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The Changing Face of Police Brutality: Bratton's Broken Windows and the Death of Eric Garner

Things don't seem to be changing much with the NYPD and the latest case of a black man dying at their hands has a lot of New Yorkers being left to feel as if perhaps they were fooled by the campaign rhetoric of one Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the police-community relations promises of NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton.
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The more things change... well, you know the rest. And you know the rest because even that classic saying has stayed the same. Here's another one: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Things don't seem to be changing much with the NYPD and the latest case of a black man dying at their hands has a lot of New Yorkers being left to feel as if perhaps they were fooled by the campaign rhetoric of one Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the police-community relations promises of NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton.

It's happening all over again. History is repeating itself. Was that Al Sharpton leading sermons and marching with yet another grieving family? It's almost as if Sharpton's welcome wagon for 'super-cop' Bill Bratton at the beginning of the year or that whole government informant scandal in the spring never happened. More to the point, Sharpton is perhaps as close to the Mayor and City Hall as ever -- not necessarily seen as a good thing by activists and community members who are angered at the thought of adding another name into their collective conscience. As ABC News alluded to in a story about Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris' face-saving attempts to quell the anger emanating from Staten Island to City Hall this week (the mayor is vacationing in Rome while, politically, Rome burns at home), Sharpton may be too close to City Hall this time around:

"What hasn't been advertised is the way de Blasio and Shorris have made the quiet plays behind the scenes at City Hall. Chief among those moves was bringing community leader the Rev. Al Sharpton into the mix.

Instead of waiting for Sharpton to go after City Hall, officials used their close ties to Sharpton to keep him calm and informed from the start, according to one official briefed on the administration's efforts."

Fifty years ago this week in 1964 Harlem was the site of race riots sparked by the killing of a black man by a cop. This year also marks 20 years since the 1994 chokehold death of Anthony Baez. As New Yorkers have had a week to ponder Staten Island father and grandfather Eric Garner in their minds with de Blasio eating Pizza with forks in Italy, New York City media will predictably focus on Sharpton and Bratton -- who was commissioner during both Baez and Garner's chokehold deaths. It can seem like a flashback to the 90's, if not the 60's. Sharpton, of course, will do his best to pacify any 'irresponsible' agitation and herd as many people under his banner as possible. Those and similar calls for justice from elected officials will not likely stray far beyond officer Daniel Pantaleo. Oh don't get me wrong, some of the rhetoric flying around may pay lip-service to what we know: police brutality is systemic and cultural at the NYPD; but keep a close watch on the actual demands themselves. None will ask for anyone's jobs other than those street-level cops, and none will question the policies and fundamental ideology at the heart of Bratton's NYPD: Broken Windows.

I recently spoke via phone with Professor Bernard Harcourt, formerly at the University of Chicago and now at Columbia University. He was one of a number of academics to challenge the conventional wisdom that Broken Windows-based policing lowered crime, as well as the politics behind it. The critiques were so stinging that both Bratton and Broken Windows guru George Kelling felt compelled to respond publicly in an defensively written 2006 article, There Are No Cracks in The Broken Window.

Harcourt began by explaining that Broken Windows, at its core, was simply about creating "interactions" and "contact with civilians." As Garner protested in the now infamous video of his last moments, those types of interactions occur because Broken Windows, or a focus on 'quality-of-life' crimes (like selling "loosies") become "the pretext for stopping someone and checking their background", Harcourt said. Garner alluded to as much in the video: "every time you see me, you're harassing me!" And, like CUNY professor Alex Vitale pointed out this week, Harcourt also reiterated that most research doesn't support a "causal relationship between Broken Windows and reductions in crime." The religious-like belief in Bratton's expertise was largely a product of Bratton and former mayor Rudy Giuliani's "media spin... which was their forte", Harcourt added.

