The Other Side of "Zero-Tolerance"
I was 9 years old when I had my first direct contact with a police officer.A beefy white cop knocked me down and busted my lip when I protested the way he manhandled an older cousin. "Stay the fuck out of this, you little fucking nigger," he snarled as the back of his hand slammed into my face. The vitriol that dripped from his lips was more memorable than the pain from the slap. Like some perverse rite of combat, my encounter with that New York City cop elevated my peer status in my Harlem, N.Y. neighborhood in 1956. The wound he inflicted was transformed into a mark of distinction, and I brandished it like a medal. I told my mother I fell out of a swing in a nearby park.In the New York City of my youth, the police were considered alien and enemy forces-an occupying army from the land of white privilege sent to humiliate, vex and sometimes kill us. And the cops avidly fulfilled our expectations. They disrespected us routinely, and gratuitously. Seldom did they miss an opportunity to humiliate us; for example, routine searches usually included a demand that we drop our pants.Those memories flooded back as I read about Abner Louima's horrifying tale of abuse at the hands of Brooklyn cops on August 9. After being arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub, the 30-year-old Haitian immigrant was handcuffed, taken to Brooklyn's 70th Precinct station and allegedly tortured by a gang of police officers. According to Louima, the cops pulled down his pants and dragged him handcuffed to the restroom where they rammed the handle of a toilet plunger deep into his rectum, ripping his colon and bladder, and then they shoved it down his throat, shattering his teeth. While doing this, Louima said, they were spewing the same kind of racial epithets that were directed at me so many years past.This horrendous story of police abuse reveals that not much has changed in the years since I was a kid. But that was not news to me; my negative contacts with law enforcement continued as I got older and accelerated significantly during my teens. The same cousin I attempted to protect in 1956 was shot, point-blank, by a cop during the 1964 riots in Harlem. Wandering a bit too close to the action, we were attacked by a gaggle of angry white cops. One of them pushed me, and then another shot my cousin. Four years later, I was shot by an irate motel owner in a small Georgia town, and the police treated me as if I had done the shooting.The good-natured, helpful and heroic police officers showcased in the entertainment media of the day bore absolutely no resemblance to the cops I knew and hated. And although I am well past the peak ages of criminal activity and no longer fit as many "profiles" as I did in my youth, police harassment remains an occasional feature of my life. There is the routine humiliation of being stopped and frisked while visiting white friends in certain neighborhoods. My black male friends and I find gallows humor in receiving traffic tickets for "driving-while-black." Even now, I'm a party in a class-action lawsuit against Illinois State Police for harassment of African-American motorists.African-Americans remain as concerned as always about police harassment and brutality. Mainstream America, however, has yet to take those concerns seriously, except when glaring examples like the televised mauling of Rodney King make them impossible to ignore. Although racist policing is a venerable tradition in U.S. society (the first organized police force in this country was the slave patrols), official denial that criminal justice is anything but "color-blind" is just as deeply rooted.Most whites continue to believe that police violence against blacks is only an occasional, isolated problem. "The violence generated by white racism is one of the obvious realities of American society," wrote historian Herbert Shapiro in his 1988 book White Violence and Black Response. "Yet it is one of the ironies of contemporary experience that many Americans have been conditioned to associate violence with the behavior of black people."Shapiro's study also shows how the main avenues of redress have traditionally been closed to blacks. "The courts have most often stood silent in the face of racist violence or have turned their wrath against the victims, not the perpetrators; the police have protected the mob rather than the mobbed and have often either aided the lynchers or displayed amazing inability to identify them," he wrote. "Blacks have understood that for them there was no reasonable assurance that the law-abiding citizen could expect to be treated with civility by the police."Anger and frustration about repeated police abuse have provoked several outbreaks of urban unrest over the last half-century, according to the findings of several "blue-ribbon" commissions. Police brutality was the precipitating factor in the racial disorders of Harlem in 1935 and 1943, the so-called "long hot summer" riots of the '60s, the Miami riots of the '80s, the "Rodney King" riot that inflamed South Central Los Angeles in 1992 and last year's explosion in St. Petersburg, Florida. But none of these incidents led to the sort of far-reaching reforms of police strategy that could have prevented them in the first place.In New York City, the Mollen Commission, which was appointed in 1993 by Mayor David Dinkins to investigate police corruption, reported a pattern of excessive force and charged that police commanders tolerated it. In its 1995 report, the commission recommended that the city create a permanent external watchdog body with the power to oversee the police department's