Civil Rights, New York

What it means when police turn their backs

(This article was originally published on Fox News Latino.)

Public servants take an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and laws. From that solemn oath stems a police officer’s duty to serve and protect the public. The Constitution is merely a reflection of the will of the people.

The rule of law also flows out of the Constitution: the democratic order, public institutions, statutes and regulations, policing itself. Law and order exist because as society we have deemed vital to grant a shield, a weapon, and a salary to the men and women tasked with keeping it.

That’s why New York and the country shook when a deranged gunman shot and killed police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. When you threaten the life of a police officer, you threaten the rule of law itself. Everyone feels unprotected.

But we also feel unprotected when police turn their backs. That’s precisely what happened when scores of people in uniform—ostensibly in mourning over Ramos and Liu’s senseless deaths—turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio during the officers’ funerals.

Turning your back on the mayor is not a protest. A real protest is a legitimate part of the social contract, enshrined in the First Amendment right of free speech. Nothing stops an officer from freely expressing himself or criticizing political leaders when off duty, or in private with colleagues and family members.

But when a police officer—in uniform, armed, and bearing a shield that represents us all—stages an act of defiance in public and in front of an official elected by the public, there’s nothing legitimate or democratic about his actions. It’s insubordination. It’s a violation of their oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and laws.

Suppose for a moment that another lunatic with a gun, the kind that kills public officials, would’ve interrupted the ceremonies. Would any of the back-turning officers have bothered to make the ultimate sacrifice and protect the mayor? Would they even have noticed? Anyone worthy to bear the shield of the state stands at attention in time of crisis, not turn his back.

Which is why this spectacle should not be read through the lens of politics or opportunism; it is instead a constitutional problem. What happened in New York should be a cautionary tale for the United States. Is this the kind of force the country wants enforcing its laws, its ideals, its institutions?

The irony of this episode is that it finds its roots in another constitutional issue: the discriminatory application of stop-and-frisk tactics on New Yorkers of color. Last year, a federal court in Manhattan declared the NYPD’s application of such tactics unconstitutional. But police unions attempted to appeal the ruling, arguing in court that compliance with it dealt a blow to police morale and its bargaining rights with the city. A panel of federal appellate judges roundly dismissed those concerns.

It’s a troubling precedent nonetheless—the notion that police reputation and self-interest somehow trumps compliance with the Constitution. That it trumps the will of the people. The same people who put Bill de Blasio in power. The same people who grew weary of stop-and-frisk and simply asked for fairer treatment from those who took an oath to serve and protect them.

If police turning their backs on an elected leader—on the people—doesn’t get us to rethink the kind of men and women we want defending everything we hold dear, then nothing will.

Civil Rights, New York

Dante and democracy

(A version of this post first appeared at Latino Rebels.)

It’s all Dante’s fault.

Were it not for his son, Bill de Blasio would probably not have won New York City’s Democratic primary, let alone the mayoralty. And the mess that boiled over last week between the mayor and the NYPD would’ve never happened.

Dante—or rather, the political ad featuring him—was a hit with New Yorkers because of his massive afro, his likeability, and his message on a controversial police tactic.

“He’s the only one who will end the stop-and-frisk era that unf airly targets people of color,” he said in the ad, echoing his father’s unflinching stance on discriminatory policing.

The ad was a smash because it not only captured de Blasio’s policies within the context of family life, but also because Dante looked like many of the thousands of minority youths who were subject to suspicionless stop-and-frisk tactics during the Michael Bloomberg years. When New Yorkers saw Dante, they saw themselves.

Today, police unions and a subset of the NYPD have gone to war with Bill de Blasio over Dante. They have other grievances, too, but they specifically felt the mayor threw them under the bus when he decided to bring up “the talk”—that uncomfortable but necessary conversation nearly every parent or father figure to a young man of color has had over potential dealings with police.

Dante is “a good young man, a law-abiding young man, who would never think to do anything wrong,” said de Blasio at a news conference following the non-indictment in the case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in a chokehold banned by NYPD policy.

