Why are NYPD murders on the rise?

Lee Wengraf looks at the factors involved in a growing record of police violence.

Some 15,000 people filled Fifth Avenue for the silent march against the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy (Adriano Contreras)Some 15,000 people filled Fifth Avenue for the silent march against the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy (Adriano Contreras)

IT WAS 5 a.m. on October 4, and 22-year old Noel Polanco was driving himself, a co-worker and a friend home from his job at a nightclub in Queens when he was pulled over on a highway median by an unmarked vehicle.

It turned out that Noel had cut off a police car belonging to the Emergency Services Unit, a division of the New York Police Department tasked with responding in "high-crime areas." Officers approached the car with rifles out, shouting at the driver to put his hands up. Within seconds, Officer Hassan Hamdy had fired one round through the open passenger window at the driver, killing Polanco, a U.S. Army Reservist.

"There was no time to put your hands up at all," front-seat passenger Diane DeFerrari told the New York Post. "They shot in front of my face. Had I moved an inch, it would probably have been me."

As DeFerrari told the New York Times, "This is all a case of road rage on behalf of the NYPD--that's all this is."

New York City has already paid out close to half a million dollars in claims against Hamdy for civil rights violations. The Polanco killing was so clearly unjustifiable that even NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly--breaking from past practice--called for a grand jury investigation.

This incident is only the latest in a string of murders committed by the New York Police Department this year. According to the Stolen Lives Project, 2012 saw 19 police killings, compared to 13 the year before. At this rate, the NYPD is on track for an increase of almost 70 percent in its murder rate, compared to last year.

In September, an NYPD officer shot and killed Reynaldo Cuevas, a 20-year old bodega worker, as he was fleeing his Bronx store which was being robbed. In the same 24 hour period, the police killed Walwyn Jackson in his Queens home. And in late September, Emergency Service Unit cops killed Harlem resident Mohamed Bah in his apartment doorway.

Jackson and Bah were among several cases in which the victims of the NYPD were mentally ill or troubled individuals--whose family members had called for help, but ended up on the receiving end of police violence instead. In March of this year, Shereese Francis, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was killed when four police officers attempted to subdue her by piling on top of her and literally suffocating her to death.

In the wake of the Polanco and Bah killings, NYPD officials transferred the head of the elite Emergency Service Unit. But this is clearly a long way from real justice given the scale of the killings. At least 221 people have been killed by the NYPD since the well-known 1999 case of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets in the entranceway to his apartment building as he reached for his wallet.

"Why should a mother have to bear such pain and bury her loved one?" asked Juanita Young, whose son, Malcolm Ferguson, was killed by Bronx police in 2000. "We call for help and our sons end up dead. Who are we supposed to call if police come and our loved ones are carried out in a body bag?"

The tragic reality is that family members have yet to see any kind of apology from the police, let alone any serious steps to address the crisis of police homicides. Instead, the police take pains to justify their actions while the death toll climbs. "Instead of progression, this is regression," said Amadou Diallo's mother, Katiadou Diallo, at a protest of about 300 people outside City Hall in the wake of the murder of Mohamed Bah, also originally from Guinea.

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WHAT'S BEHIND this recent jump in NYPD murders? Policing in communities of color is intensifying increased racial and class polarization. Repression is a constant feature of an unequal society, and with poverty, cuts to social programs and joblessness continuing to take a toll, racist police violence as a means of social control has accompanied this immiseration.

Despite a continued decline in crime, police are encouraged to view themselves as patrolling a literal war zone. New York City has the lowest crime rate among the nation's biggest cities, as measured by the FBI. According to one report, there were 515 killings citywide last year, compared with 2,245 in 1990, and murders are down by 18 percent.

Yet hostile attitudes on the part of the police are ramping up. "Every single day, our lives are in danger. Everybody out here is in danger," a Brooklyn cop told a reporter for Reuters. Meanwhile, a hysterical New York Daily News editorial in July, headlined "Stop and Frisk--or Die," fueled the climate for heavy-handed policing in the wake of an officer injured by gunfire in a public housing stairwell. "Now, let's play a mental exercise designed to illustrate how insanely close the city has come to judicially mandated lawlessness...[i]t is clear that police are targeting the right places for their most intense enforcement efforts."

But the day-to-day experience for people of color in New York City is of relentless police abuse and harassment, and that has been intensified by a push to meet quotas on stop-and-frisks--the NYPD's racial profiling policy--and for a higher numbers of arrests. According to the New York Times, "The data show the initiative is conducted aggressively, sometimes in what can seem like a frenzy...feeding the department's appetite for numbers."

According to another Times article:

A series of whistle-blowers suggest that [the NYPD] favors something an awful lot like quotas for tickets and arrests. And it conducts stop-and-frisks on a grand scale. New data suggests police officers could make 800,000 stops this year. (That's more than twice the population of Miami.)

However, only about 10 percent of those stopped were actually arrested. And one report found that that the areas where guns were recovered at the highest rates were not actually those with the highest numbers of stop-and-frisk incidents

According to criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, who conducted a study of NYPD practices over two decades, "We couldn't find evidence that stop, question and frisk was associated with year-to-year changes of crime at the precinct-level. It seems to me, given the available evidence, it's a stretch for officials to attribute a decade-long crime drop that is citywide to this program."

