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The NYPD’s Race Issues Go Far Beyond Ugly Facebook Rants

Donna Lieberman,
New York Civil Liberties Union
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December 7, 2011

Apparently, a lot of NYPD cops don’t like working the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, and they vented their disdain for the annual event in a deeply insulting and racist Facebook rant.

According to The New York Times, officers called parade-goers “animals,” “savages” and “filth” in a lengthy series of offensive posts. “Drop a bomb and wipe them all out,” one commenter suggested of the revelers, who largely hail from nearby neighborhoods of color.

This is appalling stuff. It’s shocking that police officers would spew such hateful bile about the people they are supposed to protect and serve. Naturally, news of the Facebook diatribe has sparked angry calls for an investigation and stern discipline of the officers involved.

While we condemn the content of the officers’ speech, the First Amendment gives cops, like all public employees, the right to speak freely in their private lives, even when their speech is disgusting. But they do not get to be racists on the job, and these postings indicate that the NYPD has a lot of work to do to address race issues within its ranks.

The Department’s race issues extend far beyond the racist online rant. For years, the NYPD has championed racially biased policing practices that do more to undermine trust between police and residents than an ugly Facebook post ever could.

The NYPD treats all residents of low-income communities of color as potential criminal suspects. Nothing demonstrates this disturbing fact more clearly than the Department’s aggressive stop-and-frisk practices.

Since 2004, NYPD officers have stopped, questioned and frisked more than 4 million New Yorkers. About 9 in 10 of those stopped were completely innocent of any wrongdoing. More than 8 in 10 were black or Latino.

According to the NYCLU’s analysis of the NYPD’s latest stop-and-frisk report, all five precincts with the fewest stop-and-frisk encounters during the third quarter of 2011 are concentrated below 59th Street in Manhattan and are majority white. Neighborhoods with the highest number of stop/frisk interrogations included Inwood/Washington Heights, Central Brooklyn, Far Rockaway, Eastern Queens and the North Shore of Staten Island — all low-income neighborhoods of color.

For residents of these neighborhoods, a simple trip to the corner store or to pick up their children at school carries substantial risk that they will be confronted by police. Essentially, these communities have become Constitution-free zones.

When police do make arrests or issue citations, it’s often for low-level offenses like disorderly conduct, riding bicycles on the sidewalk, marijuana possession and violations of the open container law. In 2010, misdemeanors accounted for 9 of the 10 most frequently charged offenses at arraignment.

This crackdown on petty offenses drives residents of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods into the criminal justice system. It costs people their jobs, public housing benefits or disrupts their education. It deepens the rights between the NYPD and the communities it is supposed to serve.

Tellingly, an incident at this year’s West Indian American Day Parade provides a concrete example of the NYPD’s racially biased policing. City Council member Jumaane Williams and Kirsten John Foy, an aide to New York City Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, both black men, were roughed up and arrested by police officers as they attempted to cross into a barricaded area reserved for public officials — an area they had permission to enter.

The officers refused to acknowledge the public officials’ credentials. Williams was shoved and Foy was forced to ground. Both were handcuffed and detained for about an hour before police released them.

Last month, NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau notified Williams and Foy that three officers involved in the incident would disciplined.

While this was welcome news, you shouldn’t have to be a public official to expect police officers guilty of mistreating you to be disciplined. Every day, black and brown New Yorkers suffer indignities at the hands of the NYPD. Who speaks for them?

This issue is bigger than the transgressions of a few individual officers, just as it’s bigger than the offensive Facebook posts. If the NYPD is to truly address it, then it must abandon its racially biased policing practices and instruct officers to treat all the city’s residents respectfully.

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