“And yet,” the mayor said, “because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face—we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”

These were not fighting words; they were never meant to be. They were simply a candid acknowledgment of a painful reality for many New Yorkers of color, at a moment they needed to hear their lives mattered—and that leaders, institutions, and the rule of law were not out of touch with their suffering.

The speech was a mere repeat of Dante’s ad message: how to roll in a city where it seems the law somehow treats minorities unfairly. De Blasio merely repackaged it live, raw, and uncut. It was the message that won him a majority of the votes and the mayoralty.

But it hit a raw nerve with police unions. They took de Blasio’s personal narrative and distorted it as an attack on police—a “broad brush” that, in the words of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch, “laid on the shoulders” of the NYPD the weight of a history of racism.

Of course, de Blasio’s remarks did none of that. He was speaking to his constituents—the same New Yorkers who identified with Dante and are still grappling with the legacy of stop-and-frisk, “broken windows” policing, and a non-indictment that, even to police supporters, seemed unwarranted. That’s what political actors do in times of crisis.

Lynch missed out on all of this, or at least pretended to miss out on it; he’s also a political actor. The big difference is that he’s not beholden to the Constitution or the interests of the public, but to his own and those of the officers he represents. To Lynch, any crisis is an opportunity—to score points, to secure a contract, to win reelection. He’s as much a politician and a public-relations expert as anything else.

And because he’s those two things, Lynch won’t say if he was the one behind a group of rank-and-file officers who turned their backs on de Blasio at officer Rafael Ramos’ funeral. But his specter remains. And it seems his campaign is working: the NYPD appears to have staged a quasi-walkout, refusing to keep law and order “unless absolutely necessary,” whatever that means.

At this juncture, the only question left for New York City as it heads into 2015—and by extension, America—is whether this is the caliber of men and women it wants enforcing its laws. Because police took an oath to defend the Constitution and to serve and protect people like Dante. And voters gave Bill de Blasio a clear mandate to do just that.

If police find democracy so inconvenient that it’s worth turning their backs on it, they’ve renounced their oath. They have no business bearing an arm and a shield given to them by the people.

En Español

Cuando la policía nos da la espalda

(Una versión de esta columna fue publicada en la edición impresa y digital de El Diario.)

El deber más importante de un servidor público es defender la Constitución de su país. De allí es que nace la labor primordial de un policía: proteger y servir al pueblo. La Constitución no es más que un reflejo de la voluntad del pueblo.

Desde esa misma Constitución se desprende el Estado de derecho: el orden democrático, las instituciones, las leyes y reglamentos, la policía misma. Las fuerzas del orden existen porque como sociedad hemos decidido armar, uniformar y remunerar a un grupo de hombres y mujeres para que lo mantengan.

Es por eso que la muerte de los oficiales Rafael Ramos y Wenjian Liu sacudió a Nueva York. Cuando se atenta contra la vida de un policía, se atenta contra el Estado de derecho. Todos nos sentimos desprotegidos.

Pero igual nos sentimos desprotegidos cuando la policía nos da la espalda. Eso fue lo que ocurrió el sábado cuando decenas de uniformados —supuestamente de luto por la muerte de Ramos—, le dieron la espalda al alcalde Bill de Blasio durante el funeral del fallecido oficial.

Lo que hicieron estos uniformados no fue una protesta. Una verdadera protesta es parte legítima del contrato social, consagrada en el derecho a la libre expresión. Nada le impide a un policía expresarse y criticar a una autoridad cuando está fuera de servicio o en conversaciones privadas con colegas y familiares.

Pero cuando un uniformado, dotado de un arma y una insignia del Estado, se rebela en contra de un líder elegido por el pueblo en un acto público, su actuar no tiene nada de democrático. Es insubordinación. No es nada más y nada menos que una renuncia a su compromiso a resguardar la ley y el orden.

Imagínense que un maniático hubiese irrumpido en la ceremonia fúnebre, pistola en mano. ¿Habrían estado dispuestos los manifestantes a dar la vida por el alcalde? ¿A protegerlo del peligro? Lo más probable es que quizás ni se habrían percatado del riesgo. Un agente del Estado da la cara en tiempos de crisis, no la espalda.