own Internal Affairs Division and to launch its own independent investigations. But Dinkins' successor, Rudolph Giuliani, and then police commissioner William Bratton rejected the commission's recommendations.In 1996, Amnesty International issued a 72-page report also citing a pattern of abuse by the New York Police Department which targeted primarily blacks and Latinos. Based on an 18-month investigation (see "Getting away with murder," January 6), the report found that charges of police brutality in New York climbed from 977 in 1987 to more than 2,000 in 1994. Howard Safir, the police commissioner who replaced Bratton, described Amnesty's report as "short on facts and long on hype." Giuliani's response was similarly dismissive.The mayor has consistently defended the questionable actions of the city's cops. He dismissed community concerns about excessive force after three police officers fired 24 bullets into an unarmed young black man named Aswon Watson last year in Brooklyn. When police shot a 16-year-old Dominican youth named Kevin Cedeno in the back earlier this year, Giuliani quickly offered the officers his official support. He charged that the Washington Heights residents protesting the shooting were being exploited by political opportunists like the Rev. Al Sharpton, a candidate for mayor.Giuliani's enthusiastic support for a zero-tolerance crackdown on so-called "quality of life" offenses also contributed to the New York Police Department's lack of concern for the civil rights of people suspected-but not convicted-of crimes. City officials and police credit this new strategy, which is all the rage in police circles these days, with significantly reducing serious crime in the city. Analysts trace this policing strategy to a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, entitled "Broken Windows." The authors argued that neighborhoods with broken windows, graffiti, litter and other indications of "disorder" were crucibles for crime. If the laws against these symbols of disorder were enforced aggressively, they claimed, it would restore a sense of public safety and criminals would be less likely to make their move. Not surprisingly, this zero-tolerance approach is practiced most conscientiously in poor, minority neighborhoods where "broken windows" predominate, serving, in essence, to give cops even more leeway in abusing the rights of community residents. Louima charged that the cops who assaulted him chanted "it's Giuliani time now, not Dinkins time."But once the media got wind of the Louima story, the mayor responded quickly and forcefully. Justin Volpe, the 25-year-old officer charged with wielding the plunger handle, has been charged with assault, sexual assault and aggravated sexual abuse; 31-year-old Charles Schawrz was charged with assault; and 12 other officers from the 70th Precinct were either transferred, suspended or demoted to desk duty. In response, Giuliani also created the Police/Community Relations Task Force, a 28-member panel that will examine the increasingly strained relationship between cops and community and conduct numerous forums on the issue.All of this is occurring in an election year, in which the incumbent Giuliani seemed to be coasting toward a second term. The Louima incident is unlikely to dissuade those New Yorkers already in the Giuliani camp, but the furor hit the mayor where he's most vulnerable: If enough of New York's minority population is angered by Giuliani's cavalier attitude toward police violence, his campaign could suddenly find itself in trouble. Those considerations undoubtedly factored into his forthright response to the Louima outrage. However, Giuliani is not likely to change the department's aggressive policing style.That approach contrasts with the much more sensible notion of "community policing," which attempts to encourage more neighborhood involvement in crime-dampening efforts. In this model, police meet regularly with residents and coordinate plans with community leaders. In fact, strategies that recast police as community-builders as well as crime fighters were gaining some national headway, until New York's surprising drop in crime (some have called it the "New York miracle") enhanced the attraction of Giuliani's get-tough approach.In truth, however, crime was on the decline in cities across the country even before the so-called miracle. And while city officials are quick to credit the decrease in crime to better policing, experts are not so sure. "The criminal justice system is only one of a number of factors that influence crime rates," explains Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and criminal justice reform group. "Other significant variables include demographic changes, violence associated with the drug trade, the availability of firearms and community mobilization," he says.Maybe the horrific abuse of Louima will reduce the allure of Giuliani's approach, but probably not. And even if police departments reject the "broken windows" theory, the racist practices of U.S. policing will likely endure until the targeted communities decide they're no longer willing to tolerate those practices.Even though I was a frequent victim of abuse, I've managed to maintain some measure of empathy for the police and the enormous social fissures they are required to patch. But I also understand the rage felt by blacks and other minorities as they suffer routine humiliation and abuse from police and have no effective means of redress.Sadly, the gap between the police and the black community has narrowed only slightly since that 9-year-old was knocked off his feet on a Harlem street long ago.