Tanzina Vega: During the summers racial justice, uprisings, demonstrators, and journalists in New York City frequently accused the New York police department of using unnecessary force to quell the protests. Now a new report from New York city's Department of Investigation substantiates many of those claims saying that, in fact, the NYPD did use excessive force and did not have a clear strategy to respond to the mass demonstrations. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio apologized for his handling of the police during the uprising.
Bill de Blasio: I'm reflecting on what happened in May and June and I look back with remorse. I wish I had done better. I want everyone to understand that and I'm sorry, I didn't do better and I've learned a lot of valuable lessons and I want our police department to do better.
Tanzina: A number of civil rights advocates are saying that, "doing better will require much more than just following the recommendations outlined in the new report." Joining me now to talk about this is Phil Stinson, a professor and criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, former police officer, and author of the book Criminology Explains Police Violence. Phil, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Phil Stinson: It's good to be with you.
Tanzina: Jake Offenhartz is a reporter at Gothamist, who reported on the uprisings for racial justice in New York City this summer. Jake, thanks for being here.
Jake Offenhartz: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Let's start with you, Jake. Some of the errors that the New York City police department committed that were at least highlighted in this report talk about deploying officers without proper training. Jake, I've heard this response before from police departments. How is that acceptable?
Jake: I wouldn't say it's necessarily acceptable. I think that this report really zeroed in on a lot of the structural problems within the department. They found that even going back to the Police Academy, there's really not a ton of focus on trading for protests and very often, this falls under creating for just disorders so there's these disorder control tactics that were used. That's one of the recommendations. They say that police officers need to be trained to handle protesters better. I would also say that I've spoken to a civil rights attorneys who say the NYPD knows exactly what they're doing in terms of policing protests and this is not their first rodeo at all.
Tanzina: Phil, I have to ask your thoughts here because you have been a police officer and just hearing the NYPD here in New York City say that some of these officers just didn't have the proper training or they were just too inexperienced. Again, feels like I'm an excuse here. How is it that police officers aren't trained to handle protests?
Phil: I think they are trained to handle protests. One of the problems that we see here though, and we see this not only in New York but in other agencies across the country, in a few places in specific where the law enforcement executives, the police chiefs, the County sheriffs so the rank and file deputy and police officers simply didn't understand that this was a protest about the police and in some cases really against the police.
They really didn't acknowledge that and it wasn't really a lack of training. It really, in my view, was a lack of empathy. The police officers on the street really weren't engaging with the protestors and letting them know that they acknowledge what the problem was here and letting them express their first amendment rights. I agree with Jake, I really think that it's not the first rodeo for the NYPD, they certainly have all sorts of training in this area. It's not a matter of a lack of training, it's a lack of empathy.
Tanzina: Jake, you were on the ground actually covering these protests over the summer so you saw with your own eyes the interaction between police officers and protesters, how would you describe it and again, with the understanding that we're talking about larger trends here, not always individuals. Was there a sense of hostility between the protest and the police often? Were you feeling that tension?
Jake: Yes, absolutely. I think hostility, seething anger, whatever you want to use. This was really a moment that I think a lot of us had not seen before, just in terms of the level of fear rage. A lot of that was directed towards the police department and as Phil was pointing out, there wasn't really a sense of empathy back.
In fact, there was a sense of anger and in many cases, violence on the part of the police department that really escalated these tensions and that's something else to report found that in many instances, the NYPD did play a part in escalating and making things worse and that's what we saw progressively over the span of a few weeks. What started out as thousands of people taking the streets pretty quickly devolved into these clashes between police officers and protesters.
Tanzina: Phil, the report found that part of the problem was that the NYPD, at least according to them, lacked a clearly defined strategy. Again, how do you go into a series of protests and not have a strategy? If you could explain, in fact, Phil, what generally are the strategies that police officers and departments, I would imagine they're somewhat similar across the country, employ to manage protests? What are some of the best practices that this NYPD did not do?
Phil: I think a starting point is you have to give people the opportunity to express their first amendment rights. People need to be allowed to protest and what we saw here was that the police simply don't handle situations well when they are the target of the protestors, it's an us versus them mentality. They really come at this with a warrior mentality as opposed to a guardian mentality. A better approach in terms of strategies in dealing with these types of protests would be to engage into exhibit a guardian mentality, to make sure that there are things in place to protect people who are actually protesting and not to corral them and make them into the criminals, which is what we saw here, time and again.
One of the things that the NYPD pointed out was that they were caught off guard that they weren't expecting this, but of all the police departments across the United States, the NYPD has the most resources, the most abilities to be able to respond into a change on a dime, to be able to handle situations as they arise and they ought to be able to deal with this without really any difficulties at all.
Here, one of the complications was that these were not protests, there were organized and advance. These weren't the types of protests where there were groups there that where their leaders went down and obtained, permits and engaged in discussions with the city government, in terms of how these protests would unfold, where they would take place. It was much more organic than that. I think the problem that we have in law enforcement is they really aren't situated to handle that spontaneous protest arising in a city where law enforcement hasn't planned ahead for it and they need to rethink that.
Tanzina: There was a point in the summer, Phil and Jake, where we as citizens, as journalists knew and expected there to be ongoing protests. It became part of our daily conversation over the summer in particular following the death of George Floyd. I'm just surprised that the NYPD just couldn't anticipate that. Jake, the NYPD also has a Community Affairs Bureau and they were not involved in the department's response to the protests. Why were they not and what is their role?
Jake: Yes, I think the Community Affairs Bureau is supposed to play that guardian role that Phil was mentioning. The reason that they weren't involved according to one person interviewed in this report is that the NYPD leadership just never called that never came up and so instead we saw that the NYPD was really relying on its strategic response group, which was this very controversial unit, deals a lot with terrorism. They're heavily armored. They have the motocross peer where you can see their faces, very often you can see their badge numbers because they don't have badge numbers.
Tanzina: Is that legal? I just want to go back a second, Jake. Is it illegal?
Jake: They are supposed to display their badge numbers. We inquired about this several times, NYPD they claim that-- Some of the people that I spoke to said that this was new equipment and they hadn't gotten a chance to put a badge number on it yet and then when the NYPD was asked about this in the report, the department leadership said that they were not familiar with any instances in which a badge number was not visible. I can tell you that probably about 50% of the time, there's no badge number from what I saw in June and throughout the summer.
Tanzina: Phil, your thought on that, that the badge number feels like that is basic protocol.
Phil: It's interesting. The Office of Independent Monitor in Denver, Colorado issued a report in the last week or so where they brought up the same issue in Denver, where officers were not displaying their name tags and their badges during the protest and it was a problem. This is not an isolated problem. It's actually something that I remember as a young police officer, more than three decades ago in New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, there were yearly gatherings up in Lake Winnipesaukee bikers weekend and they brought in police officers from all across the state.
I remember being told as a young police officer that it was a common practice that officers would remove their name tags, or sometimes wear a generic name tag that said something like Smith so that they could not be identified. This is a long-standing tactic that police departments use, informally it's probably not done at the chief level, but it's part of the police culture.
Part of the police subculture. It has been for a very long time when you have protest responses, mass disturbances, mass gatherings, where you're going to have a lot of interaction and potentially a lot of arrests where officers, in some places across the country, routinely remove their badges, remove their name tags.
This is not something new, it's something that comes up periodically, but it's a long-standing part of the police subculture and it's problematic and as you pointed out Tanzina, in some places, there are actually state laws that require police officers to wear their names and their department affiliation on a patch on their outermost garment and it's simply ignored in many places.
Tanzina: Jake, during the uprisings, particularly here in New York, there was a lot of egging on and a lot of rhetoric coming out of the police union here in New York City coming out of certain politicians, I'm thinking particularly out on Staten Island where really Nicole Malliotakis made this a critical issue as part of her campaign and won the support for the police. Did that have anything to do, Jake, you think, as far as how police officers responded to the protests hearing these messages from other folks?
Jake: I think it would be fair to say that it probably had some effect. Yes, the impact of the police unions in New York City and in a lot of places across the country is one that is, I think in a lot of ways, pretty problematic. There've been many instances in which the leader of the Sergeants Benevolent Association in New York has shared things that are pretty racist and he's come after protesters and he's painted them all as looters.
We saw that on [unintelligible 00:11:29] Island and Staten Island as well. I think we saw that from the police commissioner. New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea has really stood by his cops. He is a cop's cop. He's spreading information about protesters on a number of levels and he suggests that they're stockpiling, bricks ahead of protestors with no evidence. I think that does trickle down. I think that’s part of the culture of the NYPD right now, is that there is this us versus them mentality that Phil was talking about.
Tanzina: Phil, you mentioned that this issue of police officers covering up their badge numbers, which happened here in New York City with certain police officers is also something that's happened in other cities across the country. Are there similar reports being done across the country about how police departments more broadly have responded to the uprisings for racial justice in this country over the summer? Because New York was not an isolated incident. These were protests that were happening in small cities and large cities and small towns and I imagine many police departments were grappling with similar issues.
Phil: As I mentioned earlier, the Office of Independent Monitor in Denver, Colorado issued a report that really tracked the New York reporting in many regards, dealing with systemic problems that were identified. We see in other jurisdictions, not so much in terms of reports, there are some others that are coming out that are being worked on, but largely, it's just business as usual.
I think that's part of the problem. The problem that I have with the reports that we're seeing is that they, especially the New York report, specifically mentioned that holding officers accountable who use excessive force, who assault people, they're holding them accountable through charging them criminally, charging the officers with crimes is something that doesn't make much sense to the writers of the report.
They say it's difficult to prosecute. Police officers makes work very hard for prosecutors because they rely on police officers in their daily work. They don't want to upset other officers. I think really the core problem here, is that if we held officers accountable on an individual basis, ultimately, if enough officers are held accountable and charged with crimes when they commit crimes, and I'm not suggesting that all cops are criminals, that all cops are bad cops, but if the ones that are held accountable, I think we can make some systemic change over time.
Tanzina: How do you hold officers accountable? Jake?
Jake: I think it's a very tricky question. In New York City, we have seen that by and large NYPD officers are not held accountable. There are very few instances in which an officer faces any discipline for their action in this city and for the most part that I think is because of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police commissioner Dermot Shea. When this report came out, a lot of people said it fell short.
It did not really find fault with the police leadership by name. It did not call for further investigation that would lead to accountability and people who I spoke to said that until that happens, we're not going to see much of a change. I think that when Mayor de Blasio says that he accepts these recommendations and he has to do better, that's in part because these recommendations don't really call for doing much beyond know structural reforms that might take effect once he leaves office next year.
Tanzina: Well, we'll see what happens moving forward. Phil Stinson, a professor, and criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and Jake often Harts is a reporter at Gothamist in New York City. Thanks to you both for joining us.
Jake: Thanks, Tanzina.
Phil: Thanks, Tanzina, it's going to be with you.
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