At crossroads of policing and murder, a long push for accountability
The game began to change in many ways in New York because of the relentless work of the city's community of activists. They are pushing for what they see is a common-sense system of transparency for officers. Part 2 of 2.
New York—After her son Ramarley Graham was shot and killed by a New York police officer, Constance Malcolm says she dedicated herself to community activism almost by accident.
“I had to be Ramarley’s voice,” she says. “Even now, when you hear about Ramarley’s story, you think, 'Oh, yeah, that was the kid that was running from police into the house, and who hid in the bathroom.' Six years later, and that’s what you hear. I have to try to get that out of people’s mindset.”
Two hundred miles away in Baltimore, a city experiencing an unprecedented wave of murders since the death of Freddie Gray, a small group of mothers who had lost their sons or daughters to the crime of murder were grappling with agonizing questions about their communities. (Part 1, “A tale of two cities and murder.”) They were focusing on the choices the young men in their communities were making, and why their neighborhoods were in such a state. They, too, wanted larger structural changes in their city, but their focus was on what could be called a common-sense conservatism, less about ideology and legislation per se, and more about training their children in the ways they should go.
There are similar groups of people in New York. But for Malcolm, the structures of the American justice system itself – the tactics of the NYPD, the differences in arrest and incarceration rates, and the lack of a common-sense system of accountability and transparency for those who wield the lethal power of the state – created a matrix of human decisions that led to what she believes was the murder of her son.
Police said they saw a gun protruding from Mr. Graham’s pocket and that he fled from them, dashing home and into his apartment. Video surveillance evidence, however, contradicted their claims – showing him walking casually into his home. Officers followed him into his apartment, and as Graham was allegedly trying to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet, they thought they saw him reach for a gun, and shot and killed him. A gun was never found.
“I was determined to let them know that I wasn’t going to take this laying down,” Ms. Malcolm says. “He was in his home, where he was supposed to be safe. Instead, the officers who [were] supposed to uphold the law, and serve and protect, took my son’s life and then turned around and lied about him. This is what people are believing about my son, and I can’t have that.”
She embarked on a five-year battle for justice, demanding answers, suing the NYPD for documents related to police actions. The officer was indicted for manslaughter, but a judge dismissed the case on a technicality. Still, because of the relentless demands of the family and other activists, the officer who killed Graham faced an NYPD disciplinary hearing, and was forced to resign a year ago. Two other officers at the scene were also disciplined last year, one of them also forced to resign.
The city settled the family’s civil rights lawsuit in 2015, awarding them nearly $4 million in damages. But Malcolm still describes a lingering hollowness, a persistent feeling that that the police involved in the death of her son were never truly held accountable and punished. It’s a grievance at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“This city caused me a lifetime of pain that no amount of money can make me satisfied,” says Malcolm, who still commutes to her job as a certified nurse’s assistant at the Cedar Manor Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Ossining, N.Y., adding that she loves to help people. “Take your money and give me my son back. That would make me a happy mother.”
Malcolm has joined with other mothers whose sons died at the hands of police officers. The crew of mothers has gotten pretty close, and it includes Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo, killed in a high-profile case by police in 1999; Valerie Bell, mother of Sean Bell, killed by police in 2006; and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, killed in 2015.
These mothers call each other often for support, Ms. Carr says, and many of them travel together to community events and protests across the country.
Like most of them, Carr also describes not just a frustration, but a sense of despair that her son Eric has never received the justice that he deserves. Not only because he was killed, she says, but also because of the indignity he suffered at the hands of police.
The facts of his death, captured on bystanders’ video, are well known. When Mr. Garner loses consciousness after saying he couldn't breathe, officers give him little assistance. No one attempts to revive him. Two medics and two EMTs arrive in an ambulance. There is no sense of urgency about the man lying motionless on the ground. No one attempts to administer CPR. Then, instead of securing Garner on a gurney and securing his neck, police and emergency workers grab his arms and legs and simply sling the 350-pound man, his head slumped back, onto a stretcher that hadn’t even been lowered to the ground.
“They should all stand accountable for such gross misconduct,” Carr says. “It was a very dark day. A very confusing day. I was in disbelief. I didn’t even know what happened, but all I knew my child was gone, and that was all that mattered.”
