Our real police/race problem: Diverse forces, white resentment, and America's persistent divides

Why diverse police forces can't seem to trump the economics of racism, or the twisted politics of white resentment

Published January 2, 2015 12:00PM (EST)

Mayor Bill de Blasio talks with New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton during a NYPD Memorial ceremony last October in New York.  (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mayor Bill de Blasio talks with New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton during a NYPD Memorial ceremony last October in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Nearly two decades before last month's murders of New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a black man, the murder of a black NYPD officer, Charles Davis, anticipated claims we're hearing that police-community problems aren’t really “black and white” and the only color that really counts is blue.

Yet the problems do remain “black and white” for reasons of economic exploitation and isolation that run deeper than race itself and that are gathering force, despite rising numbers of white/Asian and white/Hispanic marriages and of multiracial children, even in the families of police officers themselves. Unless we can face the reasons why more "diversity" in police ranks is a far-from-sufficient condition of justice, American society will remain more racist than many others, and thereby hangs my tale.

Black on Blue

Shortly before Christmas 1996 in the lower-middle-class Queens neighborhood of East Elmhurst, robbers killed Officer Davis as he tried to protect Ira Epstein, the white owner of a check-cashing store where Davis was moonlighting as a security guard to earn extra money to buy holiday gifts for his 6-year-old daughter, Arielle.

Because Davis was off-duty at the time, it’s unclear if his assailants knew that he was a police officer. But because he was one and was murdered for doing what police officers do, his Episcopal funeral Mass in Garden City, Long Island, was a familiar “tableau of pomp and grief,” as the New York Times put it, with thousands of saluting, white-gloved, white-ethnic officers and a flyover by police helicopters.

“Arielle, your daddy, who loved you, who adored you…will always be a hero of New York City,” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told Davis’ daughter from the church pulpit. He asked the congregation to give Arielle something she would remember, and all present responded with a long, wrenching ovation. Noting that Ira Epstein’s widow had called Davis a role model for the city’s youth, Giuliani said, “She was right,” adding that, “When [Davis] died Saturday morning he was doing what he was trained to do – he was trying to protect another man."

Many funerals of New York City police officers killed in action have been tableaus not only of pomp and grief but of the chasm that yawns between an “occupying army” of mostly white-ethnic officers and an “underclass” of inner-city, black and Hispanic men. I spent enough time there in the late 1970s to have wished that the sea of blue around Davis’ funeral -- and now those of officers Ramos and Liu -- would signify something better than a chasm.

But does it? Or have the examples set by Davis, Liu and Ramos on police forces given the rest of us excuses to rationalize the continuing, calculated, heavily policed and seemingly bottomless isolation of millions of black and Hispanic men and women? Are economic isolation and social stigmatization still driving some of the isolated -- and those who police them -- so crazy that it's a wonder there aren’t even more police killers like those who killed Davis, Liu and Ramos?

Ramos and Wu’s killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, was a perversely politicized, vengeance-crazed black man. Even the slaying in Ferguson of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by white officer Darren Wilson has a symbolic but no less telling opposite (Wilson’s nightmare) in another Ferguson – Colin Ferguson, a perversely politicized, vengeance-crazed black man who, shortly before Christmas, 1993, boarded a suburban Long Island commuter train and shot 23 white passengers, killing six.

Although he killed no cops, many New York officers live on Long Island, whose suburban towns their parents or grandparents chose over New York City’s tenements and row homes in the 1960s while seeking greener pastures in the booming, postwar economy and insulation from racially changing inner-city neighborhoods and rising black crime. As Newsday’s Jimmy Breslin put it a day after Ferguson’s train massacre: “Last night, Brooklyn followed them home.”

Are these officers and prosecutors to blame for provoking their killers’ isolation and rage? Or are they really doing only what our democracy seemingly wants and expects them to do: keep the lid on blacks and Hispanics who are cheated and sidelined, as the rest of us look the other way and disclaim responsibility – an evasion that seems easier to some whenever a Brinsley or a Colin Ferguson explodes?

