With our elected leaders relying on hyperbole and biased emotive lectures, the body politic swings from the pendulum of press propaganda, swaying from one extreme to another. There has been almost no reasoned leadership in the public discourse about police brutality and the recent police fatalities.
Our hearts were broken as we learned about Mike Brown and how he was unarmed when he was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, in Missouri. We were even more devastated by the Grand Jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson. However, the most damning moment in the Mike Brown narrative was District Attorney Bob McCulloch's choice to announce the decision at night and his attempt to sway public opinion by releasing a statement that sought to discredit, credible witnesses and add credibility to witnesses that we now know, have none. Our hope was that the Governor or Attorney General would apply reason and step in and challenge this obvious miscarriage of justice. There was no application of reason and so the people suffer.
As a result of Mike Brown and the public unrest, law enforcement agencies began to answer the call to provide body cameras on officers so that the police process could be held accountable. However, a very cynical public watched the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, because a witness recorded the encounter. New York City and the rest of the Country became outraged when the Grand Jury in Staten Island refused to indict Officer Pantaleo even though the coroner ruled Eric Garner's death, a homicide. (Garner can be seen on video repeating 11 times, "I can't breath," while Pantaleo and supporting officers held him down in a chokehold, a practice that has been banned by the NYPD for twenty years.) A close examination of the Grand Jury process revealed that the Staten Island District Attorney never charged the jury to consider lesser charges like, Reckless Endangerment, a charge that may have been appropriate since there is very little evidence to support that Officer Pantaleo intended to kill Eric Garner. This detail was shocking because it, again, showed the lack of leadership in obtaining justice and showed the lack of reason necessary to protect the process of justice. In this case, a federal investigation and an internal investigation have been launched.
As a result of the killing of Eric Garner and the inability of our leaders to obtain justice for his family, the people took to the streets in peaceful protest. Organizations banded together and made reasonable demands to challenge the process of police prosecutions but also calling for reform to police policies and procedures. While tensions were obviously high, most protesters maintained respect for the process and many officers observed the public's lawful right to demand better from their local government. While the general public began looking for leadership on the necessary public discourse, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, began threatening their constitutional rights, using divisive language, racist code words, and intimating that the police are at war with the public.
In an almost prophetic threat, Lynch warned that if any police officers were killed, Mayor DeBlasio would not be welcome at their funerals. Then we were all struck with another tragedy. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an Atlanta/Baltimore resident with alleged emotional and mental issues, allegedly shot his ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, on Saturday December 20, 2014. Immediately following, Brinsley traveled to New York City, where he shot and killed NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu before killing himself. Brinsley had no ties to any organization protesting police brutality and was not affiliated with any organizations seeking justice for Eric Garner, Mike Brown or Akai Gurley (another unarmed man, recently killed by police). The murder of Officers Ramos and Liu, sparked outrage from police brutality protesters, police officers and city officials. Instead of classifying Brinsley with mental health cases like Adam Lanza, Jerad Miller or Amanda Miller, Lynch accused Mayor DeBlasio, Attorney General Eric Holder and Protesters of causing the deaths of these officers. Lynch's rank and file turned their back on Mayor Deblasio as he walked through Woodhull hospital (and since, at the funerals for Liu and Ramos), showing disrespect and lack of character. By politicizing the deaths of these officers, Lynch created a deeper divide between the police and the people they are hired to serve and protect, using this vulnerable time to power grab from Police Chief Bratton and Mayor de Blasio. Although de Blasio's spokesperson called Lynch's initial attacks, "overheated rhetoric," de Blasio, more recently, seemed to buckle a bit, requesting protests be put on hold for another day following the deaths of Officers Ramos and Liu. Governor Cuomo echoed these statements and was even more reductive, simply saying "we should all talk later."
In times like these, there is a need for real and reasonable leadership. Reasonable leadership would have quieted Pat Lynch by establishing a framework for public discourse that allowed for the unpacking of the racial debate as opposed to letting it remain the elephant in every room that discusses police brutality. Real leadership would not ask protesters to stop protesting under political pressure, but alternatively would recognize the greater need to address the reasons for protests and lead the change that is necessary. Reasonable leadership would have controlled the narrative of Ismaaiyl Brinsley by telling the truth about his mental health past and his destructive path into New York City. But most importantly, real and reasonable leadership would understand that the divide between police and black and brown communities is systemic and institutionalized and that the culture of an organization can only change by a radical shift in purpose, training and policy.
Make no mistake: After the election of Bill de Blasio, the upholding of Judge Scheindlin's comprehensive decision about "Stop and Frisk," the appalling killing of Eric Garner and the rigged grand-jury proceedings against the police officer who killed him, the brutal assassinations of Officers Ramos and Liu and the exploitation of their murders by irresponsible and ideologically-motivated politicians and police union leaders, NYC is facing the prospect of a full-scale counter-revolution against any and all reform of the NYPD. We need to completely change the culture of policing. Cops turn their backs on the Mayor, because they don't think leadership is affective, but we can't turn our backs on cops for the same reason? They think their interests are different from ours. It may not be realistic, but I don't think there's a reason to aim for anything less than radical, transformative change.
So, just as we mourn and seek justice for the deaths of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, we will continue to mourn and seek justice for Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and anyone else that becomes a victim of our unsustainable system. One unnecessary act of violence does not negate the other. This isn't "wartime." This is our time. This is New York City's time to create real, viable, tangible, systemic change and in order to do that, immediate action is required that begins with discourse that is transparent and inclusive of all communities.
This post was co-authored with Keith White.