Having taught critical race theory to cops for many years, I can understand their frustrations and feelings that they are being “thrown under the bus” by some New Yorkers in the public debates on policing and race.
In the NYPD, for decades the orders from the top have been to have “productive numbers,” which means writing summonses and making arrests in higher crime neighborhoods that, due to a long history of segregation, bank redlining and disinvestment, are also black and brown neighborhoods. This aggressive policing policy too frequently requires wrestling people into handcuffs whose originating “crime” was a minor violation like littering, urinating on the street, carrying a small amount of marijuana, or in Eric Garner’s case, having sold “loosies.”
Lots of people didn’t like policing by numbers, including many cops, but that is how they were judged and promoted. From the point of civil libertarians, and as Judge Scheindlin stated in the Floyd “stop and frisk” case in 2013, such policing by numbers has been a predictable formula for producing unconstitutional stops.
This aggressive, zero-tolerance policing (sometimes mistakenly called Broken Windows policing) has served and been driven by the gentrifying classes of the city since the 1990s who have seen the role of police as providing security for business and investment. Under de Blasio and the returning Commissioner Bratton, and after the Floyd case in the summer 2013, things were changing, overall stop-and-frisk numbers have been way down, but change is not even or comprehensive.
We should not reduce these problems to assumptions of individual prejudice. The psycho-cultural bigotry that associates black people with criminality, described in many psychological studies, is pervasive: few, if any, people in the US are unaffected by this at some level. This undoubtedly impacts police behaviors, as it does the behaviors of people who call the police, juries, private security personnel, educators, private sector managers, etc. But while pervasive, such bigotry is outwardly illegitimate and often in conflict with other commonly held feelings and powerful ideas about equality and fairness – even among those who hold conscious prejudices. Perhaps more important, more insidious, and more powerful today are the forms of institutional racism organized by educational, financial, and criminal justice systems.
Institutional racism characterizes a system in which policies that do not refer to race nevertheless reproduce and sometimes intensify racial disparities and hierarchies, like geographically driven zero-tolerance policing or geographically driven tax funding schemes for education, both occurring in a residentially segregated country. Psycho-cultural bigotry greases the wheels of institutional racism, but it is no longer the main organizer of such large scale discrimination.
So when the unintentional death of Eric Garner occurred due to an aggressive but routine arrest, in which an officer may have violated patrol guidelines around use of force, police saw protesters and politicians calling for the prosecution of the “racist” cop as something akin to a mob looking for a scapegoat. Protesters say that the officer should have been indicted for negligent homicide, due to the use of a chokehold and his indifference to his prisoner’s distress after being subdued. The vast majority of police officers disagree. Either way, the fact remains that an indictment would not change the institutional racism that structured the tragedy. And a debate that focuses on an individual indictment can in effect let the system off the hook.
I am sympathetic to the officers who feel like they’re unfairly characterized as racists or Uncle Toms. Police should not be a scapegoat for the pervasive institutional racism in America. Neither should they be immune from processes of anti-racist reflection and reform. Non-violent protesters concerned about equity in the criminal justice system should not be scapegoated, attacked or disparaged as advocating murder. That reaction shuts down a debate over concerns that are widespread among New Yorkers, concerns that deserve to be addressed.
The insane homicide of Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, while sitting unsuspectingly in their patrol car in Bedford-Stuyvesant, or the fact that most civilians lack an insider’s grasp of police work, should not dissuade police from seriously and thoughtfully engaging the community-based police accountability movement that has re-emerged. The authority gained through direct experience of police work, and through officers’ personal sacrifice, deserve respect and attention. But it is self-defeating to think that this justifies turning a deaf ear to community concerns. Police legitimacy, after all, is dependent on the consent of the governed.
Avram Bornstein is associate professor of anthropology at John Jay College. He is director of its Master of Arts in Criminal Justice Program and co-director of the college’s NYPD Leadership Program.