In a strange irony, Charles Davis probably reinforced white innocence because he was a generous cop, popular with other officers and with residents of the Queens neighborhood where he supervised youth basketball games and a club for kids who might want to join the NYPD. His large presence, sharp eye and caring strengthened the community policing that had helped to cut New York City’s murder rate in half in less than five years, to below 1,000 for the first time in three decades. (By 2013, that number would plummet to just over 300, and this year it may be even lower, notwithstanding predictable predictions of doom 11 months ago by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that Mayor Bill De Blasio’s curbing of excessive NYPD “stop and frisk” practices would unleash mayhem.)

Blue on Black

But if Davis' blue uniform and the blue sea at his funeral signified something better than black-versus-white, that equation took a perverse turn as Queens District Attorney Richard Brown orchestrated the indictment of 19-year-old George Bell, a stock boy at Old Navy who lived with his mother and had no criminal background, and two other black men, as Davis’ killers. A recent Nation magazine review of the case by Hannah Riley, a former researcher at the Innocence Project and a student of criminology at the University of Cambridge, raises serious doubts that the men convicted and still in prison for killing Davis were really his murderers.

D.A. Brown’s zeal in convicting them may have been fortified by the fact that Davis’ wife had been an assistant district attorney, albeit in another jurisdiction. But all prosecutors who face high-profile, highly charged cases have other, more-powerful incentives to “resolve” them irresponsibly. New Yorkers would be reminded of that in 2002, when the four black men and one Hispanic man who'd been convicted and imprisoned in 1989 amid public outrage over the infamous assault and rape of the Central Park Jogger were released after years of unjustified incarceration after the real assailant confessed.

Such things happen partly because D.A.s win reelection by pandering to angry, frightened voters' hunger for revenge and because police officers are literally the prosecutors’ comrades in arms and their witnesses before grand juries and in open trials. (The over-zealous assistant prosecutors and detectives complicit in both the Central Park jogger and Davis cases were women, by the way.) But Hannah Riley has found a would-be whistle-blower in retired NYPD detective Pete Fiorillo, who had been pleased at first to see Giuliani touting the work of other detectives in the case and who'd had, as he put it, “no intention of looking at it for the purpose of taking it apart.”

“But the more he learned,” Riley explains, “the more his doubts grew until he became convinced that the investigation and trial were irredeemably flawed. ‘This case represents a total breakdown of the criminal justice system from the bottom to the top: the police that investigated this case; the DA that prosecuted the case; the judge that tried all three cases,’ said Fiorillo. ‘They just didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.’”

Giuliani, himself an infamously zealous former prosecutor, told the public after Davis’ murder that, “If you shoot and kill a New York City police officer, the Police Department is going to catch you, they’re going to find you, usually in a short period of time, and then at a minimum you’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail. And in this particular situation, it’s quite possible you’ll get executed.”

The word “execution” had a dark double-entendre here, giving the “blue over black” equation another perverse twist: Prosecutorial railroading involves not only beguiling or coercing helpless and apparently hopeless young black and Hispanic men into confessions and eventual convictions, and not just complicity by grand juries whose secrecy sanitizes such orchestrations. It also involves finding excuses for officers who are spared indictment time and again -- even after summarily executing unarmed and even unresisting black and Hispanic men and, in some cases, women.

Like most New Yorkers watching the Central Park and Davis cases, I was inclined to trust prosecutors and to assume the justice of the convictions. When reporters on the Davis murder were told that the 19-year-old Bell had been heard humming the song, “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” during a break in the questioning at the 109th Precinct and that remorse seemed never to enter his mind, I assumed that he was yet another half-crazed casualty of inner-city isolation, the kind of casualty I’d encountered more than once.

In the late 1970s I ran a weekly newspaper serving poor neighborhoods just across Brooklyn’s Broadway and Flushing Avenue from Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Officers Ramos and Liu were killed; I made more than a few visits to the Tompkins Houses along Myrtle Avenue, outside of which the murders occurred, and to Woodhull Hospital, where they were brought with Brinsley, who committed suicide nearby. Just to the northeast lay Bushwick, a once-tidy, German and Italian white-ethnic neighborhood that had become mostly Hispanic and black in the 1960s in ways and for reasons I knew intimately and that I portray in my book "The Closest of Strangers," two of whose chapters chronicle North Brooklyn’s ravaging by absentee landlords’ “block-busting” welfare-subsidy scams, rampant arson for profit and for revenge, and massive looting during a huge 1977 power blackout.

On two occasions I navigated the devastation all night with officers of Bushwick’s 83rd Precinct, accompanying them into scenes of domestic violence where terrified toddlers sucking on teething rings crawled across shattered plates and splattered dinners to hide behind sofas as their mothers told us why they’d called 911 out of desperation and sometimes for revenge. Sometimes the man was still there, and officers had to take him outside.

Out on the street in the noisy, sulfurous darkness, a black-Hispanic youth sauntered up to the patrol car’s open window and taunted one of my hosts by asking, “You Officer Torsney? Gonna shoot me?” -- referring to Robert Torsney, who on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, for no apparent reason, had fired a bullet into the head of Randolph Evans, 15, a ninth grader at Franklin K. Lane High School, outside the Cypress Hills housing project, near where Officer Rafael Ramos was buried last Saturday.

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted years later, “Torsney would later claim he had been afflicted with a rare form of epilepsy that, remarkably, had never been noticed before the killing and was never seen after it. The ‘epilepsy’ defense worked. Officer Torsney was acquitted of any wrongdoing.”

Herbert’s column, “The Sickness in the NYPD," is worth reading, if only for the experience of rubbing your eyes in disbelief. Another of its offerings:

“One April morning in 1973 a veteran police officer named Thomas Shea pulled his service revolver and blew away a young black boy on a street in Jamaica, Queens. He shot the kid in the back. There was no chance of survival. Afterward, no one could figure out why the officer had done it. There was no reason for the shooting, no threat to Officer Shea of any kind. The boy's name was Clifford Glover and he was 10 years old. Officer Shea was charged with murder but of course he was acquitted.”

For every young man whom killers in uniform execute as unambiguously as they did Randy Evans, Clifford Glover, Eric Garner and many others without being indicted for it, still more essentially hapless, helpless people are packed off into the vast archipelago of incarceration that employs thousands of “corrections” officers. Either way, for the rest of us, it’s out of sight, out of mind, as were the hundreds of homeless people and derelicts about whom few New Yorkers asked when they disappeared from Manhattan’s streets during Giuliani’s mayoralty.

White on White

If at the bottom of it all is the calculated isolation and impoverishment of blacks and Hispanics that I chronicled while climbing stairwells in Brooklyn’s Bushwick-Hylan and Borinquen Plaza housing projects to distribute our paper, next to that bottom are the cops we assign to keep the lid on it. Is it a wonder that they sometimes say that they feel like “garbage collectors” and that, when the “garbage” call them something worse, some of them explode?

In the 1960s, insouciant, pseudo-insurgent, middle-class white youths called cops “pigs.” A police union took out an ad saying, “Next time you really need help, try calling a pig.” But, with a very few, spectacular exceptions like the Brinks armored car robbery, the worst thing that white kids did to cops in those days was call them names. Is it really surprising that some cops and corrections officers feel as trapped in neighborhoods like Bushwick as the people they’re charged with containing?

Is it surprising that some of the young white men who are drawn to such work grew up marinating what I described here three weeks ago as ressentiment, the social pathology of a society that has begun to countenance torture abroad and the militarization of police at home against a decadent, demoralized populace that has come to include themselves?

Or that, at the funeral of Rafael Ramos, stunted citizens like these would turn their backs on the chief executive of the democracy that employs them, and that they would thereby dishonor the fallen officer and flout civilian leadership of the police and the military as if they would prefer a police state?

