New York City’s Quest for Civility

Basil Wilson's picture

New York City has laid to rest two members of the NYPD family who were senselessly murdered by a deranged criminal. The assassinations of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu epitomize the relatively high level of violent crime in America and the irreverence for human life.  Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the killer of the two police officers, placed no importance in his girlfriend’s life who he shot before he departed from Baltimore to New York. After assassinating the cops, he took his own wretched life.

The assassination of Ramos and Liu occurred in the midst of nationwide protests against police excess use of force, particularly directed at black males.  The murder of Michael Brown by the Ferguson Police Force in Missouri, the chokehold death of Eric Garner by NYPD officers who showed great indifference to Garner’s life, the Cleveland Police Officer who shot 12 year old Timor Rice while playing with a toy gun and John Crawford who was shot and killed by police officers in Beavercreek, Ohio in Walmart holding a BB gun while shopping with his girlfriend, to name some of the blatant incidents which reflect complete contempt for black life.

The refusal of black communities throughout the United States to remain silent with such a cluster of state sanctioned deaths and the failure of the Grand Jurors to indict any police officer has given rise to a movement demanding police reform.  But the presumption on the part of police unions is that critiques of police practice are tantamount to being anti-police.

Particularly in the case of New York City from the election of Rudy Giuliani as Mayor in 1993 for two terms and Michael Bloomberg in 2001 for three terms, Mayors of New York City and Commissioners of Police have given New York City police officers a free rein.  William Bratton, who was Giuliani’s first Police Commissioner in 1993, introduced “broken windows” and that approach to policing continued under successive Commissioners until the election of Bill de Blasio in 2014. The “broken windows” policing drove down crime but it also alienated minority communities.

The black elected officials have been quite critical of the zero tolerance approach to policing. For example, the policy of stop and frisk was aggressively applied to black and brown communities but produced very little dividends.  The overwhelming majority of stops produced no guns, no contrabands and was really unconstitutional harassment.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and other human rights organizations took out a federal class action suit against NYPD’s application of stop and frisk. The Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the manner in which NYPD used stop and frisk violated the constitutional rights of black and brown residents of the City.

The New York City Council was also troubled by the heavy-handedness of NYPD and passed legislation to have an Inspector General to work with NYPD to ensure that they did not overstep constitutional boundaries.  The Federal Judge also ordered Federal Monitors.

In the Mayoralty election of 2013, candidate Bill de Blasio made it clear that he would modify stop and frisk.  He won the election decisively and under Commissioner Bratton stops and frisks by NYPD have been reduced by seventy-five percent.  The issue between the black community and NYPD is much greater than stop and frisk.  The contempt for black citizens is not readily seen by people outside of those communities.

There is the CCRB where citizens can register complaints but there is a great deal of verbal abuse and petty arrests that take place below the radar and is not systematically chronicled anywhere.  Some of it is driven by the drive to lower crime rates but it is also driven by a police culture that has become aggressively bombastic and disconnected from the black community.

Bratton in speaking at Rafael Ramos’ funeral stated quite profoundly that it is important for police officers to be cognizant of the community’s concerns and for the community to be aware of the concerns of NYPD officers.

Nonetheless, there is a principle involved.  In a democratic society, the military and police are under the control of elected officials.  NYPD in turning its back on Mayor de Basio at Rafael Ramos’ funeral is sending the message that they are not respectful of civilian authority.  The police in a democratic society do not constitute an autonomous paramilitary force.  That is an abrogation of democratic precepts and the City cannot be run by a police force that presumes that it is above criticism and above the law.  The police unions do not set policy.  Police policy is set by the Mayor and the City Council and is implemented by the Police Commissioner.

NYPD’s “beef” is that the protestors were given too much latitude and should have been more sternly dealt with.  The issue of how demonstrators are treated in the city goes back to the Giuliani years when NYPD ran roughshod over people’s constitutional rights to peacefully assemble.  NYPD rank and file and union leaders want a crackdown on protestors to demonstrate the power and the fury of law enforcement. But law enforcement must learn to respect the United States Constitution.

The City has been experiencing a renaissance in its economic life, gentrification, graduation rates from higher educational institutions and the precipitous decline in violent and non-violent crime.  NYPD Commissioners have adopted practices like Comstat that has made the city a much safer place to live and do business when compared to the 1970s and 1980s when the city was falling apart.  All facets of crime have fallen.  An illustration of the quest for civility is that in 1990, 2,262 murders were recorded for New York City and in 2013, there were 335, a reduction of 83%.  This year, the murder rate will be below the 2013 figure.

That is quite an accomplishment.  But Hitler was also instrumental in making the trains run on time.  What New York City needs at this juncture in its quest for civility is a police department that refrains from functioning in a silo and to respect the rights of the poorest of communities. The deaths of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu dramatically reminded us of the sanctity of life and the tragedy of their senseless deaths.  The city was moved by the sacrifice of the two officers.  The City was touched by their humanity.  What we can take away from that tragic incident is that all lives matter irrespective of class, creed or race.

Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: