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

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, New York

Manhattan appeals court chastises police unions over stop-and-frisk

A federal appeals court in Manhattan grilled lawyers representing police unions attempting to disrupt settlement negotiations following a landmark ruling that held New York City liable for constitutional violations against blacks and Latinos.

Three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit questioned the unions’ motives in seeking intervention so late in the litigation — a move that, in practice, has delayed implementation of reforms to the NYPD’s criticized stop-and-frisk policies.

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

U.S. Circuit Judge John M. Walker, Jr. was more pointed.

“What do you hope to gain in the appeal?” he asked. “The city has changed its position. The police force has changed its position. The status quo . . . is simply gone.”

That status quo was the city’s use of stop-and-frisk, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said is legal if conducted with reasonable suspicion. But for almost a decade, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Raymond Kelly endorsed the practice and defended it in court, denying that the city applied it in a racially discriminatory manner.

But in August 2013, after a lengthy trial, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional. The Bloomberg administration appealed the ruling, but Mayor Bill de Blasio — who won the election due in large part to his opposition to stop-and-frisk — dropped the appeal shortly after he took office. His administration quickly entered into settlement negotiations with the plaintiffs in the case.

Unhappy with the city’s change in position, the police unions got involved, claiming in legal filings that stop-and-frisk reform “burdened and besmirched” the force and its reputation.

In July, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres, in a 108-page decision, roundly denied the unions’ claims. 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.”

The judges at Wednesday’s hearing echoed many of Torres’ criticisms, and forcefully brought the unions to task for using the legal process to get a leg up in contract 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, as a result of last year’s election, the city was now under a newly appointed police chief and a newly elected City Council, and that both wanted the NYPD to operate differently.

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

Despite the appellate court’s skepticism to the unions’ arguments, this same three-judge panel — which also includes U.S. Circuit Judge José Cabranes — sent shockwaves through the legal community last year when it removed Judge Scheindlin from the stop-and-frisk proceedings, stating she had “ran afoul” of judicial code-of-ethics provisions by virtue of some interviews she gave in the media and other procedural considerations.

That order, which halted implementation of Scheindlin’s order pending appeal, was roundly criticized by legal experts and court observers, some of whom accused the court of inserting itself in New York City’s mayoral election. The court, apparently in response to the outcry, later back-tracked and issued a new opinion clarifying that Scheindlin had not engaged in misconduct, but stood by its decision to keep her off the case. The bizarre turn of events inspired an article in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.

A ruling on the police unions’ motion to intervene is expected later this year.

En Español

La tormenta perfecta

Siguen los baldes de agua fría para Bill de Blasio. Podría decirse que esta es su peor semana desde que asumió como alcalde.

No porque haya hecho algo malo o porque no haya hecho lo suficiente. Sino porque su bandera de campaña, los derechos civiles —causa que lo llevó a la alcaldía—, ha sido pisoteada por una serie de acontecimientos.

El más importante de todos es el caso de Eric Garner, el hombre estrangulado por un policía en Staten Island. El caso sigue al rojo vivo.

El reverendo Al Sharpton está enojado. Los sindicatos de la policía están enojados. La familia de Garner pide que se haga justicia. El joven que grabó el video de Garner, Ramsey Orta, y su esposa, Chrissie Ortiz, ambos fueron arrestados por incidentes aislados.

El caso se ha transformado en un desastre mediático. De Blasio, por su parte, no ha dicho mucho.

Dos informes dados a conocer el lunes sí han dado mucho de qué hablar. El primero tiene que ver con el cuestionado programa “ventanas rotas”, la práctica policial que permite la fiscalización de faltas menores —andar en bicicleta por la acera, orinar en público, beber al aire libre—, para así evitar o desincentivar delitos mayores.

El informe, dado a conocer por el periódico Daily News, arrojó que los más afectados por el programa son negros y latinos. De las 7,3 millones de personas que recibieron multas entre 2001 y 2013, alrededor de un 81% fueron minorías, según cálculos de NYCLU, la agencia de derechos civiles.

Bill Bratton, el nuevo comisionado policial, ha defendido la práctica. De hecho, fue él quien la implementó en 1990, cuando estaba a cargo de la policía de transportes. Después la expandió como comisionado del ex alcalde Rudy Giuliani. De Blasio, por su parte, ha apoyado a Bratton. Y Sharpton, ni tonto ni perezoso, se fue en contra de ambos: quiere organizar una marcha por el puente Verrazano para demostrar su desagrado. (El puente une a Staten Island y Brooklyn.)

