New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected to change how New York City operates.
His platform included an end to the city’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy, addressing the city’s increasing income inequality, and improving the quality of life for all New Yorkers.
Today, he delivered an honest assessment of the state of the nation’s criminal justice system in a speech that powerfully starts a conversation about how not only the NYPD and prosecutors must move forward, but all police departments in the nation.
De Blasio has personal reason to be concerned about the Eric Garner, Michael Brown and killings of other black men that have become commonplace in the US: his son is half African-American and could be the target of police abuse.
The mayor emotionally told the world how he has told his son “to take special care in any encounter he has with the police.”
It’s a conversation that no father should ever need to have with a son, but one that countless families of color are forced to address.
Mayor de Blasio sounded more like a father than a politician in his speech.
“Black lives matter… it’s a phrase that never should have to be said. But it does have to be said,” de Blasio said, noting the centuries of historical racism in the United States that persists to this day and adding that he “couldn’t help but think what it would mean for me to lose Dante.”
But the issue of racial injustice is greater than just Eric Garner. It is one of systemic bias against people of color: a criminal “justice” system that imprisons a full 1 percent of its population while consistently ignoring the abuse of power from politicians and police officers.
“Justifiable homicide” involving police officers has become epidemic. FBI statistics reveal that 461 Americans were killed by law enforcement last year alone. Amazingly, 3 percent of all murders in the United States came at the hands of police officers, the people who are meant to protect and serve the general populace. And these numbers only represent police departments that willingly disclosed the data.
The fears of protesters and Mayor de Blasio are clearly not without merit. Police killings of civilians and brutality not resulting in death are a serious problem that must be addressed.
The question becomes what to do about it.
De Blasio has announced that NYPD will begin a pilot program to wear body cameras.
While cameras are a good first step, they are not enough to hold law enforcement accountable. The Garner case and others show that even when clear cut video evidence exists to show excessive use of force, indictment of police is still darn near impossible.
Some have suggested that a mechanism address the issue either through a civilian accountability board or Internal Affairs. But these institutions are often toothless and rarely do more than slap an officer on the wrist.
Another problem exists in many states with elected judges and prosecutors. Political pressure — both from police unions and a “tough on crime” culture — disincentivize action against police officers.
Perhaps a special prosecutor specifically tasked with police abuse and public corruption should be appointed on a statewide level to handle local cases, removing potential biases between prosecutors and police. Even then there would be a risk that a statewide official, such as a governor, would have undue influence with such an appointment.
A legislative fix may also be necessary in each state to clarify an officer’s duty in a lethal force situation. A Supreme Court case, Tennessee v. Garner, has given wide latitude to law enforcement in cases where lethal force is used. The Nation explains:
The case involved a Memphis cop, Elton Hymon, who shot dead one Edward Garner: 15 years old, black and unarmed. Garner had just burgled a house, grabbing a ring and ten bucks. The US Supreme Court ruled that a police officer, henceforth, could use deadly force only if he “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” The ruling required that the use of force be “objectively reasonable.” How this reasonableness should be determined was established in a 1989 case, Graham v. Connor: severity of the crime, whether the suspect is resisting or trying to escape and above all, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others. All this appeared to restrict police violence—even if, in the end, Officer Hymon was never criminally charged for fatally shooting Edward Garner.
“Objectively reasonable”—what could be wrong with that? But in actual courtroom practice, “objective reasonableness” has become nearly impossible to tell apart from the subjective snap judgments of panic-fueled police officers. American courts universally defer to the law enforcement officer’s own personal assessment of the threat at the time.
The Graham analysis essentially prohibits any second-guessing of the officer’s decision to use deadly force: no hindsight is permitted, and wide latitude is granted to the officer’s account of the situation, even if scientific evidence proves it to be mistaken. Such was the case of Berkeley, Missouri, police officers Robert Piekutowski and Keith Kierzkowski, who in 2000 fatally shot Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley out of fear that the victims’ car was rolling towards them. Forensic investigations established that the car had not in fact lurched towards the officers at the time of the shooting—but this was still not enough for the St. Louis County grand jury to indict the two cops of anything.
Which brings us back to de Blasio, the mayor of New York whose response is refreshingly different from Rudy Giuliani, the city’s former mayor who instituted stop-and-frisk during his tenure. Giuliani chose to blame the victims of police violence, saying that “I think just as much, if not more, responsibility is on the black community to reduce the reason why the police officers are assigned in such large numbers to the black community.”
Giuliani has always had an “us versus them” view of the world. Giuliani’s administration treated people of color as criminals, institutionalizing racism in a policy that peaked in 2011 with 685,724 stops and a pitiful conviction rate of just 12 percent. More than 5 million New Yorkers were stopped during the first decade of the 2000s. The stop and frisk policy was ruled unconstitutional in 2013.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is beginning the process of undoing Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg’s misguided and racially biased policies. De Blasio dropped an appeal that Bloomberg had sought in the stop and frisk case and is working with the courts to implement reforms, including an outside observer to oversee the police department.
De Blasio has set a tone in his administration that black lives really do matter. Most importantly, he is putting those words into action. That’s a change that needs to extend beyond just New York City.