The Only Way Out

The surprise is that so many police officers are still as good as Davis and as the relatives of Salon’s own Joan Walsh, as she recounted here vividly this week and in her book "What's the Matter With White People?"

I, too, can testify that there are many officers, of all colors and backgrounds, as generous and effective as Charles Davis. In the mid-1990s, Peter Mancuso, a former NYPD sergeant, Marine combat veteran, and longtime police reformer, introduced me to other impressive colleagues while I was a columnist for the New York Daily News, a paper many cops read while sitting in their patrol cars. The officers I met were better, more proactive citizen-leaders than moralists who simply cluck their tongues at them.

On the other hand, whenever I wrote columns like this one praising their reform efforts, I got some unexpected visits from the New York Fire Department, whose firefighters banged loudly on my door at 3 a.m. because someone had called in a false alarm a day or two after the column ran.

Soon after the chokehold killing of Eric Garner, but before the assassinations of Liu and Ramos, another retired police officer sent me this video, distributed by anonymous officers who seem to be preparing for race war, that depicts black men maiming and murdering cops in realistic street scenes. Some of the scenes look staged, but if Brinsley’s real deed had been filmed it would have fit perfectly into this alarmist, racist montage.

The officer who shared it with me calls it “almost a counter-training device. Its message is, ‘Never mind what we are about to tell you the law says; here is what you are up against at any moment.’ After seeing it, I can better understand that young Housing Division Officer opening stairwell doors with his gun in his hand [and, trigger-happy, shot and killed an unarmed, innocent 28-year-old black man two floors below him]. I'm wondering if he saw the video or something like it.’” (Before calling 911 to aid the man he’d shot, the housing officer called his union.) Officers’ testimony in cases like this and Eric Garner’s and Randy Evans’ and Clifford Glover’s and the rest is almost transparently scripted by the union.

Another irony. Even as the rogue video and the real deeds of Brinsley and Colin Ferguson alarm us, and even as some officers’ turning their backs on the mayor at a funeral and a police graduation ceremony disgust us, many black leaders have been ascending a far-better learning curve from the demagoguery of the 1980s and ‘90s to more sophisticated, humane strategizing.

Where now are the Louis Farrakhans, the Vernon Masons and Alton Maddoxes (lawyers of Tawana Brawley infamy) and the Johnnie Cochrans, whose verbal threats and courtroom tactics sent chills down whites’ spines? Al Sharpton, whom I knew well in those years and described here in November, has climbed that learning curve: He said that the Ferguson, Missouri, protest movement “was not about Darren Wilson’s job. It was about Michael Brown’s justice…. We are not anti-police. If our children are wrong, arrest them. Don’t empty your gun and act like you had no other way.” Sharpton also led Eric Garner’s family in protesting Brinsley’s deed and mourning the deaths of officers Ramos and Liu.

Sharpton is a flawed leader, but efforts by Fox News’ flunkies to blame him and recent protesters for bad relations with police prove only that black leadership’s learning curve has been offset by some white male degeneration along the lines I sketched here.

The glorious funerals given officers Davis, Liu and Ramos don’t dispel these white men’s growing bewilderment, fear and anger, less of it generated by black men than by economic and cultural riptides that would still dispossess and disorient many of them even if the U.S. were white from coast to coast.

To overcome racism, we’ll have to reach past “black and white” story lines and find strategies that free the oppressed by freeing the oppressor. Police are trapped in the swamp I navigated in Brooklyn because all of us are trapped in a political economy that’s no longer legitimate or sustainable. Unless we confront what Joan Walsh is telling us has happened to the white working  and middle classes, and what AlterNet editor Don Hazen, economist James Galbraith and historian Eli Zaretsky are trying to tell us about the real roots of America’s white male problem, “black and white” explanations will fall short, on both sides of an enduring race line that leads us nowhere.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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