Hearing What They Want: The Illusions of Police Reform

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 31:  New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is joined by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at City Hall for a round
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 31: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is joined by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at City Hall for a roundtable discussion on police-community relations following the death of Eric Garner while in police custody in Staten Island on July 31, 2014 in New York City. The meeting included clergy members and community leaders from Staten Island and other boroughs of the city. De Blasio was elected in part as a liberal critic of the previous administration's police tactics. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Two important meetings in New York city last week were followed by an important whistleblower story Friday that should serve as the exclamation points on assertions that NYPD is beyond reform.

The public safety committee of the New York city council held an oversight hearing last Monday to question Commissioner Bill Bratton on proposed training changes for the NYPD in the aftermath of the Eric Garner death. The premise of the hearing was, of course, complete nonsense. The NYPD is one of the most-trained departments in the country. It sets precedents for police training. A three-day "refresher course" or some unironically-named "Blue Courage" training program isn't likely to affect the culture of brutality and non-accountability that sits squarely at the core of the department.

Bratton, naturally, made quick work of the hearing. His reputation amongst grassroots activists from Los Angeles to New York is one of being a savvy business-friendly authoritarian who passes himself off as a straightforward innovator, charming and disarming (some) skeptics along the way. The latter part was as true Monday, as he proposed a slew of new training updates to a generally eager council, as it was last winter when the ACLU's Connie Rice and MSNBC's Al Sharpton blessed his return to New York.

Monday's hearing was more of the same. Remarkably softball questions from the speaker of the council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, were buoyed by the fawning of the likes of councilmember Rafael Espinal, who began his four-minute allotted question time by announcing that he simply "felt safer" with Bratton in the room. Overall, everyone in attendance was treated to a lot of ineffectual blathering often preceded by proclamations of love for the NYPD.

The uproar after the killing of Garner in Staten Island this summer seguewayed into a criticism of Broken Windows -- Bratton's signature policing theory. Bratton, responding to critics, dug in his heels and indicated he wouldn't budge on the low-level crime obsessed theory. That same hard-nosed response shone through during the council hearing when he said he wouldn't support legislation officially outlawing chokeholds or when he denied the well-known (but unofficial) NYPD quota system existed. Both comments drew gasps and grumblings from those of us in attendance. These and other Bratton-isms perhaps explain why his approval ratings dropped below even the lowest that Ray Kelly ever saw. And to be fair to some on the council, some skepticism came through in spurts at the hearing. Councilmember Robert Cornegy finally spoke about the "5,000-pound elephant in the room", Broken Windows, by name almost two hours into the hearing. Councilmembers Reynoso and Torres, two young men of color, had a few sharp questions for Bratton.

Still, Bratton emerged from the hearing unscathed. It was policing activists and members of the public that left the highly-anticipated hearing with no answers and hours wasted on phony solutions. This was in addition to the news that Bratton wants 1,000 new cops, which (coupled with trainings and re-trainings) would cost the taxpayer somewhere around $30 million. "I think we had a good morning" a smiling Bratton said as he walked out of the council chambers.

Members of the public who stayed around for the public testimony at the end of the hearing spoke to a room that mostly cleared out after Bratton, his entourage, the media and all but one or two city councilmembers left the room after the commissioner's Q&A. The words of everyday people echoed through the almost empty council chambers. Asked his reaction to Bratton's testimony, one man replied "Standard operating procedure... we've been bamboozled."

Two days later and 14 miles away in Staten Island, the Civilian Complaint Review Board held its first public meeting there in 10 years. This too was obviously, if not explicitly, in light of the Garner incident. The meeting was held a short walk from the sidewalk where Daniel Pantleo choked Garner to death in July. The CCRB, long considered ineffective and toothless, had a new chairman chosen by Mayor de Blasio and heralded as a former civil rights litigator intent on fixing the agency. The usual promises. The agency is under some heat for having failed to do or say anything about the massive number of chokehold complaints they'd received about the NYPD.

We confronted the new chairman, Richard Emery, that night and told him his ties to Bratton and the Mayor's office were not acceptable for the head of an oversight agency that's supposed to be independent. Emery is Bratton's friend and former personal lawyer. His son's godfather is John Miller--Bratton's counterterrorism guy (and someone who's spun the revolving door between media and government like this: CBS, NYPD spokesman for Bratton, ABC, LAPD spokesman for Bratton, FBI spokesman, office of the Director of National Intelligence, CBS again, and now back under Bratton again). Emery, it's been reported, apparently contributed to de Blasio's campaign.

But his relationship with Bratton is perhaps most troubling because it's reminiscent of the one Bratton had with Michael Cherkasky in Los Angeles when Bratton headed the LAPD. Cherkasky was the federal monitor overlooking the scandal-soaked LAPD when it was under a federal consent decree. Cherkasky was not only a friend of Bratton's but also worked for him at the consulting firm Kroll, which Bratton headed up. He returned the favor and hired Bratton at the security consulting company Altegrity when Bratton left the department in 2009. This incestuous network of good ol' boys creates the illusion of reform but are the epitome of the status quo.

Still the CCRB is a long way from a federal monitor. At best they're a joke. A cruel 21-year joke. Former New York Civil Liberties Union head Norman Siegel, who helped create the agency, calls it a "nightmare". And though their limitations of power are written into the city charter, new chairman Emery told the packed room that night that if it were up to him he'd still give final authority on discipline to the commissioner. Remember, this is the civil rights litigator who has promised to make the largest civilian oversight agency in the country credible again. Apparently the fact that Bratton has continued a tradition of toying with the CCRB's disciplinary recommendations is something Emery wants to keep intact.

A cruel joke.

Staten Island residents let them have it at the meeting, though. A man named Frank Stevens wobbled up to the mic during the public comment section and pulled out a letter signed by the CCRB's executive director, Tracy Capatano-Fox, that deemed his 2012 police brutality complaint 'unfounded'. Stevens said cops from the 120th precinct--the local precinct that Daniel Pantaleo was fromt--racially profiled him, hit him with their cruiser when they screeched into a u-turn, and permanently damaged his ankle. Fox (now being pressured to leave) was red-faced as residents shook their heads in disgust. Next, a woman told a story about cops from the same 120th precinct who confronted her and her bi-racial grandson at gunpoint when they mistook them for drug dealers. An older man stunned some in the crowd when he pointed out that board member Tosano Simonetti (just let go from the board), an ornery ex-cop and commissioner-appointee to the board since 1997, was the former commander of the 120th precinct. But perhaps the most powerful moment belonged to man who berated the board for doing nothing with complaints he and his family members had filed about their continued harassment from a local cop. The cop not only had multiple CCRB complaints on his record, but had a couple of civil rights lawsuits filed against him.

That cop was Daniel Pantaleo.

Both the city council hearing and the CCRB meeting were sobering testaments to the institutional power of the police department. A city agency initially touted as a check on police abuse and a council still gloating over legislation that created yet another oversight body last year, the office of the Inspector General, aren't a check on anything or anyone.

Recently, Bratton pushed out the NYPD's #2 cop, Rafael Pineiro, and hired a former chief who worked under him in the 1990s (and who was at the center of the NYPD's infamous role in the Tompkins Square riots in the late '80s), Michael Julian. By ridding himself of his top rival (and most likely replacement) and subsequently hiring his pal (who was just running security at a mall in Australia) to help with the training changes, Bratton is signaling he's in charge.

Whether or not the political tide might be turning against him is hard to tell. Much of the political establishment in New York is wary or unwilling to challenge Mayor de Blasio's police commissioner publicly. In spite of the hype, Al Sharpton's union-backed, heavily-attended march in Staten Island stuck to the predictable bad-appleism politics that don't challenge policing's fundamental issues. Ditto for Public Advocate Tish James' body cams. But council speaker Viverito's close political loyalties to the Mayor, to whom she likely owes her position to, have also led her to quell important dissent around Bratton.

Capping off a week of high profile meetings and an avalanche of media analysis trying to make sense of it all, came word late Friday of a city council analyst who said he was fired by Viverito for publicly disputing a key part of Bratton's testimony. The crux of Bratton's presentation Monday was his argument, seemingly supported by neat graphs set up to his left, that "use of force" by the police was actually at all-time lows, with only 2 percent of arrests resulting in force being used. While many of us in the audience knew this was garbage data when we saw it, most of us figured these statistics -- like Stop and Frisk figures -- are self-reported by cops and thus easily "massaged" into whatever Bratton wants us to believe . But the aide, Artyom Matusov, took reports cops filled out themselves on Stop and Frisk arrests (which are only a portion of overall arrests) and found that cops had self-reported use of force much more than Bratton was indicating in his graphs.

Basically, Bratton wasn't airtight in his deception and essentially lied to the council and the public. The analyst who caught it felt he needed to go public. As in the cases of other whistleblowers, there'll be some who'll say he should've gone through the proper channels. Not only are those channels usually designed to lead nowhere, in this case the channels led to the speaker who, along with the Mayor, can punish or incentivize dissent or support in the council through a variety of "goodies", as Matusov explained. The firing revealed her roles in regards to Bratton and de Blasio's NYPD: to keep the "reform" show running unopposed from the inside and to remind everyone how bad things were under Bloomberg and Kelly. She was clearly coloring within the lines of what the mayoral administration wants the perception of their commissioner to be -- a reformer and reconciler -- with her questions at hearing, but the firing of the aide made it all the more obvious.

But ultimately the firing of the analyst and the two meetings earlier that same week are indicative of central political problem surrounding the NYPD in 2014: the inability and unwillingness of almost anyone in New York to hold the NYPD and it's most influential architect, Bill Bratton, accountable. So while we tip our hats off to the whistleblowing analyst, we need to realize that what's required is a sustained grassroots push against Bratton and his Broken Windows theory. To get there we'll need to put to bed any illusions about trainings, oversight agencies and elected officials.