“Now I hope that because of his death, there will be more awareness – that these things are actually happening to us, and get people to stop thinking that we’re just complaining about nothing, or that we deserve it,” Carr says. “That’s why it’s important to me to stand up for my son and tell his story.”
It's painful, too, she says, to watch the person who put her son in a chokehold that contributed to his death continue to get raises, overtime pay – and a life her son was denied.
One of the most urgent goals of these mothers and the broader protest matter is to convince lawmakers of the need to establish a fair process of justice. This especially includes the appointment of special prosecutors for any case in which a police officer kills a civilian.
As a practical matter, police officers and prosecutors necessarily work together closely on a day-to-day basis to make their cases, experts observe. Even from a common sense perspective, many say, there seems to be a conflict of interest, given that criminal justice professionals must necessarily work as team. How are they supposed to investigate, let alone convict, one of their own?
Both Carr and Malcolm, as well as other activists fighting for police transparency and accountability, remain relatively unmoved about New York’s jaw-droppingly low murder rate and record-setting low levels of overall crime.
True, the stop and frisk numbers also have fallen dramatically, but critics contend that many officers have simply stopped filling out the required forms. Last December, the NYPD’s court-appointed monitor confirmed this, reporting some officers were indeed failing to document their street encounters.
“The reality is, there are many important reasons for New York City’s crime decline, including the community’s violence prevention programs, community interventions, increasing employment, and other factors,” says Malcolm, echoing a number of experts.
And she and other activists believe that the principles of "proactive policing" like stop and frisk have laid bare a vicious symbiosis that has demonstrable racial consequences. Proactive strategies that focused on enforcing low-level crimes created a destructive and racially-selective systemic cycle, activists argue.
It's a symbiosis with which the nation is still trying to grapple, and it cuts to the heart of the story of murder, violence, and policing in America and the ongoing critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“If you’re focusing on violence, there's going to be racially disparate policing, because violence is racially disparate,” says Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Now, you have to separate that from racial bias, which of course can be a problem. But you’re going to end up with racial disparities, and you have to somehow justify that.”
The story of murder in America, many activists say, is plain and simple, a story about race in America.
But a pall hangs over this story, especially its most troubling statistic: Though only about 13 percent of the population, black Americans make up around half of the nation’s murder victims. Similarly, black Americans make up about half the nation’s murderers and murder suspects. And for both, the overwhelming majority are men.
In Baltimore, where black residents make up 63 percent of the population, more than 90 percent of homicide victims were black last year and more than 90 percent were male. In New York, where black residents make up 25 percent of the city’s population, more than 57 percent of murder victims were black in 2016, and nearly 56 percent of murder suspects were black.
In the nation’s toxic state of politics, the refrain “black-on-black violence” has become the standard rejoinder to those protesting against police violence. It's become the rhetorical counterpoint to Black Lives Matter protesters or NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
For many conservatives and police officers, it only makes sense that areas with higher crime and murder rates would demand more aggressive policing. Sure, there are mistakes and even “bad apples” within police forces, but “cops go where the bad guys are,” and often at great personal risk, many say.
But “black on black violence” is not simply a statistic. Inescapably, it falls into a long history of discredited theories about racial differences going back to the 19th century. Such theories dovetailed with eugenics, Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws, and a casual white supremacy that saw black Americans as dangerous "others" who needed to be kept separate.
“I think the term and the concept has been exploited, and I think it’s been used by others outside to paint us as savages,” says Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of Brooklyn Movement Center, a community activist group.
Now, with the emergence of the self-described “alt-right” and a burgeoning online movement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, that pall has deepened.
When he was a candidate, President Trump tweeted a racially-charged and wildly incorrect set of murder statistics, including a false number that said 81 percent of white murder victims were killed by blacks. In fact, more than 8 out of 10 white murder victims are a result of white-on-white violence.
“The more important fact is not, why are black people killing each other?” says Mr. Griffith, whose group is also part of the coalition Communities United for Police Reform. “But, why are they killing anybody? What are the conditions that are leading to that, as opposed to creating some racial pathology out of these numbers, which only serves to further dehumanize us.”
Criminologists have long sought reasons why young black men are more likely to commit murder. Many cite strong correlations between family instability and fatherlessness. Others cite direct correlations between poverty and violence. Poor whites, in fact, had a higher overall rate of incidents of violence from 2008 to 2012: 46.4 per 1,000 people. Poor blacks had a rate of violence of 43.4 per 1000.
