The NYPD’s Jim Crow gang suppression

VICTOR DEMPSEY AND ANTHONY POSADA Legal Aid Society, Criminal Justice Unit | 11/22/2018, midnight
The NYPD has deep racial disparities in its gang suppression enforcement, and recent group violence has shown the stark differences ...

Thankfully, some communities have the proven alternative of the New York City Crisis Management System and its Cure Violence organizations, which do not rely on prosecution, threats or aggressive policing to eradicate violence. Most recently, New York City experienced a “Weekend of no shootings,” which had not happened in decades. Top city officials claimed that the NYPD, along with its CeaseFire program, was the reason for this milestone. The community begs to differ.

The public health approach of New York City’s Crisis Management System places people who were affected by incarceration and systems of oppression as credible messengers within their communities, and they are changing lives. Credible messengers are peace-makers who use the trust they have earned in their communities to make the greatest impact on people’s lives. The city has 22 Cure Violence sites embedded in communities with the highest gun violence rates. The Cure Violence program is dedicated to viewing violence as a disease and working from a public health perspective to address issues that contribute to conflict.

Gang databases, military raids and pro-prosecution initiatives such as CeaseFire will never address the underlying issues that tear apart our communities, such as poverty, racism and over-policing. No amount of police officers will ever change systemic issues such as our schools being underfunded and our neighbors being criminally and economically displaced. In fact, the NYPD agrees that gangs are hardened and made official on contact with Rikers Island. Former deputy chief of the NYPD’s Gang Division and current undersheriff of the Suffolk County Police Department, Kevin Catalina, is on record saying that locking up the youth and sending them to Rikers turned what were loose crews and cliques into more traditional gangs, confirming the criminogenic consequences of these forms of policing.

Violence and crime exist in our communities, but there is also hunger, trauma and homelessness, and these issues are interconnected. Youth in the communities in which we work tend to lose their support systems at young ages. From foster care to contact with the criminal system, these youth are searching for family and safety. They do not find that trust or safety in law enforcement when they are overpoliced and prosecuted. The cumulative effect of the aggressive racial profiling of our youth increases that distrust, and it is not alleviated when the service providers are the same law enforcement agencies keeping those youth under strict supervision.

Credible messengers have an advantage in their work that the police do not have, which is community ties that turn into trust. Without the threats, intimidations, shackles or breaking down doors like the police, the credible messengers are able to make an impact by embracing conflict resolution and mediation as opposed to criminalization and prosecution. Credible messengers are able to have an impact because they identify with, and relate to, the community and its hardships, viewing the troubled youth as brothers and sisters and kin in need of services, guidance and support, not criminalization.

When power is put back into the hands of the community in the form of resources, strategic planning and agency support the transformations that take place are life-changing and lives are saved as a result. That is exactly what the New York City Crisis Management System and the Cure Violence organizations does by investing in communities. The credible messengers in these communities are armed with a tool belt of resources, and they understand that when youth join a gang or crew, it is not because they need a reason to be violent, but because they want to be a part of something greater than themselves and they need to feel safe and protected from the very people who criminalize them.

As New Yorkers, do we want all youth to be treated with dignity and respect, or is that something that is exclusively reserved for white youth? When we allow law enforcement to disproportionately put people of color in a database to track them under arbitrary standards, while violating their freedoms of due process and privacy, we are sending a message that we accept these racist systems. When the NYPD continues using “scared straight” tactics to intimidate youth of color while turning a blind eye to actual violence perpetrated by grown white men, we are also sustaining a dual system in which policing is an everyday reality based on skin color and where a person lives, but it is not applied to whites.