The next mayor of New York City will certainly make an appeal to improve the relations between the NYPD and the community. In this context, the community refers primarily to Black and Brown neighborhoods. Black and Brown people in lower income communities have high levels of victimization by crime, and also victimization by the police. It was recently announced that NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison began a “listening tour” to build trust between citizens and his department.
NYPD over-policing of Black neighborhoods, the so-called ‘War on Drugs,’ ‘Stop and Frisk’ practices, the resulting ‘mass incarceration,’ and fatal police brutality (Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Deborah Danner, Saheed Vassell, Barrington Williams, Akai Gurley, Amodou Diallo, Abner Louima) have been critical points of tension between the NYPD and many New Yorkers.
Of equal concern, though less visible, is the harm caused by the NYPD practice of secret coercive interrogation. Gratefully, New York and the nation were reminded of this by Ava Duvernay’s brilliant (2019) dramatization of the secret abusive interrogations endured by the Central Park Five. In addition to the trauma suffered by the juveniles and their families, this criminal investigative failure included five other women raped by the actual perpetrator of the attack on the Central Park jogger, while the NYPD and Manhattan DA were busy prosecuting the juveniles. This is part of the NYPD’s shameful history of coercing false confessions. It is a lengthy history. In the 1966 Miranda ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court shined light on false confessions in New York City when they noted the George Whitmore prosecution in Brooklyn. What we learned from the exoneration of the Central Park Five is that the prolonged coercive and deceptive interrogation methods that produced their false confessions in 1989, were the same methods that had been used against George Whitmore in 1964. Unfortunately, in New York, it is legal for police to take a suspect into custody and question him or her at length without maintaining a record of threats or promises given to the suspect to secure an incriminating statement.
In 2013, 51-year-old Denise Pannell was murdered in her Sheepshead area Brooklyn apartment. Lawrence Wright, a friend of Pannell’s, became a suspect when he inquired about her condition to police investigating the crime scene. Wright was taken into custody and held for 17 hours before providing a 3 a.m. incriminating confession to assaulting Denise Pannell with a knife. This led to Wright’s 5-year period of pre-trial detention at Rikers Island prior to his eventual release after an NBC-TV news report documented Wright’s vulnerability related to his post-stroke cognitive impairments, the absence of physical evidence connecting Wright to the crime, as well as the failure of the police to investigative other leads and suspects in the case. The reliance on secret, coercive interrogation methods had diverted the investigation and the actual murderer of Denise Pannell was never apprehended. The Lawrence Wright prosecution illustrates certain law enforcement practices that undermine community trust have remained unchanged for decades. Lawrence Wright’s multi-million-dollar civil suit for damages is currently pending.
There is a ‘peculiar gap’ in New York State interrogation law. The legislature passed a law (NYS CPL 60.45) in the 1970s, forbidding interrogation practices that create a substantial risk of producing false incriminating statements. However, since interrogators are not required to electronically record their interrogations, there is no effective way to monitor compliance with the law. In addition to the Central Park Five and Lawrence Wright, other New Yorkers (Huwe Burton, Vanessa Gathers, Shariff Wilson, Anthony Yarbough, and many others) have been brutalized and traumatized by NYPD abusive interrogation and detention. Unfortunately, more recent legislative reform in 2018 requires that only certain class A-1 felonies be recorded. Exempt from this requirement are certain homicides, rape, and sexual assaults, which render the statute ineffective. Before the new mayor calls for better relations and more trust, the mayor can lead by directing the NYPD to maintain an objective record of the custodial questioning of all criminal suspects.
Matthew Barry Johnson is an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of “Wrongful Conviction in Sexual Assault” published by Oxford University Press (2021).