When President Trump recently encouraged police brutality in Long Island, it was nice that NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill – and other police leaders across the nation – voiced opposition. Mayor Bill de Blasio also predictably chimed in to chide the president and urge more work “building trust between police and communities.”
For the casual observer, it might have seemed like a moment of leadership.
But while de Blasio and O’Neill’s statements condemning the commander-in-chief’s wink-and-nod to police brutality are commendable, the problem is that their actual leadership has failed to stop continued abuses and brutality that New Yorkers experience at the hands of police under their command.
In fact, during the de Blasio administration, the NYPD has routinely failed to hold officers accountable for mistreating civilians. People of this city continue to suffer harm from those required to protect them, especially in communities of color and marginalized communities.
Despite lofty rhetoric and a million-dollar advertising campaign that is paid for by wealthy corporate interests to influence New Yorkers, the de Blasio administration has not delivered lasting, meaningful changes to end police abuses.
Homeless New Yorkers, including those in our organization Picture the Homeless, know all too well of the NYPD’s abusive policing. Many of our members have been forced out of public spaces – which they are entitled to enjoy as much as any other New Yorker – by police officers under threat of arrest, solely based on the presumption that they are homeless. Others have had their personal belongings – including birth certificates, social security cards, medication and Veterans ID cards – destroyed by NYPD and other city officials.
It has also come to light that even after our organization and others publicly pressured the NYPD to stop doing warrant raids in the middle of the night at homeless shelters during de Blasio’s first year in office, the NYPD continues employing the terrible practice into this final year of his term.
In the meantime, the NYPD consistently fails to hold officers accountable for brutalizing and unjustly killing New Yorkers. More than five years after Ramarley Graham was killed by the NYPD, trials against the two remaining officers charged by the department in his killing have still yet to be scheduled. More than three years after Eric Garner was killed by the NYPD, the officers responsible for taking his life remain on the force and have faced no discipline.
In police brutality cases that didn’t result in civilians being killed by officers, discipline has also been scarce.
These actions epitomize the lack of accountability for abuses and brutality against civilians that has long been a problem at the NYPD (and other police departments across the nation), and the de Blasio administration has done nothing to put an end to it.
In fact, in some concrete ways, de Blasio has taken us backward. His administration has misused state law 50-a to conceal information on misconduct by officers and how the NYPD fails to discipline them for it. The city has stopped providing information to the public on police misconduct that previous administrations – including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, no champion of police accountability and transparency – had released.
It’s no surprise that we see harsh, unfair, discriminatory policing by the NYPD continue. The de Blasio administration maintains its steadfast support for the discriminatory “broken windows” policing practices, like arrests for turnstile jumping and other offenses of poverty, that have been denounced in communities across the city and nation for contributing to inequalities and injustices.
The de Blasio administration has even failed to support basic, common-sense, best-practice police accountability reforms like the City Council’s Right to Know Act bills – which would require police officers to identify themselves and protect New Yorkers against unconstitutional searches – that can make a difference on the ground for New Yorkers targeted by abusive, discriminatory policing.
There has been some progress, a result of movements for change that utilized grassroots organizing, the courts and legislation to shift the landscape. The number of reported stop-and-frisks are down, at least on paper. Low-level marijuana possession arrests may have declined, but they have not ended as promised with thousands of New Yorkers still being impacted. Even with decreases in overall numbers, the same racial disparities exist, with black and Latino New Yorkers bearing the brunt of these hyper-aggressive policing practices.
The administration’s focus on improving training, instituting body cameras, and neighborhood policing amount to window dressing, not substantive reforms, especially when its policies, practices, and systems undermine accountability.
The de Blasio administration’s rhetorical opposition to Trump on the national stage, promotional declarations about neighborhood policing and training, and million-dollar advertising campaigns won’t deliver changes to end police abuses and brutality.
Jean Rice is a board member at Picture the Homeless, a citywide organization founded and led by homeless people.