ALAA Weekly Organizer #56, January 7, 1992
Testimony at City Police Abuse Hearings
The following is excerpted from the November 21, 1991 testimony of Union President Michael Letwin at the New York City Human Rights Commission Hearings on Police and Community Relations. Letwin spoke in an individual capacity. (Footnotes omitted).
I am sure that the testimony before you will show that, like many other American cities, New York is in the midst of a rising and unchecked epidemic of police abuse, particularly in African-American and Latino inner-city neighborhoods.
Current national attention to such abuse is due in large part to the highly publicized beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles police.
In reality, however, police abuse has been a chronic epidemic in New York City for many years. In 1964, for example, a white police officer in Harlem fatally shot a fifteen- year-old African-American youth, setting off days of rebellion across the City.
In 1983, a Congressional Subcommittee held hearings in New York City on the problem. Since that time, Michael Griffith, Eleanor Bumpurs, Mary Stewart, Federico Pereira and many other residents have died at the hands of police in apparently unjustified circumstances. No less than 92.6% of those killed by New York City police officers in 1990 were African-Americans and Latinos.
We who are Legal Aid attorneys routinely encounter defendants who appear at arraignment sessions in bloodstained clothing, bearing lacerations, stitches, and/or bruises allegedly inflicted by police while in custody.
Tolerance for Abuse
The reasons for widespread police abuse are often discussed in terms of individual police officer prejudice or inadequate training. In reality, however, such pervasive brutality can be understood only in the context of much more fundamental institutional issues.
First, police abuse is at best ignored, and at worst condoned by the criminal justice system.
The governor has abolished the special prosecutor that once investigated police corruption and abuse, and the county prosecutors are too reliant on police cooperation and goodwill to aggressively pursue the overwhelming majority of police abuse incidents.
Both the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) are arms of the Department itself, and as such serve to sweep under the rug legitimate allegations of abuse, with the result that 98% of brutality allegations end without disciplinary action by the department.
Even as the cost to the City of brutality lawsuits rose to almost $10 million in FY 1991 from $6.3 million in FY 1990, the number of officers discharged for brutality fell from six in 1988 to none so far this year.
The judiciary has signaled its toleration of such abuse by acquitting police who commit abuse, and even murder, as in the recent bench trial of the officer who fatally shot African-American grandmother, Mary Mitchell. Despite the widespread evidence of unjustified police shootings, only one New York City police officer has ever been convicted of a homicide committed while on duty.
“War on Drugs”
Second, and more fundamental, is the use of the police and the criminal justice system generally to address serious social problems. The “war on drugs” is waged not on the poverty, racism and hopelessness that breeds drug abuse but, by treating drugs as a criminal rather than a health issue, actually encourages crime for crack and bloody turf wars.
As discussed in my law review article which accompanies this testimony, police drug war programs such as the Tactical Narcotics Teams (TNT) have not only been highly ineffective, but have brought with them routine and widespread police corruption, illegal search and seizure, indiscriminate arrest sweeps, frame-up of defendants, physical abuse and unjustified shootings.
The scope of such misconduct is reflected in the statement of a narcotics officer who recently told a prosecutor that officers lied about probable cause and planted narcotics on suspects in virtually every drug arrest made in the “drug prone” 34th precinct in Washington Heights.
These are not primarily symptoms of individual wrongdoing, but rather of a Vietnam-style “drug war,” complete with body count measures of “success” waged almost entirely on people of color in the inner city.
This “war” on the streets is only the initial criminal justice funnel which causes almost one in four young African-American men in New York to be in jail, prison, on probation or parole, a rate of Black incarceration higher than any other advanced industrial country — including South Africa
Most recently, the drug war is being used to justify the arming of all NYPD officers with Glock semi-automatic 9mm pistols, weapons whose heavy caliber, large magazine and hair bigger promises to result in a higher: rate of unjustified police shootings.
In short, it seems to me that using police to criminalize and militarize basic and intractable social problems is a guaranteed recipe for the perpetuation and escalation of routine police abuse.
Police abuse can only be seriously addressed when we adopt a sane and effective approach to the City’s problems that would:
1. Establish citizen review bodies, which include community residents, that are genuinely independent of the Police Department;
2. Establish a genuinely independent special prosecutor to pursue incidents of police abuse.
3. Decriminalize the drug problem and demilitarize the police;
4. Stop using the criminal justice system as a bludgeon against poor people, and re-direct attention now focused on manufacturing felony records and prison cells to drug treatment on demand, decent jobs, housing, schools, health care, social services, and to racial and economic justice.