Not only have the NYPD failed to show a convincing link between their tactics and crime reduction, the evidence for the racism underpinning stop-and-frisk practices is all too stark. As the Gothamist reported:

Of the 685,724 stops in 2011, only 1.9 percent resulted in the recovery of a weapon. And while Blacks and Latinos were more likely to be stopped, whites were almost twice as likely to be found carrying a weapon. Even in neighborhoods without a majority Black or Latino population, Black and Latino young men were still stopped at a rate disproportionate to their white counterparts.

Approximately 87 percent of the 2011 stops were people of color. The number of NYPD stop-and-frisks of young Black men exceeded the number of young Black men in the city's population. And now, in 2012, the NYPD is on track to break its 2011 stop and frisk record. in 2012

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BUT STOP-and-frisk is only one practice contributing to the sense that communities of color live under an occupation.

The NYPD employs what it calls an "Impact Zone" approach of flooding supposed high-crime areas with police officers. One such area is a public housing complex in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where there is one stop a year for every one of the 14,000 residents of an eight-block area. According to Reuters:

By far the densest concentrations fell in areas of public housing, home to many of the city's poorest families and where 90 percent of residents are Black or Hispanic....Residents tell stories of cops peering down from rooftops, monitoring movement with a ubiquitous network of security cameras, patrolling halls and occupying lobbies.

Another tactic is the newly launched "Operation Crew Cut" anti-gang initiative. The NYPD plans to double the size of the anti-gang NYPD unit, despite the relatively smaller gang presence in New York, compared to other major cities.

Meanwhile, the Center for Constitutional Rights reports that higher levels of physical force are used in arrests against Black and Latinos.

These policies and others have only intensified anger within the targeted communities. A recent video called "Stopped and Frisked For Being a F*king Mutt" has gone viral, reflecting the wide identification with the experience of the Harlem teenage victim.

Yet in this environment of rising bitterness, the NYPD's only response has been to ramp up the "occupation" and use of force. In this context, fatal use of force becomes almost inevitable.

In large part because of mounting pressure from activist campaigns, there has been greater official scrutiny and criticism of stop-and-frisk policies For example, a federal judge allowed a case against stop-and-frisk to become a class-action lawsuit earlier this year, citing "overwhelming evidence" of thousands of unlawful stops. This summer, the Bronx district attorney's office issued some minor restrictions on stops in housing projects. With pressure mounting, New York's City Council opened up public hearings on the issue, though Ray Kelly was a conspicuous no-show.

But instead of retreating, the NYPD has closed ranks, which only increases the embattled sense among cops.

NYPD killings have been carried out with virtual impunity. For example, 23-year-old Shantel Davis was killed in Brooklyn last June while sitting in a car. To date, District Attorney Charles Hynes has yet to convene a grand jury to pursue an indictment--even though it has been revealed that the city has paid out nearly a quarter-million dollars to settle past brutality complaints against her killer, Officer Phillip Atkins.

Police brutality also must be understood in the broader context of class polarization, poverty and devastation experienced by communities of color, from the disinvestment of public services to the impact of what author Michelle Alexander called the "new Jim Crow"--the explosion of mass incarceration and its consequences, including barriers to employment, restrictions on access to public housing and disenfranchisement on a massive scale.

Add in the heavy presence of police in schools and what's known as the school-to-prison pipeline, and the evidence is clear that state repression--featuring unchecked use of force in arrests and police violence--is standard operating procedure to keep a lid on unrest in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet.

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ALONGSIDE THE rise in police murders, this past year has witnessed heightened resistance from family members of police brutality victims and their communities.

Constance Malcolm and Frank Graham, the parents of Ramarley Graham--murdered on February 2 when police broke into his home and shot him--have formed Ramarley's Call to fight for the prosecution of the officers responsible. So far, they have won an indictment against Officer Richard Haste, after a series of weekly vigils and marches to the local precinct. Haste's next court appearance is December 11.

The family of Shantel Davis has built a local committee with weekly actions and recently protested an appearance by Ray Kelly appearance in midtown Manhattan, challenging him on the department's record of brutality. Noel Polanco's mother, Cecilia Reyes, has vowed to keep fighting. "All I want is justice. I don't want this to be repeated," she told reporters after meeting with the Queens District Attorney. Most recently, several hundred activists and relatives of police murder victims gathered in Union Square for the annual October 22 mobilization against police brutality.

Stop-and-frisk is increasingly under fire, with numerous demonstrations taking place over the past year--the largest was a silent march down Fifth Avenue on Fathers' Day, led by family members and civil rights leaders. A new coalition comprising numerous organizations called Communities United for Police Reform has launched a broad-based campaign advocating for four pending bills in the City Council that would curb some of the worst abuses in police policy.

But the need for more deeply rooted change is urgent. This will only be achieved with a large and sustained struggle against the NYPD, one that asserts the need for substantive reforms like independent community control over police and the prosecution of police murder and abuse, among other demands.

But challenging policing practices must go on alongside a wider racial justice movement to challenge mass incarceration, the new Jim Crow and the institutions that maintain racism today. The very beginnings of these struggles can be seen today, such as in the work of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow.

Ultimately, these grassroots movements will need to address the questions of disinvestment of social programs and jobs, and beyond that, the roots of inequality. Only by taking up these wider questions will we be able to change a society that relies on police racism and violence to sustain itself.