Dressed in a puffy black down jacket, gray hoody and indigo-colored jeans belted to expose a four-inch expanse of his plaid boxers, Malik Priestly stood outside the Tilden Educational Campus in the East Flatbush section of Central Brooklyn Saturday afternoon and paced.
Priestly stopped and stared at the door. His sister had already gone inside. Even though it was snowing, he frittered with his iPhone, then put it away and took to rubbing his almost coal-colored hands in front of his mouth for heat. Priestly, 16, was trying to decide whether to go inside and do what he called “the good-kid” thing -- talk about the shooting death of another black 16-year-old, Kimani Gray, at the hands of two plain clothes New York City police officers this month. Then listen to impromptu sermons thinly disguised as questions about “youth” and the three nights of protest following the shooting that ended in clashes with police. Or, Priestly could go home, watch cartoons and brood.
“My sister wanted to come up here,” said Priestly, who did not know Gray personally but often saw Gray around the neighborhood and even shared some of the same friends. “But I’m kind of like wondering, what good is any of it going to do? I might get stopped, frisked, maybe shot next week.”
Young men like Priestly and, before his sudden death, Gray, often live in communities where police and many residents say crime and gangs warrant intense police patrols, scrutiny and the use of confrontational police techniques such as the New York Police Department’s Stop and Frisk program (officially known as Stop, Question and Frisk).
Stop and Frisk aims to identify people with illegal guns and those engaged in other criminal activity and take them off the street with a program of surprise contact with those who look suspicious. This contact can involve pat downs, and, when warranted, arrests, according to police. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly described the program as a key crime prevention and reduction tool, and said that the program will, at minimum, remain in place through the remainder of his term, which ends at the end of this year. Gray was stopped as a part of the Stop and Frisk program, his family says.
Public opinion polls have repeatedly demonstrated a sharp racial divide in the way that the program is viewed. An August 2012 New York Times poll found that 55 percent of whites surveyed about the program describe it as perfectly acceptable while 56 percent of blacks and 44 percent of Latinos described it as excessive.
East Flatbush is a community that in some ways exemplifies the kind of neighborhood that is most often heavily policed. In the mostly black neighborhood, unemployment and poverty sit above average. No publicly-financed community centers sit within a 3 mile radius, and many schools in the area rank among the city’s struggling institutions.
Gangs, or loosely organized crews, have a real foothold in the area, as do some of their criminal enterprises. In the last two years alone, Gilford Monrose, pastor of Brooklyn’s Mt Zion Church of God 7th Day and president of the 67th police precinct clergy council, has overseen funeral services for 10 people under the age of 25.
It is also a community where most of its residents are first, second and third generation Caribbean immigrants, and long-time residents say it is the sort of place they don’t plan to leave.
“In East Flatbush, of course, we recognize that we have a gun problem a gang problem," Monrose said. "But we also have honest, hard working citizens who want to be policed in a different way. The perception is they are being targeted unfairly.”
Gray was shot and killed March 9 in an incident that has been described in different ways by police and witnesses. Major facts related to the shooting -- whether Gray was carrying a gun at the time of his death or attempting to use it when shot -- remain unclear.
The NYPD did not respond to a Huffington Post request for information, but told The New York Times that plain clothes police approached Gray and a group of "men" around 11:30 p.m., identified themselves as police and ordered them to stop.
Mr. Gray turned and pointed a .38-caliber Rohm revolver at them, the police said; two officers fired, hitting the teenager. He was pronounced dead a short time later at Kings County Hospital Center.
Mr. Gray did not fire the handgun, which was recovered at the scene.
The group of “men,” was actually a collection of mostly teenaged boys including Gray and his twin best friends, said Kenneth Montgomery, a lawyer representing Gray’s family and a one-time New York City prosecutor who worked closely with police on gang crimes. The group was headed to a Sweet 16 party. Not far from the twins’ home, police spotted the group, circled the block and then jumped out of their vehicle issuing orders to stop amid a barrage of curse words. Frightened, Gray attempted to flee but also needed to adjust his sagging pants. As he fiddled with his pants or belt, police officers shot the boy, Montgomery said. Witnesses told Montgomery that Gray was not armed.
At a press conference last week, Kimani Gray’s mother Carol described her son as a victim of a police slaughter, but nobody’s perfect angel since the sudden death of his brother in a car accident two years ago. He had a short record consisting of a joy riding charge, Montgomery said. But Kimani Gray was not in a gang, and to her knowledge, did not own or have access to a gun, Carol Gray said.
“I want to know why,” she said of her son’s death. Kimani, a boy know to his family as Kiki, was the son of a Jamaican immigrant mother and a Guyanese migrant father. "I don't condone any riots, any looting, any shooting, anything against any police officers ... I only want justice for two police officers to be off the street before they hurt another young kid.”
The NYPD has initiated an internal affairs investigation, which is standard procedure after a shooting. Montgomery and Gray’s family plan to meet with the District Attorney’s office this week. Court records do indicate that the two officers involved in the shooting have been accused of using excessive or inappropriate levels of force and violating the rights of people with whom they have come in contact on at least five occasions, leading to more than $100,000 in settlement payouts.
On Thursday, the New York Civil Liberties Union announced that the city’s police department is well on its way to initiating 5 million stop and frisks. Of the 4.4 million stops that have already been recorded, just over 86 percent of those stopped and frisked were black or Latino and 88 percent of these interactions did not lead to an arrest or citation requiring a court appearance.
“These paramilitary police tactics, the over policing of communities that in city after city just happen to be black ad brown,” Montgomery said. “They distort the experience of growing up, walking down the street and even the most basic interactions with the police. And it's not just Brooklyn. That's what's happening in almost every city in this country.”
Back outside the Tilden building Saturday, Priestly decided to send his sister a text message. It read, “Can't handle it. Going home.”