One Police Plaza

Race: Still America’s Struggle

August 18, 2014

Whether in Ferguson, Missouri or New York City, no institution in this country is as racially polarized as our criminal justice system. It's a zero sum game, with no winners.

And the police are the face of it.

Why do so many black Americans distrust the police? When I was a young reporter in Detroit, Michigan, its then police commissioner, Ray Girardin, described to me what it had been like for blacks in previous decades. "A black man would go to a police station to report his bicycle stolen," Girardin said. "The police would arrest him for stealing his own bicycle."

Forty years later, that remark still resonates.

We don’t want to think that New York City has been that bad. Still, as late as the 1970s, Clifford Glover, a ten-year-old black boy, was fatally shot in the back by a cop as he fled through a vacant lot in Queens. Randolph Evans, a black teenager from Brooklyn, was fatally shot in the head by a cop for no apparent reason. Both cops were white. Both were acquitted.

The cop who shot Evans pleaded temporary insanity. A year after his acquittal, his sanity returned.

In 1983, six white transit cops beat Michael Stewart, a 25-year-old black man, to death after he was caught smoking a joint in Union Square. The officers, all white, were also acquitted.

In 1999, in perhaps the worst police abuse the city has ever seen, four white cops shot and killed an innocent African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment. One of the cops imagined Diallo was reaching for a gun. The gun turned out to be a wallet.

They, too, were acquitted.

In 2004, Timothy Stansbury, another black teenager from Brooklyn, was fatally shot by a cop on the rooftop on his building. The shooting was ruled accidental and the cop was not indicted. A year later he was elected a delegate of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

In 2006, Sean Bell, another black man, was fatally shot by cops after leaving a bachelor party. They, too, were acquitted.

That's one side of the racial polarization. The other side is that the same black officials who have complained the loudest about police abuse say virtually nothing about what Benjamin Ward, New York's first black police commissioner, referred to as "our dirty little secret."

What he meant was that most crime in the city — in particular, most violent crime — is committed by young black males, against other black males. Black officials criticized him at the time for speaking out.

In more subtle ways, race permeates decisions in the criminal justice system that go beyond the police.

Last week, six grandstanding city congressmen made a plea to Attorney General Eric Holder to remove the case of Eric Garner, the 350-pound black man who died from a chokehold as police attempted to arrest him, from Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan. Instead they urged Holder to begin a federal investigation. Five of the six congressman are black. Donovan is white.

Removing a case from a city district attorney is extraordinarily rare. The last time it happened was nearly 20 years ago. That also had racial overtones.

It occurred in 1996, following the death of Kevin Gillespie, a police officer, in the Bronx. Because Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, the only African-American D.A. in the state at the time, had publicly opposed the death penalty, Gov. George Pataki removed Gillespie's case from Johnson and appointed a special prosecutor. His decision proved moot when Gillespie's alleged killer hanged himself in prison.

Manhattan's longtime district attorney Robert Morgenthau also publicly opposed the death penalty. No attempt was ever made to remove a case from him.

Similarly, the Diallo case was removed from a black judge. After the case was assigned — supposedly at random — to Acting State Supreme Court Judge Patricia Williams, attorneys for the PBA persuaded the Appellate Division of the First Department to move the trial out of the Bronx because, they argued, the cops could not get a fair trial there.

For reasons never made clear, the judges moved the trial to, of all places, Albany. There, the four cops were acquitted.

Holder has said that the country is afraid to conduct an open, full-throttle discussion on race. That applies to both blacks and whites. We’ve come a long way in race relations, but until that discussion is held, there will be more Michael Browns and Eric Garners.

THE REV, THE REV, THE REV [con’t]. There was Al Sharpton, hosting his hourly television show, PoliticsNation, on MSNBC, discussing the case of Michael Brown, the black teenager killed in Ferguson, Missouri. At the same time he was out in Ferguson, leading demonstrations against the police.

Professor emeritus Melvin Mencher of the Columbia Journalism School, has said that television news should never be confused with journalism.

Let’s see how MSNBC covers the Rev-led demonstration in Staten Island next week over Garner’s “chokehold” death that the Rev claims is linked to Brown’s. Maybe they’ll have the Rev covering himself.


Copyright © 2014 Leonard Levitt