La ironía de todo es que el show mediático que causó la policía neoyorquina el sábado es un capítulo más de una batalla campal que comenzó cuando De Blasio asumió el cargo. Porque fueron los votantes los que se cansaron de “stop and frisk”, una práctica discriminatoria e inconstitucional. Y fueron los votantes los que le dieron el poder a De Blasio.

Ahora esa misma promesa de campaña se ha vuelto en una espada de doble filo: la policía la está usando en contra de la voluntad del pueblo. Aquella mayoría que sólo pedía un trato más justo de sus fuerzas del orden.

En Español

El regreso de Dante

Bill de Blasio jamás hubiese llegado a la alcaldía de Nueva York de no ser por el empuje que le dio su hijo Dante en la primaria Demócrata. Fue la estrella de la campaña.

Y al momento de saberse que un jurado de Staten Island no formularía cargos por la muerte de Eric Garner —el afroamericano que sufrió un paro respiratorio tras ser estrangulado por un policía—, Dante volvió a ser la estrella de su padre.

Pero esta vez no fue Dante quien le habló a los votantes de su padre. Su padre habló de él.

Y es que fue tal el desconsuelo y la frustración que causó el anuncio de que el oficial Daniel Pantaleo no enfrentaría a la justicia, que lo único que pudo hacer de Blasio fue dirigirse al pueblo en un tono familiar. No era tiempo para hablar de políticas, de reformas, de procesos legales, de lo que ha hecho y no ha hecho su jefe de policía, William Bratton.

Era tiempo de sincerarse. Y de hablarle a los neoyorquinos sin libretos y con la mano en el corazón. No como político —aunque es posible que sus dichos se lean como cálculo político—, sino como padre de un joven alto, imponente y de tez oscura. Un joven casi de la misma edad y tamaño que Michael Brown.

“Dante es un buen joven, cumple con la ley”, dijo de Blasio. “Jamás se le ocurriría hacer nada malo. Pero aun así . . . hemos tenido que entrenarlo —de la misma forma que lo han hecho otras familias por décadas— en cómo cuidarse si llegara a tener un encuentro con la policía, la que existe para protegerlo.

“Esa es la dolorosa contradicción con la que se enfrentan nuestros jóvenes: que la policía está aquí para protegernos . . . pero que a la misma vez hay una historia que tenemos que vencer. Porque muchos de nuestros jóvenes tienen miedo. Y muchas de nuestras familias tienen miedo.

“Así que con los años me he preocupado. Chirlane se ha preocupado. ¿Está Dante a salvo cada noche? Hay tantas familias en esta ciudad que se preguntan todas las noches, ¿está mi hijo a salvo? Y no sólo a salvo de las dolorosas realidades —como el crimen y la violencia en nuestros vecindarios—, sino de aquellas personas en las que tienen fe que las protejan. Esa es la realidad”.

Y con eso, de Blasio dijo lo justo y necesario. Podría haberse referido a los lazos del fiscal de Staten Island, Daniel Donovan, con la policía local. Podría haber mencionado las irregularidades del proceso legal. O de la presión política que ejercen los sindicatos policiales en esta clase de casos. O de sus planes de implementar un sistema de cámaras corporales para el NYPD. O de lo mucho que le falta para eliminar la discriminación racial.

Pero nada de eso habría consolado a la familia de Eric Garner, a la ciudad o al país. Por eso sólo se limitó a expresar sus condolencias. A valorar la vida de los afroamericanos. Y a recordarle a los neoyorquinos del hijo en el que muchos se vieron reflejados cuando votaron por él.

Civil Rights, Criminal Justice, New York

SNL on pot: Off the mark

Thanks to Saturday Night Live, now everyone is up on New York City’s new marijuana policy. If you missed it, here’s the clip.

Now that was funny.

And legally, it was correct: From now on, merely possessing less than 25 grams of weed in public won’t get you arrested. But it will get you a summons, and you’ll have to take a trip to court and pay a fine.

The last part of the video is also correct: Smoking it in public will land you in lockup.

Treating smoking differently probably makes sense from a public-policy perspective; New York City likely has an interest in keeping the air unobstructed and family-friendly for tourists and visitors.

