brutality and use of lethal force because of what she called “an inherent bias” amongst public prosecutors when it came to cases against cops.

Though many of James’s policy initiatives were in-line with the protestor’s demands, she held back on some talking points in favor of vague pronouncements. She acknowledge the existence of a “criminal industrial complex,” that is clearly visible: “All you have to do is drive up I-87.” And though Broken Windows was a major issue throughout the night, James did not break with the mayor by criticizing the police tactic. But she implied that a return to prior policing practices could result in a lower number of petty arrests and lessen tension between neighbors and the police who patrol the neighborhoods. “Removing housing police was a major mistake,” she said. “Because everyone [in public housing] said, ‘I knew my housing police officer.'”

“The protests have been mostly good,” she said. “But now is the time to talk about reforms.”

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