New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton acknowledged on Tuesday that police were to blame for "many of the worst parts of black history" in the United States. Yet advocates for police reform say the comments are merely lip service from an official who continues to reinforce the city's racial tensions.
Bratton gave a speech Tuesday morning to a predominantly African-American crowd during a Black History Month breakfast at the Greater Allen AME Church in Queens.
“Slavery, our country’s original sin, sat on a foundation codified by laws enforced by police, by slave-catchers,” Bratton said.
The commissioner pointed out that the first thing Dutch colonist Peter Stuyvesant did upon arriving in what was then New Amsterdam was set up a police force to prop up a system of slavery.
“Since then, the stories of police and black citizens have intertwined again and again,” Bratton said. "The unequal nature of that relationship cannot and must not be denied.”
As an example, he cited James Powell, the black 15-year-old who was shot and killed by a white NYPD lieutenant in 1964. Bratton noted that the shooting set off riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, as well as "half a decade of urban unrest in cities across the country."
It was an unexpected speech from a commissioner normally in the business of defending the police. Bratton was appointed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to help mend relations between police and minority communities. Although Bratton has overseen a dramatic decline in controversial stop-and-frisk interrogations, his tenure has also been marked by the high-profile deaths of two unarmed black men -- Eric Garner and Akai Gurley -- at the hands of police.
Garner’s death in particular focused attention on Bratton’s signature strategy of “broken windows” policing, which is premised on the idea that aggressively targeting low-level disorder prevents more serious crime. An NYPD officer killed Garner, 43, during an arrest for selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes, a typical broken windows offense.
But even though Bratton's speech acknowledged his department's fraught relationship with communities of color, police reform advocates argued Tuesday that history may not look back kindly on the commissioner unless he does more to improve racial disparities in policing.
“While it’s important to provide the historical context of current problems, Commissioner Bratton is in the position of authority now to address current problems of discriminatory policing in New York City,” Priscilla Gonzalez of Communities United for Police Reform told The Huffington Post.
“Unless he takes action to end the abusive 'broken windows' and other unequal policing that only targets certain communities with aggression and enforcement, and holds officers accountable when they brutalize and unjustly kill in communities of color," Gonzalez said, "he, too, will be judged poorly by history."
Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, said he gave Bratton’s remarks an “A” for “audacious disingenuousness.”
“We appreciate comments on historic abuses,” Gangi continued, but said that the problems were "still going on every day under [Bratton’s] stewardship.”
“The kind of policing he's promoting and encouraging in New York is quota-driven broken windows policing that's engaged in blatantly racist policies,” he added.
PROP regularly observes court cases in the city, and Gangi said that on some days “100 percent” of the defendants are people of color. “The NYPD regularly stops, tickets and harasses communities of color for things that have been virtually decriminalized in white communities,” he said, pointing to low-level offenses like drinking in public, fare-beating and walking a dog without a leash.
A New York Daily News report last year revealed that between 2001 and 2013, the NYPD issued over 7 million summonses for such petty infractions. Eighty-one percent of the people issued summonses were black or Latino, the report said.
In his speech Tuesday, Bratton praised the NYPD for bringing down the crime rate in the 1990s and 2000s, before noting that most of the perpetrators -- and victims -- of gun violence in the city are minorities.
“In our city, there are intractable racial disparities in who commits and who is victimized by crime,” Bratton said, according to The New York Observer, attempting to explain why there is more police activity in minority communities.
Josmar Trujillo of the group New Yorkers Against Bratton, said the commissioner was only pointing to “black-on-black violence” in order to “legitimize modern policing's racist policies.”
Trujillo also said that the speech wasn’t the first time Bratton has “tried to be Mr. Civil Rights.” The activist noted that Bratton has acknowledged police forces' history of upholding slavery in previous speeches, as well as in his book, "Collaborate or Perish!"
“We're not fooled by what comes out of Bratton's mouth as much as we're focused on what he does,” Trujillo said, citing concerns about Bratton’s decision to police protests with machine guns and about the commissioner's support of an effort to make resisting arrest a felony.
"He's the Bull Connor of our day,” Trujillo added, referring to Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, the infamous Alabama segregationist who led the Birmingham police department throughout the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Bratton's remarks come less than two weeks after FBI Director James Comey gave a speech on race and law enforcement. In that address, Comey acknowledged that police forces have historically enforced "a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups," and that today, "lazy" racial biases still affect the way minorities are policed.