El otro informe salió a la luz por medio del fiscal federal de Manhattan, Prett Bharara, cuya agencia investigó el maltrato que sufren jóvenes menores de edad en la cárcel de Rikers Island. La investigación encontró de todo: Uso excesivo de violencia por parte de los guardias; centenares de heridas de mediana y alta gravedad a raíz de peleas y enfrentamientos; uso desmesurado de aislamiento carcelario; y falta de supervisión adecuada y recursos para atender las necesidades de los adolescentes.

Es decir, no hay descanso para de Blasio en lo que respecta a los derechos civiles.

Muchos de los que votaron por él ya lo aplaudieron por cómo manejó el cierre de los casos “stop-and-frisk” y Central Park Five. Pero esos fueron conflictos heredados. Cómo maneje estas nuevas crisis podrían terminar definiendo la era de Blasio.

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

Civil Rights, Criminal Justice

The low-hanging fruit

Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, must work on weekends. Or so it seems.

On Sunday, his organization issued a statement about a mundane arrest in Staten Island—at least mundane in the grand scheme of New York City crime-fighting.

What was so special about the arrest? Nothing, except that the arrestee was Ramsey Orta, the 22-year-old who recorded the viral video depicting Eric Garner’s chokehold death.

The details of Orta’s arrest are unimportant because they’re irrelevant to the Garner case. But if you must know, he was arrested for illegal possession of a handgun. Orta, it turns out, also happens to have criminal record.

Of course, none of this matters. Had the arrestee been anyone else, Lynch probably would not have bothered with a press release, let alone on a day when most journalists aren’t paying attention.

But Orta is not anyone else. To Lynch, he is a “criminal” who “stand(s) to benefit the most by demonizing the good work of police officers.”

Lynch did not say what exactly Orta hopes to gain from the video. A book deal, perhaps. Or maybe a major iPhone sponsorship. Who knows. What is clear is that Orta’s act of recording Garner’s arrest is “demonizing” activity, despite court rulings—most recently from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit—that people have a right to do so under the First Amendment.

In law and politics, what Lynch did is called character assassination. More colloquially, Lynch went for the low-hanging fruit.

Orta is the low-hanging fruit because, in the event the Garner case goes to trial—either criminally against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who employed the chokehold, or civilly against the city—the star witness won’t be a person. It will be the video.

And it’s likely that Orta, as a matter of procedure, will be called to testify to “lay a foundation” for the recording. He doesn’t have to do it—anyone who was present can attest that the recording is an accurate representation of the events—but his naysayers will want him to do it. And heaven knows that any ace defense attorney representing Pantaleo or the city would be remiss to not bring up evidence of Orta’s prior bad acts. Not because they’re relevant to the case—they’re not, in any way imaginable—but merely to question Orta’s credibility. That the jury is not to trust anything he says because he is a “criminal.” Assassinate his character.

Again, all of the above is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the video exists and millions have seen it. That chokeholds are not permitted under NYPD policy. And lest we forget: that the New York City Medical Examiner has ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

Let the investigation and the administration’s response continue. Everything else is just a sideshow.

Civil Rights, New York

New chief of police, one big challenge

With the announcement that Bill Bratton will succeed Ray Kelly in heading the New York City Police Department, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio sent out a clear message: stop-and-frisk will continue.

In fact, many observers have already questioned whether Bratton is up to the task of what de Blasio promised on the campaign trail. But that’s not a reason to worry. At least not yet.

Stop-and-frisk has been legal in the United States since 1968, when the Supreme Court green-lighted it in the case Terry v. Ohio.

The decision was controversial because it was the first time that the high court allowed a lower standard than what the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution allows. Before Terry, all stops required probable cause, or enough circumstances to lead a police officer to the conclusion that a person was committing or had committed a crime. With Terry everything changed: now police only needed “reasonable suspicion,” a lesser requirement. And more ambiguous, too, because what’s reasonable for an officer may not be reasonable for another.

