On July 7, 2014, Eric Garner was murdered in Staten Island, New York City. After the police suspected him of selling cigarettes illegally and a verbal altercation ensued, they arrested him. The officers put him in a chokehold and pinned him down to the ground. All the while, Garner was gasping and crying out “I can’t breathe.” He said it eleven times, each time a little fainter and more desperate. Eric Garner, a father of 43 years old, was pronounced dead at the hospital an hour later…
On February 2, 2012, Ramarley Graham was murdered in the Bronx, New York City. Suspected of having a gun, he was chased into his house and shot in the chest by the police. Later pronounced dead in Montefiore Medical Center…
November 25, 2006. Sean Bell murdered in Queens by police on his wedding day. 23 years old…
January 24, 2004. Timothy Stansbury Jr. Fatally shot. 19 years old…1
In recent years there have been several high-profile cases involving fatal interactions between the police department and civilians. The national attention garnered by these cases, public outcry, and a general loss of trust in the police has led to changes of the regulations of the police department. Specifically in New York City, the Bill De Blasio administration has instituted many changes in policing, seeking to “avoid more tragedies like Eric Garner’s death.2 The administration has taken steps in both heightening policemen’s accountability and taking preventative measures.
One new directive currently being instituted is body cameras worn by the police. The plan is for every cop to be wearing one by the end of the 2018 calendar year. But it’s not that simple. With the introduction of something new to the system, many questions arise.
“Will these devices make law enforcement more accountable to the public or will they usher in a new era of surveillance, deception, and abuse? Who will have access to the footage and under what circumstances? How will judges, juries, and the public interpret what is recorded? How will the implementation of these programs be assessed for their efficacy in achieving accountability goals? What are the best policies to have in place to support those goals?”3
While it is hopeful that these body worn cameras, through their untouched footage, will increase transparency and accountability of policemen, there are also risks and other factors involved. There is the concern that the footage can be misleading, depending on when the policeman starts and ends the video. Secondly, the cameras might pose a problem in encroaching on citizens’ privacy rights. People don’t want themselves unknowingly videoed and posted online. However, the trauma can go a lot deeper than that. Cassandra Walker, whose son was shot by a police officer wearing a body mounted camera in Oklahoma, said, “I did not want to see my son being killed. That image would affect me for the rest of my life.”4 In addition, the expenses to equip and train the policemen are enormous. The budget is currently, in 2018, $5.9 million, and will increase to $12 million in 2019, and then $9.5 in 2020.5 The pros and cons must be weighed, and as the program accelerates and takes off, more evidence over whether it improves or exacerbates the system will be collected. However, with our limited vision and intuition now, it seems that the body cameras will prove effective for regulating the police force. There will not be a need to base court rulings on a person’s biased perspective. Instead, the footage will be untapped and unprejudiced. In addition, if the public has access to the videos it can spur real change. Perhaps that it why Eric Garner’s death engendered the biggest response (as compared to other cases of police brutality) and resulted in the most change. Maybe it was just coincidental timing. Or, it was because the public saw the scene. As the saying goes, seeing is believing.
Another new regulation by the De Blasio administration that increases accountability of policemen is the Right to Know Act. This act requires officers to state the reason for a search or a confrontation, as well as to inform the citizen of his/her rights to refuse a search. It holds “when the [citizen’s] consent is the only legal justification, and [the policeman must] obtain objective proof that a person gave informed and voluntary consent.”6 This new policy is aiming to “help end abuses in a range of non-emergency police encounters.”7 If the officer’s identity is known to the citizen, then he/she would be less likely to break the letter of the law.
There are also measures being taken to help avoid police-civilian confrontations before they occur. One of these methods is an increase in communication between community groups and the police force. This is to preemptively speak about issues that the neighborhood is facing or things that need improvement, as well as to increase and regain trust in the police department. This “gets to one of the roots of the current crisis: police practices that are not aligned with the needs and desires of their communities” and is coined “bottom up policing.”8 A 1999 study done by the Vera Institute of Justice, focused in the South Bronx, showed how effective communication between the neighborhood and the police force can be. The study focused on the police officers of two economically disadvantaged, “troubled neighborhoods” in the Bronx. The officers succeeded in reducing the amount of complaints and hostility against the NYPD. They did this without compromising law enforcement; the precincts had experienced the same declining crime rates as the rest of New York City during the 1990s.9 Along with changing the attitude and general manner of the police force, the police also developed a relationship with local ethnic and other types of organizations. While the police did not actively reach out, “it was clear that the commanding officers in the 42 and 44 precincts took a strong interest in managing community perceptions of the police.”10 When a need arose, the police were responsive. This proved to diffuse hostility and reduce complaints.
More recently, also in the South Bronx, the police have even taken a more active role in connecting to the residents. The NYPD developed a new program, part of which is to connect to the residents and rebuild trust in the police, while still enforcing the law. This program is being implemented in a few parts of the Bronx, including the 44th precinct. The overall vision is that there will be mediation before – and hopefully instead of – confrontation. The officers are “expected to attend community meetings, learn residents’ names and become familiar faces in the neighborhood.”11 They have even extended this so far as to hand out their cell phone numbers to residents. They also work off the clock, allowing them to mold their schedule around the community meetings and dangerous times of day. This new policing method, which has already reaped many positive results, has been a complete 180 from the previous years of confrontational policing and stop and frisk. One of the officer said that “it’s like trying to turn the Titanic… but slowly when people see the effectiveness of it, everyone’s going to come around.”12 And it seems like people are starting to do so.
Over all, there have been significant changes made to police protocol by the De Blasio administration. The NYPD is attempting to shift from confrontational approaches, like stop and frisk, to more effective and less hostile methods. In addition, policemen are kept in check by both body-worn cameras and the Right to Know Act. Eric Garner’s death proved that videos of police-citizen encounters can be invaluable and inspire major change. The murder of Ramarley Graham has proven to us that if he held the right to refuse the search, things may have been different. And if there was less hostility and confrontation between the police and the residents, who knows what would have happened with Bell and Stansbury Jr.. The past is the past, but the future is in our hands.
Listen here to Robert Rodriguez and Tamika Mapp discuss policing and other civil rights issues.