Category Archives: Race

NYCLU files lawsuit seeking access to info about police shootings

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the NYPD last week to obtain more information and facts about police shootings. The organization is seeking access to two internal police reports: one prepared immediately after a shooting of a civilian, and the other, a more detailed report completed within a few months of the incident.

The NYCLU has filed multiple Freedom of Information Law requests over the last three years—since police shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell in Queens in November 2006—seeking annual statistical reports about shootings since 1996, as well as data on the race of the victim. The police department produced the reports, but stopped releasing information about race after the 1998 report, at about the time officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in February 1999. Nearly nine out of ten shooting victims in 1996 and 1997 were black or Latino.

Also last week, The New York Times reported that the NYPD released a report showing police officers fired their guns about 16 percent less last year than the previous year. The police report also said that 97 percent of the shooting victims in 2008 were black or Latino.

Despite the year-to-year drop in police gunfire, over the weekend, three officers fatally shot a teenager in Queens 11 times. Police said they spotted 18-year-old Dashawn Vasconcellos and two others leave a city park after hours and a chase ensued. The officers fired 14 rounds after they said Vasconcellos pointed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol at them.

Meanwhile, the NYCLU also says that the NYPD is on track to stop a record number of New Yorkers this year, according to new stop-and-frisk data. The organization says if the current pace continues, 535,000 innocent New Yorkers will have been stopped and interrogated by police by the year’s end.

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NYPD accused of racial profiling — by other members of the NYPD!

Most of the time, when we think of racial profiling, we think of an incident in which white cops stop (and-frisk, search, or at times do something worse to) a black or Latino individual. The usual back-and-forth ensues: the victim claims he was racially profiled, and the NYPD says that its officers don’t engage in racial profiling.

Therefore it was fascinating to see a story in the Daily News this past week in which those charging the NYPD with bias—were themselves members of NYC’s Finest.

Three hate crime task force detectives — two black, one Pakistani — were going to door-to-door in the predominantly white Gravesend section of Brooklyn as they investigated a possible hate crime. The three, Faisal Khan, Stephon Garland, and Gregory Wilson were wearing suits at the time.

Next thing they know, according to the report, about 15 members of the Shomrim Jewish Community Patrol show up accusing them of impersonating police officers. Of course, the detectives dispute this. The situation escalates and eventually officers from the 61st Precinct arrive and demand to see the detectives’ identification.

The Daily News reports that a tense profanity-laced argument followed between the detectives and the white uniformed officers. This escalated into what almost became a physical fight and apparently both men had to be restrained.

In the end, Detective Garland felt “he was treated in a disrespectful manner because of the color of his skin,” the report states. Now the NYPD brass is investigating the confrontation to see if there were violations of department rules on either side.

Unfortunately, stories like this one echo other recent incidents, all of which would imply some sort of racial profiling going on, if at the least, sub-conscious on the part of the white officers:

The question remains: are plainclothes or off-duty officers and detectives of color subject to racial profiling? As Daily News’ Columnist Errol Louis has noted, you never see the headline ‘Black cop shoots white cop.’

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Mayoral candidates talk about stop-and-frisk at debate

AP

Courtesy: AP

Police in the U.S. stop more than one million people on the street each year. Civil liberties critics say that the stop-and-frisk tactic employs racial profiling. It’s hard to argue with the numbers—most stops are of black and Latino men. The New York City Police Department is a staunch defender of the practice and out of the million stops cited by the AP, the NYPD will be responsible for about 600,000 of them by year’s end.

Therefore it was no surprise that at the mayoral debate last Tuesday evening (see 45:30 in NY1 video), the issue of NYPD tactics under Mayor Mike Bloomberg came up when the Daily News’ Adam Lisberg asked challenger and current Comptroller Bill Thompson to clarify his position with regard to the stop-and-frisk policy.

I was at the debate along with two of my colleagues (check out Lindsay Lazarski’s post re: education) and my ears perked up when I heard Lisberg’s question.

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Dutch Scholar in New York Studying Communication Between Police and Communities

By Kieran K. Meadows

A Dutch communications scholar is conducting research on the way the city’s police department and its critics get their messages out in the public sphere. Based on the work she’s done so far, she believes that the two groups both feel victimized by the other, and what they say in public sometimes exacerbates the problem.

Michelle Knight, a doctoral candidate at the University of Groeningen in the Netherlands, is in New York working on her dissertation. She has already written the first part—a historical look at the police department and its critics from the 1850s to the present. Now she is specifically examining the Sean Bell shooting and its aftermath as a case study.

