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.

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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.

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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.

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En Español

Policía y democracia

Para muchos neoyorquinos la era de “stop and frisk” ya es historia. No así para los sindicatos policiales.

Desde que un tribunal federal declaró que la práctica es inconstitucional —hace ya más de un año—, los gremios se han querido entrometer en un litigio del cual nunca fueron parte. Y siguen retrasando un proceso de reforma que ya debería haber comenzado hace rato.

El miércoles pasado, los abogados de tres sindicatos —policías, sargentos y detectives— intentaron convencer a jueces de un tribunal de apelaciones, de que sí, los sindicatos merecen ser incluidos en el pleito legal.

Pero en julio, la jueza Analisa Torres ya les había dicho —en un fallo de más de cien páginas— que no, que no existe ningún recurso legal que permita a los sindicatos intervenir en un caso que, de no ser por sus plegarias, ya estaría cerrado.

Los jueces de la corte de apelaciones se mostraron igual de escépticos.

“¿Quién controla el departamento de policía?”, preguntó el juez Barrington Parker a uno de los abogados de los sindicatos. “¿Es la PBA —sus clientes— o el comisionado?”

El juez John Walker prosiguió con los cuestionamientos: “¿Qué esperan ganar los sindicatos con esta apelación? La ciudad ya ha cambiado de posición. La NYPD ha cambiado de posición. El estatus quo . . . ya no existe”.

Durante un tenso intercambio con uno de los abogados, el juez Parker señaló que los sindicatos sólo querían meterse al litigio para obtener una “moneda de cambio” en sus negociaciones contractuales con la ciudad, lo que el abogado no negó.

Parker agregó que la ciudad ahora cuenta con un nuevo comisionado y un nuevo concejo municipal que quieren que la NYPD se comporte de manera diferente.

“Ese es el proceso democrático”, agregó. “Eso es algo con lo que se tiene que aprender a vivir”.

El juez le dio en el clavo al problema de los sindicatos. No es que sus representados no tengan derechos. O que no hagan bien su trabajo. O que todos actúen de forma inconstitucional. El problema es que los sindicatos quieren usurpar la voluntad del pueblo.

Porque fue el pueblo quien se opuso férreamente a la práctica de “stop and frisk”. Fue el pueblo el que se cansó de los abusos y de la discriminación racial. Y fue el pueblo el que le otorgó la victoria a Bill de Blasio para que hiciera eco de sus desaires e iniciara reformas a la policía.

Todas esas reformas siguen pendientes porque los sindicatos siguen entorpeciendo el proceso judicial. Y con cada minuto de obstrucción, los sindicatos se oponen a algo que la democracia ya decidió: que “stop and frisk” dejó de ser política pública al momento que Michael Bloomberg dejó de ser alcalde.

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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.

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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.)

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Civil Rights, Criminal Justice, New York

De Blasio’s perfect storm

Mayor Bill de Blasio won’t get a break. This week could be characterized as his worst since he took office.

Not because he did something wrong or didn’t do enough, but because his campaign banner, the civil rights of New Yorkers, has been trampled by a number of perfectly timed events.

The main one of all is the ongoing case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after a police officer applied a chokehold on him. The case is as white-hot as ever.

The Rev. Al Sharpton isn’t pleased. Police unions aren’t pleased. The Garner family is asking for justice. The young man who recorded the video, Ramsey Orta, and his wife, Chrissie Ortiz, were both arrested in separate incidents. The case is a media relations mess.

De Blasio, for his part, hasn’t said much.

Two reports that came to light on Monday did have much to say. The first one has to do with the NYPD’s controversial “broken windows” program, which targets minor offenses in hopes of deterring major crimes.

The findings of the report, published by the Daily News with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, revealed that the policy largely affects blacks and Latinos. Of the 7.3 million people who were cited or sanctioned for violations between 2001 and 2013, around 81 percent were minority residents.

Bill Bratton, the city police chief, has defended the practice. He himself implemented in 1990 when he headed the New York City Transit Authority, and later expanded it as commissioner under Rudy Giuliani. De Blasio has backed Bratton. And Sharpton, not to be outdone, has opposed both: he’s planning a march across the Verrazano Bridge to express his disapproval.

The other report was issued by the office of Preet Bharara, the Manhattan federal prosecutor. Bharara and his team investigated widespread abuses suffered by minors while in confinement at Rikers Island. Among the most egregious findings: Excessive use of force by guards; hundreds of youth treated for serious injuries; disproportionate use of solitary confinement; and lack of adequate supervision and resources to work with and tend to the needs of youth, many of whom suffer mental illness.

In other words, there is no rest for de Blasio in terms of civil-rights problems.

So far the mayor has received praise for how he handled the closing of the landmark stop-and-frisk and Central Park Five cases. But those were inherited conflicts. How he handles these new crises could very well end up defining the de Blasio era.

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

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