There is also the fact that racist housing policies, such as redlining, along with the flight of manufacturing jobs from US cities, created segregated urban caldrons in which the conditions of crime could fester, and for which there were few white analogs.
But both Nathaniel Powell, a former convict who now works to get Baltimore teens to make better decisions than he did in his youth, and Griffith in New York see another, more subtle layer to the lingering legacies of white supremacy. Even beyond the open racist motives of a segment of those wielding the expression "black on black violence," they suggest, its constant use is like a relentless cultural whisper that this is who you are.
“I think it’s been an integral part of our own self hatred as well,” Griffith says. “The idea that we’re not only murdering ourselves, but we seek to destroy ourselves.”
Mr. Powell sees something similar. “It’s the mentality of our kids in our environment that needs to be addressed,” he says. “If you don’t have any value for yourself, how can you value those around you? Without that, we’re going to keep hurting each other, and ourselves.”
Then there is the issue of the war on drugs, waged especially on marijuana and crack cocaine in high-crime minority neighborhoods, leaving a legacy of incarceration that would give the United States the largest prison population in the world, with almost 40 percent of this population black.
It’s another irony within the symbiosis: a focus on violent neighborhoods can breed more, not less violence. Even low-level crimes can lead to prison terms, and prison forges a certain kind of posture, a sense of “respect” that must be earned in the face of relentless challenges. This mostly-masculine “code on the street,” as Powell says, might be one of the most durable pieces in the puzzle of factors behind the legacy of mass incarceration.
Indeed, look at both the victims and known perpetrators in Baltimore last year: 86 percent of the victims had criminal records, with an average of 11 previous arrests. Similarly, 85 percent of the known murder suspects had criminal records, with an average of nine previous arrests. There are similar findings in New York.
But there is another way to look at such figures: The segment of men engaging in criminal violence and murder is very small. And while black Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites – 1,408 per 100,000 compared to 275 per 100,000 – the vast majority of men in both groups remain peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
There are a host of reasons for the raw inverted symmetry between the stories of murder in Baltimore and New York.
The beleaguered Baltimore Police Department, the 8th largest municipal police force in the United States with nearly 2,100 full-duty officers and a budget of about $500 million, has fewer than 10 officers and support staff for every murder it has to solve.
The celebrated New York Police Department, the largest in the United States with about 36,000 officers and a budget of about $5.3 billion, has about 186 officers and support staff for every murder it has to solve.
New York is economically and racially diverse, its tax base is stable, its private and civic institutions are strong. With a wealth of resources and expertise, New York regularly solves about 70 percent of its homicides.
Baltimore is far less economically and racially diverse, its tax base is volatile, its private and civic institutions are uneven. Baltimore solved about half of its homicides last year – which was actually a dramatic improvement. Its clearance rate was 30 percent in 2015.
But here's the final irony: It was precisely because of the relentless critiques of New York's community of activists that the NYPD may now be inaugurating another historic era of innovations.
“We’ve gone from bludgeons to scalpels, if you will,” says Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonpartisan civic group that works to foster innovations to the criminal justice system. “And it may well be a game changer moving forward.”
The game began to change in many ways because of the relentless work of the city's community of activists. Over the past two decades, activists demanded information. They found that nearly 85 percent of those stopped and frisked were black or Latino, the vast majority of them men, ages 14 to 24. They found that nearly nine out of 10 of the more than 5 million people stopped during that era were never charged with an infraction or crime. It was because of them that a federal court found the NYPD guilty of racial profiling and violating New Yorkers’ due process rights.
They found that in New York from 2002 to 2012, during the height of the stop and frisk era, about 85 percent of the 440,000 low level marijuana arrests were of black and Latino young men, which saddles many of them with life-altering felony records, a blemish that often turns away employers, landlords, and the ability to get certain kinds of student aid or municipal services.
Almost a third of young white Americans aged 18 to 25 report using marijuana, a rate higher than black Americans, surveys show, and the use of cocaine and amphetamines remains common, and visible, in places like Wall Street. These crimes are rarely subjected to enforcement – an example of "privilege," many activists say.
So New York changed its laws. Possessing small amounts of marijuana is a simple summons now rather than a misdemeanor or felony. Stop and frisk has declined by 90 percent. Still, the problems persists, activists say: marijuana arrests and legal stops are still overwhelmingly of black and Latino men.
