Power and Policing in New York City


NYPD Barriers, shot by Peter Miller (Flickr)

In New York City over the last few months, issues concerning law enforcement reform have been chaotic to say the least. At the beginning of January, a new bail reform law went into effect, eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. On January 31, following multiple documented incidents of police aggression against homeless and people of color in the New York City subways, there was a massive demonstration against the increased police presence in the subways and the $2.75 fare that most working-class New Yorkers struggle to pay. And on February 9, Robert Williams ambushed two New York City policemen in their marked van non-fatally injuring both officers, and then a few hours later opened fire in a Bronx Police Department Headquarters injuring one officer before surrendering. In the aftermath of the attack, the Sergeants Benevolent Association declared war on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his apparent support of criminals and bail reform over the lives of the police. Needless to say, the tensions between the New York City police, city government, working-class communities, and communities of color are extremely tense.

Not unexpectedly, conservative talking heads and politicians are adding fuel to the fire by fanning the flames under the Thin Blue Line rhetoric. Fox Nation’s Tomi Lahren argues that the recent incidents prove that the “NYPD, the men and women of law enforcement, the officers in blue, who put their lives on that Blue Line to protect us all are under attack.” According to Lahren, bail reform laws and protests against increased predatory policing against the poor and people of color has left “no doubt” in her mind that “the complacency and downright disregard for officers, public safety and law and order is to blame.” Lahren goes on to argue that “Thugs have been emboldened by the p— poor leadership of Bill de Blasio and his Democratic cohorts who cheer not for law and order, but against it, siding time and time again with thugs and criminals over the men and women of law enforcement whose sworn duty it is to stop mayhem and keep communities safe.” Donald Trump has also made his position on policing people of color in New York City clear in 2018 with his support of former New York City Mayor and current Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg’s racist stop and frisk program in Chicago.

While the rhetoric and tension against efforts at police and jail reform by the police, conservative politicians, and pundits against the New York City government, communities of color and the poor in New York City might seem unique for this period, that is not the case. As historian Clarence Taylor notes in his book Fight The Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City, since the 1940s, the New York City police and their conservative allies have consistently used fear and race baiting to curtail any attempts to limit policing power in New York City. Taylor argues that it would not be until the 1960s, after the 1964 Harlem/Bedford-Stuyvesant uprising, sparked by the murder of a young African American teenager named James Powell by a white off-duty police officer, that a public official would attempt to limit the power police had over the city.

In 1965, newly elected liberal Republican mayor John V. Lindsay ran on a campaign centered around the need to create a public review board that was free from police influence. Lindsay argued that “it was time for a change,” that the relationship between the police and the average citizen needed to be repaired. He stated that it was “time for us to exchange respect rather than to exchange insults…. But this will not happen until all of the people of our city feel and believe that they are being treated fairly.” Lindsay was aware of the distrust and tension that existed between Black New Yorkers and the police. For years Black communities had been complaining about corruption and violence by the New York City Police Department and the Department had been reluctant to fully commit to policing Black communities the way they did white ones. The Harlem/Bed-Stuyvesant uprising of 1964 had brought these tensions to the forefront of New York politics. Lindsay argued it was time to create a system that would hold police accountable and regain the trust of Black New Yorkers.

The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the Police union in New York City, and other conservative supporters of the New York City Police Department were quick to repudiate Lindsay’s plan. The PBA spent over $1 million to defeat the Review Board plan when it went to the ballot in 1966. It also sued to stop the Board’s formation. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president John J. Casese argued that “any police review board that has civilians on it is detrimental to the operations of the Police Department.” Public review of complaints against police officers would undermine how effectively the police could operate and police morale would plummet.

Race played a role in the PBA’s opposition to the Civilian Review Board. Casese accused the city of “yielding to the pressure of ‘minority groups'” and made it clear that he was “sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” He argued that “minority groups” “with their whims and their gripes and shouting” were not victims. Rather, it was Politicians and Black civil rights leaders that stirred up the trouble to gain votes. His racist attacks denied agency to Black communities and the African-American civil rights movement, while highlighting how deeply embedded racism was within certain areas of the New York City Police Department.

Not all police officers were against a civilian review board. Chairman of the City Commission on Human Rights, William H. Booth argued that many white policemen were in favor of the board. And the Guardians Society, the Black fraternal police organization, also expressed support of the Civilian Review Board. But Casese argued that “they put their color ahead of the duty of police officers.” With this claim, Casese drew a racial line within the NYPD. He made it clear that a police officer could be Black, but their race placed them on a different level from their white peers. Black police officers in this sense, were under constant surveillance by their white peers for any sign that they saw themselves as anything but a police officer.

Undoubtedly Casese saw the Civilian Review Board for what it was: an attempt to curb police violence and corruption in communities of color across the city. Police officers like Casese were afraid of losing the power they had and increased oversight, especially in Black communities under the guise of civil rights, was terrifying. Casese was clearly a racist who believed that it was the job of the New York City Police Department to contain communities of color from harming white communities and to even contain police officers of color from identifying with their communities.

Casese’s argument was shared by conservative writer and political thinker William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley argued that liberals and civil rights leaders were pandering to communities of color by accusing police of abuse. He denounced the Civilian Review Board and argued that any public oversight on the police would “encumber the police,” and that its creation was a “diversionary act” that would work to the benefit of politicians who “mistakenly believe that to endorse a civilian review board is to do a service to Negroes and Puerto Ricans.”  It was the “demagogic leaders” in the Black communities who “are flogging the Negro population in an attempt to make them believe that they are, as a race, the specially selected victims of a concerted police brutality.”  Buckley summed up his argument by stating that “If the police find yet another encumbrance is put in the way of duty, all of us will suffer who live within the reach of the criminal.” Buckley used this opportunity to shift away from the openly racists language that people like Casese and other conservatives within to the Republican Party used to describe criminal activity. Instead, Buckley, behind the guise of color-blind oratory, used coded language to imply who the criminals are and their impact on policing in New York City.

Lindsay was unsuccessful in his attempt to create a civil police review board. The PBA led by Casese was able to keep civilians off the police review board. It wasn’t until 1987 when the first civilian was allowed to participate on the board. In 1993, then New York City Mayor David Dinkins was able to create an all-citizens review board. In response, the PBA again used racist rhetoric and fear mongering in an attempt to reduce any civilian oversight. When this was unsuccessful, Dinkins faced a near coup by the PBA and their allies that helped to get Rudy Giuliani elected as mayor on an extreme anti-crime centered platform. Fifty years after Lindsay first made attempts to curb police power in New York City and heal racial tensions, the conservative talking heads and police union leaders continue to use the same racially coded fear mongering rhetoric to hold on to power in a city that desperately needs to find more humane solutions to keeping its neighborhoods and citizens safe.

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Willie Mack

Willie Mack is a PhD student at SUNY-Stony Brook. His research interests include 20th century U.S. history, race, capitalism, and carceral studies. He can be reached at willie.mack@stonybrook.edu

Comments on “Power and Policing in New York City

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    This article is well worth reading. It is a good reminder that history can illuminate prejudices that lurk in the shadows. It also reminds us of just how difficult finding solutions to the problems caused by poverty, and by the relationship between class and race, can be. In whose interest is it to police public areas? Well, that depends of whose perspective we take, doesn’t it?

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    Illustrates the centrality of racism in US history, a racism which is not simply
    the product of individual bigotry but the chief ideological and political
    weapon of the elite in maintaining its power.

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