But there’s a fundamental flaw with the video—a detail that, it turns out, is also a key problem with the new pot policy as a whole: Arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana is chiefly an issue affecting blacks and Latinos, not well-off New Yorkers residing in gentrified areas of Brooklyn.

In the SNL clip, nearly all of the residents awakening to the “new day” of marijuana policing are affluent, light-skinned men and women residing in beautiful, late-19th-century brownstones. The neighborhood looks a lot like Park Slope or Prospect Heights.

That’s a fiction because that’s not the kind of crowd marijuana enforcement has hit hardest. A report issued by the Drug Policy Alliance last month showed that 86 percent of arrestees for pot between January and August—the Bill de Blasio era—are black and Latino. The rate of arrests for whites in the same period was only 10 percent.

The kicker, though, is that the vast majority of arrestees weren’t flaunting the pot in public; they either had it tucked in their pockets or stashed in their cars or belongings. All of this was legal, even before the new mayor took office.

But because of stop-and-frisk and “clean halls,” which subjected hundreds of thousands of young people of color in poorer neighborhoods to unjustified detentions and patdowns, the pot—like magic—appeared in plain view. And once visible to police, it suddenly became a criminal offense.

This, of course, carried a bevy of consequences: a criminal record, difficulty obtaining employment, loss of public benefits and housing, and no more financial aid to pay for school. None of this had an impact on more affluent white kids, even the unlucky few who did get caught.

Which is why the shift to a summons for possessing marijuana is not necessarily better for minority youth. It’s not better because even paying a fine or missing a day’s work can have untold effects. And worse, who’s to say that the NYPD won’t continue targeting young men of color.

A class-action lawsuit pending in federal court in New York contends exactly that: that police issued in excess of 700,000 summonses without any kind of probable cause, just for the sake of meeting quotas. If a judge rules in the class’s favor, there’ll be more reason to doubt the good intentions behind issuing summons for mere pot possession. As it stands, the summons system is a mess.

With so many lingering questions about the new policy, perhaps it’s time New York underwent true marijuana reform, including fairer policing, a more streamlined summons system, and—why not—decriminalization once and for all.

Until then, New Yorkers of color will have little reason to laugh at a dreadlocked Woody Harrelson carrying a bong in public.

En Español

Marihuana: Falta mucho por hacer

(Una versión de esta columna fue publicada en la edición impresa y digital de El Diario.) 

Muchos aplaudieron cuando Bill de Blasio y William Bratton anunciaron que, a partir del lunes, ya no se detendría más a personas que posean cantidades menores de marihuana.

El cambio es positivo, pero no suficiente.

Bajo el antiguo sistema, un arresto podía conllevar a toda clase de pérdidas: de trabajo, de vivienda pública, de ayuda financiera, de otros beneficios sociales. Para indocumentados, un arresto podía significar hasta la expulsión del país.

Pero la nueva propuesta no es necesariamente mejor.

Cuando un joven es citado a corte por algún improperio —por orinar en la vía pública, por ejemplo—, una leve equivocación puede costarle caro. Más caro que la posible multa.

No presentarse podría resultar en una orden de arresto. Una orden de arresto podría resultar en un fin de semana en la cárcel si la policía se llega a enterar. Y un fin de semana en la cárcel significa pasar un lunes frente a un juez.

Pero allí no acaban las consecuencias.

Un lunes o cualquier otro día frente a un juez significa un día de trabajo perdido. Eso significa menos dinero para pagar la multa. Algunos hasta pierden el trabajo. Todo esto contribuye al ciclo de pobreza al que están sujetos millares de latinos y afroamericanos, por décadas los más afectados por políticas en contra de la marihuana.

Pero otras interrogantes surgen con el nuevo plan. ¿Quedará la multa registrada en el historial de la persona? ¿Qué consecuencias habrá en otras áreas, como en la obtención de empleo o de beneficios municipales? ¿Afectará a jóvenes que buscan ayuda financiera para costear su estudios?

Tampoco se ha informado si habrá una modernización al sistema de citaciones. En la ciudad de Nueva York, es sencillísimo pagar una multa por estar mal estacionacionado: se puede hacer por correo o vía Internet.