Crime falls for many reasons, and “the great crime decline” has not just been a result of policing, even police experts say. “New York has been very blessed with a very robust not-for-profit group of organizations that provides prevention services,” Mr. Aborn says. "And these people are professionals at the top of their game, and the DAs and police are beginning to embrace this.”
They are also starting to revolutionize the idea of proactive policing, this time trying to rebuild relationships with the neighborhoods they are charged with protecting.
“Now, the buzzword in New York is ‘precision policing,’ ” says Mr. Moskos, the former Baltimore police officer. “And in some ways, it’s a way to rationalize racially disparate policing – that’s always the elephant in the room, the square peg in the round hole.”
“Precision policing” still focuses on high crime neighborhoods, where the majority of residents are minorities. But the effort now is to develop a collaborative and laser-like focus on those most likely to commit crimes.
“In the past, if there was a lot of crime in a neighborhood, police departments would do what they call ‘flood the zone’ with hundreds of cops into a geographic area to bring down crime,” says Aborn. “Now we try to understand who the players are, and those people are targeted.”
“And standing right alongside precision policing is what we now call ‘precision prevention,’ which is, we bring prevention services to those most likely to commit offenses,” he says.
If the buzzword of the past was “community policing” – which generally meant that a designated community relations officer would attend meetings and then act as a liaison to local precinct commanders – now there is a very different approach: “neighborhood policing.”
Police officers are starting to be assigned to specific geographical areas. They get to know a community and its civic leaders, and then begin to identify the specific issues the neighborhood is facing. Then, in conjunction with local leaders, police try to develop a specific neighborhood-focused plan. “What it does is, it not only addresses the issues that are of most concern to the neighborhood, but it also builds a strong synergistic, trusting relationship between the cops and the neighborhood,” Aborn says.
One of the biggest differences between New York and cities like Baltimore, experts say, is New York’s relentless and methodical focus on getting illegal guns off the street. New York state’s gun laws are among the most restrictive in the country, and New York City tightens these even more.
“While New York has a very balanced approach to punishment, and we do a lot of prevention and a lot of pre-trial diversion, we believe that if somebody carries an illegal gun, that person needs to go to jail,” says Aborn. The city has expanded the number of specialized cops investigating gun crimes, and city prosecutors are putting a high emphasis on gun crime prosecutions. In 2016, the city set up a specialized “gun court” in Brooklyn, which fast-tracks cases involving guns.
For the past few years, only 55 to 60 percent of New York’s homicides were carried out with a gun, well below the national average. The overall number of shootings in New York, too, has plummeted to historic lows. There were only 789 shooting incidents reported last year, compared with 997 in 2016. This represents a near 90 percent reduction in the number of incidents in New York since 1994.
The Baltimore City Council attempted, but failed to pass a city ordinance last year that would have included mandatory jail time for those carrying illegal guns. Its own gun task force has been rocked by a corruption scandal. And about nine out of 10 homicides in Baltimore are carried out with guns.
“All these efforts had a significant deterrent effect on people carrying guns in New York,” says Moskos. “Baltimore doesn’t have that, so you have repeat offenders, you catch him with a gun two or three times. What do you think is going to happen?”
Long-time activists remain skeptical, however. The history of abuse runs deep, they say.
“If you look over the past 20 years, there have been a lot of different tactics that have been used, from very aggressive ‘Let’s stop every black and brown person walking down the street’ to what the [Mayor Bill] de Blasio administration now is calling neighborhood policing,” says Griffith, who heads the Brooklyn Movement Center. “But I think that on some level, the changes that we’ve seen have been superficial.”
And the NYPD’s long history of innovative “proactive policing” in black neighborhoods includes another legacy, he and other activists say: Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, and other unarmed black men who lost their lives at the hands of the NYPD.
“I always tell my kids, nothing is ever going to be easy, and you have to fight for what you believe in,” says Malcolm, speaking about her son Chinnor, now 12, who witnessed his brother’s shooting six years ago, and daughter Leona, now 28.
“So they may take our sons, but now we have to try to comfort those out there still suffering, and let them know, you’re not alone,” Malcolm says of working with the other mothers of those killed. “That’s my goal right now. That’s my goal.”
Part 1: A tale of two cities and murder