“People are always surprised that I am studying this,” Knight said. “I have a passion for the New York City Police Department. I have a passion for New York history.”

“And I have a passion for polarized communication,” she said.

Knight was a master’s student of American Studies on an exchange program at the University of North Carolina in 1999 when Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, died in a hail of 41 police bullets while he stood in his home’s vestibule.

Knight didn’t understand how it was possible for something like that to happen, so she closely followed the case and the ensuing debate. She went to New York and arranged meetings with police union and community leaders, and became fascinated they held such a different reality on the events that had taken place. She eventually wrote her master’s thesis on the history of the police department, which became the first chapter of her dissertation.

In 2006, Knight was back in Holland when she heard about the police shooting of Sean Bell, who was also unarmed, and killed the night before his wedding. This time, police had fired 50 bullets. Again, she followed the aftermath online, through the indictments of the officers involved, their trial and subsequent acquittal. As methodology, she chose to examine every utterance of a stakeholder in the New York Times’ reports.

“Everybody watches the NYPD and the various claims-makers interact in the press, on the stage of the metropolis,” said Greg Donaldson, a professor of communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “But nobody has really studied it in a scholarly way.”

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Election Reflections

Two days later, the reality has started to really sink in. Senator Barack Obama is now President-elect Obama. I have to say that I really predict a few months ago that he was going to win in a landslide — I just felt like he was — and he’s mighty close at 364-173.

On Election Day night, I went to 125th Street in Harlem to take photographs, some of which I will link to soon. It was a pretty special place to be. Hundreds, probably thousands of people were in the streets, all ages, all backgrounds (but many many young people) filled with a sense of euphoria, like the weight of eight long Bush years was finally lifted off their backs. Even the police, who were there to maintain order and keep traffic moving — although, it was not easy, there were traffic jams, people were honking their horns for at least an hour straight and hanging out of car windows — hell, the police were celebrating too, or at least quite sympathetic those who filled the streets in a half state of shock, half state of euphoria.

That night and the next day I talked to many people, many strangers I had never met, but inhibitions were lost because there was a certain sense of a shared humanity. It was truly beautiful. Tragically, New Yorkers hadn’t come together in this way since after September 11th, the day the city and its residents bore the brunt of extremists’ death and destruction.

Two of the people I spoke to stand out in my mind and I will never forget the conversations I had.

One, on Election Day night, on 125th Street was with a man named Charlie, who was probably in his early 50s and had grown up in Harlem. I was recording audio and was holding a mic in my hand — Charlie, who wore slightly past the shoulder-length locks, walked up to me and began talking. Amidst all the celebration, he was so calm and soft-spoken yet so reflective regarding the true challenges Obama will face. But he was also reflective on what it meant to him that the U.S. had elected its first black president.

Charlie told me that when he was a kid in the 1960s, he loved to watch the TV show Perry Mason. He loved watching the main character dissect witness testimony on the stand and argue so persuasively in front of the jury and judge. He learned how to argue and reason himself in that way. Yet Charlie looked at Mason and thought to himself, he doesn’t look like me, I can’t do that. The storybooks Charlie read didn’t feature any characters that looked like him, so he ended up reading books on dog breeds. He told me he memorized every type of dog breed — that he could tell me about every type of dog he saw — that is what he did because he couldn’t see himself in storybooks.

The next day, the New York Times sold out, as early as around 8 a.m., according to some press reports. Everyone wanted a copy, a piece of history. Then we found out the Times would be selling copies outside its building at 3:30pm. So I went. And there was a line. There was a line that stretched around the entire building. Waiting in line, I met and older fellow, a man in his 60s or 70s who was quiet and keeping to himself when I walked up to get behind him. There he was, waiting patiently. Then we started talking. We passed the entire time talking about Obama’s election, about people, and about life. He had grown up in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s in the Deep South, in Birmingham, Alabama. Obama’s election had special significance to him. He was just happy to be able to be alive to see the day. There we stood, together in line under the awning of the Times building, appreciating the moment, as the rain fell. A cleanse, we said to each other. We both agreed that the only thing constant in life is change and that the future was upon us, moment by moment, so we’d better appreciate this one. As we neared the front of the line, he stuck out his hand. “My name is Ocie,” he said. I told him, I’m Kieran. A woman selling the papers yelled, “How many do you want?” Ocie and I said farewell and parted ways.