But Bratton paraded back into own like a conquering hero based large in part to the credit lambasted on him in media and political circles. Bratton 'cleaned up' New York City, is the popular feeling. And the notion that this recycled face from the past was incompatible with talk of reform at 1 Police Plaza, or that his presence might hurt -- not heal -- the wounds between the community and police was hardly considered. I know because a few of us joined Nicholas Heyward Sr. (father of Nicholas Jr.), Iris Baez (mother of Anthony) and Margarita Rosario (mother of Anthony), parents of victims of NYPD violence during the first Bratton era in the 90's, to protest de Blasio's appointment of Bratton back in December. We confronted allegedly "progressive" city councilmembers like Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams for their silence on the appointment. We explained our concerns about Bratton. Both declined to push back against Bratton then and both continue to give Bratton the benefit of the doubt still today.

While history appears to repeat itself, some things are changing. For one, the practice of regularly filming cops has become an invaluable tool in the communities that are policed the most. Who knows what the story coming out of the Garner death might have been had Garner's death not been recorded by residents or if it had happened somewhere out of view, in an alley or something Whereas with so many incidents of brutality being usually out of the public eye -- with the obvious exception of the infamous Rodney King beating -- the video put the public front row to Garner's death. That's what makes the case so damning -- and unspinnable. Police brutality has a new face: ours. We're seeing brutality victims left and right. These aren't simply pictures dampened by the tears of grieving families anymore. We can hear Garner's words, feel his frustrations and now see his death frame by frame with no doubt left in our minds.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, we are now learning, has gotten around to informing us that they received over 1,000 chokehold complaints in the last five years. The CCRB, long considered toothless, ineffective and not nearly independent enough, plans to investigate. Investigate? Where was the investigation when the 500th or 700th complaint came in? Maybe at 900 you'd think you have a problem. Chokeholds have been banned since 1992. 1,022 chokehold complaints in five years comes out to over four chokehold complaints per week.

This is what people mean when they say brutality is a pattern, a culture. The problems don't only lie with the street cops, they persist even at the oversight level. In the case of Garner, supervisors failed to even mention the chokehold to investigators -- which suggests a culture within the department that covers the ass of its own. Every one of the 35,000 cops on the force don't need to be murders for the department to be knee-deep in systemic brutality. Internal Affairs, you say? Reports that IAB head Joe Reznick -- a Bratton appointee -- called an NYPD whistleblower a "rat" inspire little confidence. So when the people supposedly holding cops accountable sound like they could try out for roles on a corrupt TV cop drama, the charade of a 'progressive' era of policing is exposed.

But no, we have these new leaders, these 'progressive' politicians promising the moon. The old raggedy faces of Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg and Ray Kelly are gone. In are the fresh faced city council members -- who were pushing for 1,000 extra cops in low-income communities. In is the mayor, father of the kid of the politically formidable afro.

No, wait. The faces this week -- when it hit the fan -- belonged to Bratton and Sharpton. The Daily News' Errol Louis described it like a chess match (though he did at least suggest a "fresh look at Broken Windows"). The more things change...

But that's why some of us got together as New Yorkers Against Bratton last winter. The purpose of the group wasn't to resemble some Sharpton-esque show, or mimic politicians and activists eager to stand up to Bloomberg and Kelly -- but not de Blasio and Bratton. As parents and activists who had either lost everything or had everything to lose, we had teeth. And this discussion about the NYPD needs new teeth, new faces. The faces (and voices) of people most affected by brutality. The ones who realize that all of these marches, investigations and trials are falling short for so many of us. The ones that realize that faces need to change if we want our fates to change. We certainly don't need the faces of Bratton and Sharpton in 2014 anymore. And it's that sense of urgency that allows us to call for Bratton's job, an end to Broken Windows and a federal investigation into the systematic brutality at the NYPD.

A historic moment demands historic changes.

It doesn't end with Bratton, but it starts with him. Him, his theory and the deaths that continue to go on under his watch.

Fire Bratton. End Broken Windows. Federal investigation into the NYPD's pattern of brutality.