No así en el caso de faltas menores. Hoy por hoy, cientos de personas se ven obligadas a acudir a diario a Summons Court, el juzgado a cargo de estos cuasidelitos. El proceso es tedioso, toma horas, y parece más burocracia que un lugar apegado al derecho y el debido proceso. Agregar cientos de nuevos imputados a las largas filas no mejorará las cosas.

Pero esto último se presta para otra clase de abusos. De no haber un control adecuado que resguarde el derecho de las personas, ¿quién se preocupa de que el NYPD esté haciendo su trabajo correctamente? ¿Hay forma de que una persona se oponga a la legalidad del ticket? ¿Y qué si el oficial discriminó a la persona en base a su raza?

No es secreto que la ciudad de Nueva York penaliza más a latinos y afroamericanos por el consumo de marihuana. La nueva política de De Blasio sobre el tema no asegura que nada de esto cambie.

Quizás la solución es despenalizar la marihuana por completo.

Civil Rights, New York

Law and disorder

In many New Yorkers’ minds, the era of stop-and-frisk left with the prior mayor.

The practice was ruled unconstitutional. Bill de Blasio was elected in large part because of his opposition to it. Its use by police has fallen dramatically. Plaintiffs in the federal case reached a settlement with the city.

None of this seems to matter to police unions. Or maybe it matters too much.

Last week, lawyers representing patrolmen, sergeants, and detectives’ unions tried to urge a federal appeals court in Manhattan to let them intervene in settlement negotiations between the city and the plaintiffs—the very method the parties chose to bring about stop-and-frisk reform. Thanks to the unions’ legal maneuverings, the process remains stalled.

The appellate judges hearing their pleas were unimpressed. And largely skeptical.

“Now, who controls the police department?” asked U.S. Circuit Judge Barrington Parker, Jr. at one point. “Is it the PBA—your clients—or the commissioner?”

U.S. Circuit Judge John M. Walker, Jr. cut to the chase: “What do you hope to gain in the appeal? The city has changed its position. The police force has changed its position. The status quo . . . is simply gone.”

This kind of chastisement was nothing new for the unions. In July, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres issued a 108-page ruling denying their plea to intervene as defendants in the case. She gave short shrift to their arguments that the original decision declaring stop-and-frisk illegal “burdened and bersmirched” the force and its reputation.

Torres wouldn’t have any of it. She ruled that the police unions’ request was untimely, that the unions had no legal “standing” to join the lawsuit, and that they had “no significant protectable interest relating to the subject of the litigation.”

In other words, too little too late. Judges at the appellate level echoed many of Torres’ criticisms.

Perhaps the tensest moment in the two-hour hearing came when Judge Parker brought up the fact that police unions were still without a contract, and that the whole purpose of this after-the-fact intervention was to get a leg up on negotiations with the city.

“You’re using this motion to intervene to try and accumulate chips,” Parker told Joseph A. DiRuzzo, an attorney representing the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the Captains Endowment Association, and the Lieutenants Benevolent Association. “You want to use this proceeding as leverage in your collective bargaining, and I don’t think that’s permissible.”

Parker said that the city is now under a newly appointed police chief and a newly elected City Council, both of which want the NYPD to operate differently.

“That’s the democratic process,” Parker said. “That’s something you have to live with.”

And with that, the same appellate court that last year sent shockwaves through the legal community—such that its transgressions were documented in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics—may have atoned for its sins and given New Yorkers a sense that it just might rule in accordance with the people’s wishes.

Because, in the end, the stop-and-frisk saga was and is all about constitutional rights and democracy. It’s not about the unions’ bargaining rights or the force’s safety, performance, or reputation. Every moment the unions spend arguing it’s about any of those things, they’re opposing the will of the people.

Because it was the people who grew weary of stop and frisk. It was the people who could no longer tolerate further racial profiling and abuse. It was the people who marched, protested, and pressed their elected officials to pass legislation aimed at curbing discriminatory policing. And ultimately, it was the people who voted for de Blasio to settle the years-long litigation and initiate reforms to the NYPD.

All of those reform efforts are for now suspended. And will be for as long as police unions insist on fighting democracy.