I feel very blessed to have spent those 40 minutes in line with a good spirit like Ocie’s. I hope he felt the same about me. I will never forget those moments.

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Felony Disenfranchisement

(This post is similar to the one that I originally wrote for this Web site)

Yesterday my colleague Amy Wysowski began an interesting and relevant conversation about this issue especially as we rapidly approach this year’s Election Day. Also, another colleague, Jackie Linge, drawing on her prior legal experience, added fascinating insight (as well as the human side of the story).

After reading the comments from Amy’s post, I thought maybe this issue needed its own post for ongoing discussion.

First, if you are interested in knowing what New York State felonies are, this site provides a list by offense level. Did you know there are A1 and A2 level felonies, B violent felonies, B non-violent felonies, C violent felonies, C non-violent felonies, D violent felonies, D non-violent felonies, and E felonies? Have a look at the lists. You may be surprised by what you see — and let’s not forget the broad discretion prosecutors have in deciding what charges should be brought in cases.

In New York State if you are convicted of any of the above, you will lose your right to vote (until you are on probation). It is also very hard to get a job (much less a good one) after a felony conviction.

FairVote2020 has some neat interactive charts and maps with loads of good information about felony disenfranchisement across the U.S. by state.

Dan Filler, blogging at the Faculty Lounge, writes:

Felon disenfranchisement has an intuitive appeal – we deny the right to vote to those who breach the fundamental social contract and violate the law.  But these laws have deeply racist roots and a dramatically disparate racial impact today.  There is also a deep democratic problem with the policy; as we criminalize and prosecute more and more conduct, we passively strip more and more citizens of voting rights.

Most states added felon disenfranchisement laws in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is no coincidence that more people gained the right to vote at that exact moment (at least in writing on the Federal level, via the 13th, 14th, 15th, and later the 19th amendments). Only two states allow everyone to vote (including those who are incarcerated): Vermont and Maine. Those two states are each almost 97% white (the highest white populations by state).

For more information and the latest news, see the Right To Vote Campaign, a collaboration between the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and The Sentencing Project. The Right To Vote Campaign has led on this issue, but its own Web site has been down recently for some reason.

Late Update: See this New York Times article from Sunday’s edition, “States Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts, but Issue Remains Politically Sensitive” and accompanying multimedia map from The Sentencing Project.

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Just One Additional Poll Question

A Rasmussen poll from yesterday finds that 53% of voters (including half of Democrats and 2/3 majority of Republicans) think Barack Obama’s “dollar bill” comment was racist, while 38% disagree. (In the same poll, only 22% of voters think that the McCain commercial with Obama and Brittney Spears/Paris Hilton was racist, while 63% say is was not.) Watch Obama making his “dollar bill” comment and judge for yourself, but keep the following in mind:

  1. This is something Obama has talked about consistently for the last year. He has been saying that “they” (any of his opponents) will be trying to make voters afraid of him — “and did I mention he’s black?” — at a fundraiser in Florida in mid-June. Not a word from the McCain campaign then. So timing (not even a full week after Obama arrived back from week on the world stage, on which he seemed to excel) is something to keep in mind here. Maybe something of a, “Quick, change the subject” type move.
  2. Obama never said that the McCain campaign (nor the candidate himself) was racist. He never used the word “racist” or the word “McCain” in the “dollar bill” comment.
  3. Excelscior1, blogging at DailyKos, says that perhaps Obama’s comment was in direct response to a McCain web ad where Obama’s face is placed on the $100 bill, as the voiceover asks, “what will he change next?” It is possible that he was indirectly referring to this web-ad (I believe the ad first ran in late June, but have not verified that yet).

Most importantly, in my opinion, the Rasmussen poll should have included one more question that directly addresses the substance — which I’ve been saying is sorely lacking from the discussion on all of this — of Obama’s “dollar bill” comment: “Is it racist that every one of the 43 presidents of the United States has been a white male?” I think the results of that question would add some context to Rasmussen’s poll numbers. Now, it is an incontrovertible fact that there have been 43 white male U.S. presidents (i.e. all of them). This is also obvious, and I think Obama’s “dollar bill” comment basically alluded to this fact. So I’m going to have to assume, based on common sense, that the Rasmussen poll results from above and from my additional question would correlate with one another. Regardless, the results, I think, would say something about Americans’ understanding of what is “racist” and what is not, as well as well as how we generally understand racism.

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