"This thing runs our lives," New York Det. James Shanahan told police officers as he held up a smartphone Dec. 14 at the new, mammoth New York Police Academy in Queens, N.Y., that I always liken to Starfleet Academy during my visits there.
Forty years ago, the animated Shanahan told the cops, no one could imagine the effect that marvel of "electronic circuitry" would have on people's lives, especially the ones on both ends of police interactions with citizens. Nowadays, everyone is an amateur videographer, and police actions are under more scrutiny than ever. It doesn't mean, though, that there are more incidents of police brutality or over-policing; it means that more people can see the evidence of it now.
"We have been intoxicated with bad policing in America for a long time," Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a black former NYPD officer of 22 years, told me last May in his huge office in the next borough over. "And we have refused to acknowledge that drunkenness. We're being forced to do so now only because of Steve Jobs."
The "bad policing" Adams speaks of—which is ingrained into American police culture, although not a habit of all cops—is, arguably, the issue of our time. Like other vestiges of our country's racist heritage, it is a practice not used exclusively by white officers against citizens of color, but it more often is. That is, it's a problem for Americans of all races, and worse for black people.
David Kennedy, a white criminologist at John Jay College (where I have a fellowship) in New York, points to decades of bad policing that has destroyed trust in black communities. He said the issue now is beyond black and white, explaining why black officers can be guilty as well. "It's about especially black communities and police departments," he told me. It's about legal power and how police exercise it, especially against black people, he said, which must change.
The fact that many people don't see over-policing as a problem makes it harder to stop. Grand jurors often refuse to indict officers accused of excessive use of force resulting in the death of an (often black) unarmed citizen, from Eric Garner to, now, Tamir Rice. Twitter explodes with people, usually of color, outraged that officers don't even have to face a fair trial for the deaths. Still others, often white, respond that had fill-in-the-blank not done something wrong (like Garner selling untaxed cigarettes and begging officers not to arrest him, or 12-year-old Rice playing with a toy gun), he or she would still be alive. The latter's logic is that police have the right to use lethal force anytime they fear a suspect, or even when one is disrespectful. That's frightening. So is a public reaction that justifies an execution for something as mundane as selling cigarettes or saying the wrong thing to a cop.
It is also jarring to learn how little training most American police officers have ever gotten in anything beyond firearm use. Over the last year, I've been researching how police departments are trying to retrain officers to de-escalate rather than the over-reactions that can lead to fatal outcomes. I've spent a great deal of time in New York City because, as a city with the nation's largest police department, it should be a laboratory for solutions for what Commissioner Bill Bratton likes to call the "divide" between cops and communities of color—and for how to train officers to, first, not escalate and, instead, de-escalate encounters whenever possible.
The NYPD, like many other departments, knows it has a problem with the way citizens of color have traditionally been targeted. Even Bratton will admit that it's historic in a country where many cops traditionally helped (or were) white supremacists. Many, including the NYPD, were established to patrol slaves. It really did take people with smartphones to get police departments to face that their officers are often woefully under-trained. Too many are rude to citizens, seeming to embody the idea that one who isn't perfect deserves disrespect or even death—at least if they're not white and live in "those" areas. Some cops call kids and adults "scumbags" or worse to their faces.
Adams, the borough president, is direct that the police culture must change and that officers (and management) must stop making assumptions about poor communities based on the "numerical minority" that commits most of the offenses.
He said many officers, in New York and beyond, discriminate in the tools they employ when trying to "correct conditions" i.e. encounter someone doing something illegal. Officers leave the station house every morning, he says, with a packed toolbox of options for dealing with troublemakers and de-escalating confrontation, especially with non-violent, non-armed offenders.
"What he has done in America is that when he goes into an area that is economically challenged," the Brooklyn borough president says of offending officers, "is he pulls out only the hammer, which is the gun, or the nightstick, or the blackjack. In other areas, he uses every item in that toolbox. He uses conflict resolution; he'll get a family member to talk to the person; he will try to reason with the person. He'll use every item in that toolbox in an escalating fashion."
That means that a cop is often able to arrest a white offender because he or she took the time to use non-violent tools first or just have a respectful conversation. But when dealing with, say, an Eric Garner—a middle-aged black man who made his living in an unsavory way—"it immediately goes zero to 100," Adams says. That means "pulling out the gun, pulling out the chokehold, throwing you to the ground; physical contact is immediate. Any signs of disobeying my verbal command must result in some form of punishment when, in other communities, any sign of disobeying my command, I move to the next level of command."
Adams said officers probably don't realize this implicit bias, especially if they get away with it with no serious punishment: "So when you have someone that is put in a chokehold for correcting the condition of selling loosey cigarettes, that's a reflection. When you have someone shot in the back eight times like in Carolina for correcting the condition of a broken taillight, that's a reflection that is not about correcting the conditions the way policing should be done."
Adams said such policing is about power. "It's about inflicting pain for someone not doing what you said they should do," he says. "Yet, you can go through scenarios in affluent communities where a person is armed with a gun, and the police are able to use proper tactics to disarm them without hurting anyone involved."
The good news is that cops like Det. Shanahan and his partner, Lt. Mark Turner, are retraining officers, drawing them into role-plays and dialogues like I observed, using hostage-negotiation techniques to help them rethink the way they interact with citizens, including when the dispatcher has told them a 12-year-old has a "probably fake" gun. It may be late, but they are trying.
Still, Adams said, police culture is a tough ship to turn around. "It's an ocean liner that has spent 20 years off course," he says. But, at least, now people are noticing.