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A reappearance of a history of NY police misbehavior

Jonathan P Hicks | 9/7/2011, 5:36 p.m.
A reappearance of a history of NY police misbehavior

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There is a long history to the often acrimonious relationship between the New York City Police Department and Black men. That history, steeped in deep suspicion, is older than the city itself, dating back to the time when the first Africans landed in what was then called New Amsterdam in the 1620s.

It has persisted through the intervening years, from the Civil War and Reconstruction through the Great Depression and Civil Rights era and, now, the age of Obama. The tension between African-American men and the police represents an unending thread in America's largest city.

It rose to prominence again this past weekend in an outrageous event involving a Black City Council member and an aide to New York City's public advocate. After being advised by a police officer during the West Indian Day Parade to take a shortcut to a reception for dignitaries at the Brooklyn Museum, the two were stopped by several police officers for taking that route, wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and carted away. Their crime seemed to be nothing more than walking down a sidewalk that had been cordoned off.

But they were treated as if they had been caught in the act of assaulting someone or brandishing semi-automatic weapons. The incident involving City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, and Kirsten John Foy, a respected government and political figure, once again made painfully clear the serious, systemic issues involving how the police perceive Black men. Despite the litany of Black New Yorkers who have been the victims of a police force that often responds with everything from knee-jerk insensitivity to horrific brutality, last weekend's senseless arrests show that too little has changed.

"We do have to acknowledge that if I didn't look the way I look-young, Black with locks and with earrings," Williams said, "if we were elected officials of a different persuasion, we are sure that things would have been handled differently."

Of course, Williams was not detained for long; he was released when it had been established that he was indeed a member of the New York City Council. But if a Black elected official wearing his City Council lapel pin can get slammed to the ground and handcuffed in broad daylight at a Brooklyn parade for doing nothing more than walking down a closed street, what chance does the Black teenager have running through the streets of the Bronx at night? How many incidents of falsely stopped and arrested young Black men might there be whose stories are never covered?

At the very least, the police officers involved should be severely disciplined. It would send a much-needed signal to the rank and file that walking while Black is not a crime, and these kinds of actions by officers will not be tolerated in the NYPD.

Beyond that, the incident should cause the mayor and other city leaders to reexamine the continuing culture of "stop and frisk"-the system under which thousands of young men in the city's less affluent neighborhoods are stopped, questioned and searched. It's a troublesome practice despite a relatively new state law that limits the Police Department's authority to store information on those encounters in their electronic database.

It will take far more than a new round of sensitivity training to eradicate the long history of police mistrust of young Black men. But the misdeeds of a distrustful, aggressive and often insensitive police force should always be held up to critical scrutiny.