In New York, a 1-year-old boy was fatally shot over the weekend, one of the latest victims in a surge of violence that has rattled an already traumatized city. As of Monday, New York City had had 634 shootings this year, up from 394 at the same time last year, according to Police Department data.
The violence comes as the city emerges from some of the darkest, most tumultuous months in its history. Tens of thousands of people are dead from the coronavirus. Nearly one in five working-age New Yorkers is out of a job.
Faced with enormous suffering during a pandemic, a possible economic collapse and maybe the largest civil rights movement in history, a healthy police department could have acted as a balm. Many members of the New York Police Department work hard every day to do just that, putting their lives on the line alongside the city’s nurses, Emergency Medical Services workers, mass transit employees and other essential workers.
But too often in recent months, instead of a balm, the Police Department has become another source of trauma. It unleashed disproportionate force on crowds of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, beating them with batons; punching, shoving and tackling them; and driving a police vehicle through a large group.
Officers deployed pepper spray on unarmed civilians. In one case, an officer was caught on video removing the mask of a protester and pepper-spraying him in the face. In another, officers pepper-sprayed a sitting member of the State Senate at point-blank range.
The department made more than 2,500 arrests and held hundreds of people for over 24 hours without them seeing a judge. The Legal Aid Society has sued, arguing that the detentions violated a state law requiring arraignment within a day. Arrestees were also held in crowded, unsanitary jail cells at Police Headquarters and other locations in the midst of the pandemic.
Scores of officers did not wear protective masks while on duty at the protests, violating policy and risking their health and the health of others, even after the department sometimes used aggressive tactics against civilians for the same offense, giving summonses to and arresting Black and Hispanic residents at higher rates than white residents. On May 13, officers tackled an unarmed Black woman in front of her young child for failing to properly wear her mask on the subway.
Even as officers battled peaceful protesters in the streets, the department failed to prevent theft and the destruction of property in Midtown Manhattan, SoHo and the Bronx. Large numbers of officers at the protests covered their names and badge numbers while on duty, violating the police force’s policies. The department also let officers refuse to show up at disciplinary hearings held over video chat.
One of the city’s police unions felt insulated enough from oversight that it posted private details about the arrest of Chiara de Blasio, the Black daughter of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who told her father she was arrested while peacefully protesting. The union publicly disclosed Ms. de Blasio’s address, date of birth and driver’s license on Twitter, a form of harassment known as doxxing.
Chief Michael LiPetri, the chief of crime control strategies, said the force was working under difficult conditions that included protests, “rioting for three straight nights” and the illness of thousands of officers sickened during the worst of the city’s coronavirus outbreak. Chief LiPetri said “there is never going to be one reason” crime increases. “I am not sitting here as the chief of crime control strategies in any way playing the blame game,” he said in an interview. “The bottom line is: We are going to continue to address the biggest concern, and that is the violence in New York City streets.”
But the need to drastically remake the department didn’t begin with the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter protests. For decades, the department has fiercely resisted, slow-walked, co-opted or simply blown past serious attempts at reform or independent oversight.
In 1993, David Dinkins, New York City’s first and only Black mayor, formed a civilian board to review police misconduct. But in the nearly three decades since, police commissioners have retained discretion to impose discipline, routinely rejecting the recommendations of the board.
Also in 1993, the department first banned officers’ use of chokeholds. Records show that the tactic continued to be used anyway, including in the 2014 death of Eric Garner.
The department flouted a 2017 law passed by the City Council that required it to release demographic data about people who were arrested or given civil summonses for fare evasion. A State Supreme Court judge ordered the department to release the data last year after Councilman Rory Lancman, the bill’s lead sponsor, sued.
The department opposed attempts to rein in the practice known as stop-and-frisk, arguing that doing so would cause crime to rise. That turned out to be wrong.
More recently, Dermot Shea, the commissioner, has attributed the increase in shootings this year to a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 banning bail for those charged with most misdemeanor and nonviolent offenses, as well as to the release of thousands of people from the city’s jail system during the pandemic. Reporting last week in The New York Post — hardly a bastion of antipolice sentiment — found that the force’s own data showed otherwise. Of the 11,000 people released from custody under the bail law, according to The Post, one had been charged with a shooting as of last Wednesday.
Over the past three decades, the department has helped keep New York one of the safest big cities in America. Yet it also has lost the confidence of many New Yorkers and is ripe for sweeping reform.
Much of that work will be a feat for New York’s next mayor. Mayor de Blasio, who has shown little appetite or mettle to bring real oversight to the police, is term-limited, with just a year and a half left in office.
Until then, the bulk of this important work will have to be done by the City Council.
Last month, the Council approved several police reform bills, including one requiring officers to show their names and badge numbers and another making it illegal for officers to use tactics that restrict someone’s airflow. Over the coming year, its members will have to do more.
Good places to start would be by holding more public hearings on the department’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests and by examining questions like whether officers have engaged in a work slowdown, something officials have denied.
In the coming months, the Council will need to stand up not only to the city’s police unions, but also to a mayor uninterested in spending his final year in office fighting with the police. For example, the mayor long opposed criminalizing chokeholds. This week, he is expected to sign the bill, after years of pressure from activists, the Council and now protesters. “He can’t be trusted to do the job, and so the Council has to fill the role,” Councilman Rory Lancman, the bill’s lead sponsor, said.
Mr. de Blasio's press secretary, Bill Neidhardt, said, “The mayor is interested in leading on police reforms as he has been for his years in office.”
For years, New York’s police officials — and far too many of its officers — have met demands for independent oversight with defiance. Overhauling the Police Department may be the only way to stop the violence, and give New York the policing it deserves.