The Supreme Court knew that it was entering dangerous territory in legalizing stop-and-frisk. Earl Warren, the chief justice at the time—and former prosecutor and the author of a series of landmark criminal justice decisions—often made reference to the “resentment” that such detentions and searches elicited in minorities, the vast majority blacks.

Chief Justice Warren’s worry was evident. In his ruling, he ended up calling stop-and-frisk “a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment,” and that it was “not to be undertaken lightly.”

The words are almost prophetic, because it is precisely the levity with which the NYPD has conducted stops and frisks of blacks and Latinos that has ignited furor—leading up to several federal lawsuits, social mobilization, and a political campaign that positioned Bill de Blasio as the city’s new mayor.

But none of that ends the resentment. The implicit legacy of stop-and-frisk is a generation of youth that doesn’t trust the police, feels unprotected, and has lost faith in public institutions and their representatives.

A study published by the Vera Institute of Justice revealed interesting perspectives from about 500 New York City youths about their experiences with stop-and-frisk. The majority of them agreed that their neighborhoods don’t trust the police, that they wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting a crime, or that they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for help, even if they were the victims. In other words: insecure youth in a city that boasts about its safety.

That’s why Bill Bratton’s biggest challenge goes beyond what he decides to do with stop-and-frisk. Reverting how youth feel about the police is not achieved by simply reducing the number of stops; this is not a numbers game. (Numbers which, by the way, have decreased dramatically.)

Change is possible by forging bonds with communities, making them actors in the fight against crime. Change is possible by way of mutual respect and equal treatment. It’s possible by safeguarding the spirit of Terry, reminding the police that a person’s bodily integrity is sacred. It’s possible by reminding officers time and again that, under the law, no single person is more or less suspicious because of the color of their skin or the way they dress. That’s the least the Constitution requires of us.

Bratton has already had great success in New York and Los Angeles. This is his opportunity to do it again.

(A version of this column was originally published in Spanish in the print and online editions of New York’s El Diario.)

Civil Rights, New York

The beginning of the end of stop-and-frisk

Few people were paying attention, but last Friday a federal judge dealt what’s likely the final blow against stop-and-frisk, the controversial police practice of stopping and pat-searching without meeting the constitutional standard.

That’s right. Despite what you may have heard, stop-and-frisk is constitutional. The problem has arisen—and exploded—since the New York City Police Department began to ignore flagrantly and systematically the Supreme Court’s mandate: a police officer needs “reasonable suspicion” before stopping and frisking anyone. Any other standard is illegal.

But the debate of what the police may or may not do will soon cease. With Friday’s order, which dismissed a petition by Mayor Bloomberg to strike a judgment by Judge Shira Scheindlin—who determined that the NYPD did violate the constitutional rights of thousands of blacks and Hispanics—the case is over. The city sought to strike the judgment because, it argued, the judge was not impartial in her judgment, but unduly prejudged the facts.

The federal appellate court rejected the city’s argument. According to the court, Judge Scheindlin’s ruling still stands, even though it cannot go into effect until the appellate process ends.

What does this mean for New Yorkers? Procedurally, the case is still being appealed, but there won’t be oral arguments or an exchange of court documents between the parties until March of 2014.

This timing explains why stop-and-frisk has its days numbered. Mayor Bloomberg strategically sought an annulment of Judge Scheindlin’s order on ethics grounds before the end of his term in office. It was a last-ditch attempt to legitimize a practice that, in his view, has been a resounding success in reducing the city’s crime rate. Who cares about the constitutional rights of minorities.

But his request was denied, and now Bloomberg has no other legal avenue left to explore. The court forced him to wait to pursue his appeal until March. But since he leaves office on Dec. 31, that means the reins of the case belong to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who has promised to withdraw the appeal and launch deep reforms to stop-and-frisk.

There are other pending matters in the case, such as the removal of Judge Scheindlin—replaced by Judge Analisa Torres, who was recently appointed to the bench by President Obama—which has become a quasi-scandal in legal circles. And police unions have applied to the appellate court to join the case to defend the interests of police officers. But these are secondary matters.

What truly matters is that all legal efforts, social mobilization, and the promise of a new administration have coalesced perfectly in the fight against a practice that, without doubt, is unconstitutional. Friday’s order was the death blow.

It’s been a long process, but worth the while. The systemization of stop-and-frisk has its days numbered.

(A version of this column was originally published in Spanish in the print and online editions of New York’s El Diario.)