The most trigger-happy gang of all

September 10, 2012

The New York Police Department has adopted the motto "Shoot first--and often--and ask questions later," report Helen Redmond and Nithya Meenakshi.

POLICE IN New York City opened fire wildly in two high-profile mass shootings in August, with deadly results--providing yet more evidence that the NYPD represents a threat to the public's safety that it is supposed to be protecting.

And proving that the August shootings weren't the exceptions, the NYPD struck again on September 7, killing a worker at a Bronx bodega as he fled an armed robbery.

Across the country, there has been a wave of shootings where police used deadly force in full public view and with impunity. But even so, the violence unleashed by the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later NYPD has been shocking.

The deadly confrontation with Darrius Kennedy, an African American man, began in tourist packed Times Square on August 11. Police approached the 51-year-old who was smoking marijuana and asked for identification. Kennedy became angry and pulled out a kitchen knife. No doubt his anger was triggered at least in part from having been arrested 10 times--seven of them for marijuana possession.

New York police block off the street after the shooting outside the Empire State building
New York police block off the street after the shooting outside the Empire State building

Police knew they were dealing with an unstable man because Kennedy had been arrested in 2008 for threatening officers with a screwdriver. He had also been admitted to Bellevue Hospital for acting strangely in Times Square.

In a scene straight out of some TV cop show, Kennedy--armed only with the knife--skipped backward down Seventh Avenue with over 20 cops, guns drawn, and police cruisers in hot pursuit. Pandemonium ensued, and hundreds of terrified people ran for cover--others watched and recorded the unfolding drama with cell phone cameras.

Kennedy taunted the officers and refused to drop the knife, despite being pepper-sprayed six times. Police claimed he lunged at them, and they fired 12 shots at Kennedy, hitting him in the chest, arm, groin and leg. Kennedy died at the hospital from his wounds.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg were quick to justify the behavior of police. They claimed the officers acted in self-defense--as if one man with a kitchen knife was a serious threat to 20 police officers brandishing semi-automatic pistols. Neither Kelly nor Bloomberg nor anyone in the media asked why the highly trained "New York's Finest" couldn't disarm or deescalate a mentally disturbed man without pumping his body full of bullets?

"You can second-guess all of these things," said Kelly. "Under the circumstances, what the officers did was appropriate to the situation. They want to go home at night as well. The individual was threatening people, threatening officers."

But Kennedy was obviously no match for 20 cops. When he was alive, he was homeless, unemployed and clearly cracking under the pressure of an untreated mental illness and police harassment, enduring arrests on marijuana possession charges that even politicians now believe should be taken off the books, or at least decriminalized.

There was no compassion for Kennedy in the mainstream media, however--nor any criticism of NYPD's wild shooting spree. The New York Post called Kennedy a "knife-wielding maniac" and an "armed madman" who was justifiably "put down."

Kennedy's family members were among the few people who questioned the cops' actions and why they fired so many shots. Kennedy's aunt, Mary Johnson, told the New York Times, "This could have been handled in a different way. It doesn't take 12 or 15 bullets to kill a horse, so it wouldn't take that many to kill a person."

THE SECOND mass police shooting came two weeks later. Minutes after 58-year-old Jeffrey Johnson killed former co-worker Steven Ercolino in a tragic workplace-related shooting, the New York police opened up again with a barrage of bullets in front of the Empire State Building. Johnson was shot dead--and nine bystanders were wounded by cops who fired a total of 16 rounds on a sidewalk crowded with people.

Press reports at first attributed the injuries to Johnson, but the media later admitted the cops were responsible for each and every injury after Ercolino. So how could NYPD officers, who have extensive weapons training, end up shooting so many innocent bystanders?

Once again, the police department, the mayor and the media justified police actions. Asked why so many people were shot, an officer stationed at the Empire State Building said several days later in an interview: "It was a frantic situation and they were being nosy--not that they deserved to be shot."

A New York Times article quoted one of the shooting survivors saying he couldn't "get really mad at the cops," and Johnson's 80-year-old mother told a reporter, "I don't blame police in New York for shooting my son, because he killed somebody."

But the trigger-happy response outside New York City's most famous building mirrors incidents over the years in other parts of the city, especially neighborhoods where people of color predominate. The phrase "hail of bullets" is synonymous with many of these shootings--the NYPD fired 41 bullets at the unarmed Amadou Diallo, 50 at Sean Bell and 73 at Leroy Webster.

The truth is that there's nothing to stop New York police from using maximum force in confronting a "threat"--because the odds are that they won't be punished, even if they kill innocent people and even if a video exposes them using excessive force. The cops know that they will be backed up by NYPD officials and political leaders like Bloomberg.

Furthermore, the killings of Kennedy and Johnson exemplify how unemployment, untreated mental illness and the war on drugs combine to create violent conflicts between police and the most vulnerable people in society.

New York City is the marijuana arrest capital of the world. More people are arrested for this "crime" than any other--it's one of the main ways that NYPD officers meet arrest quotas. In 2011, the NYPD made more than 50,000 arrests for marijuana possession. Darrius Kennedy was a victim of the racist drug war that disproportionately targets poor, Black men and punishes drug users. If marijuana was legal and regulated like tobacco and alcohol--which is what a majority of Americans say they want, according to polls--Kennedy might be alive today.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Johnson was also mentally unstable, living a life of desperation that was no doubt exacerbated by two years of unemployment and the death of a beloved cat--his constant and apparently only companion. Every day, according to the doorman of Johnson's Upper East Side building, he left his apartment at exactly the same time, dressed in the same beige suit and brown shoes, as if he were going to work. Instead, Johnson went to McDonalds for breakfast. It's likely that when Johnson lost his full-time job, he lost health coverage, and therefore access to mental health services that could have helped him.

LAST FRIDAY'S shooting in the Bronx took place outside Nathalie Deli, a small bodega in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Twenty-year-old Reynaldo Cuevas and his uncle were working at the store when it was held up in a robbery. As Cuevas ran outside, hoping to escape, he bumped into a police officer, who shot him point blank in the left shoulder. Cuevas died instantaneously.

Not only did the NYPD kill another innocent man--a father of a 3-year-old and a respected member of the community--but they proceeded to drag Cuevas' dead body across the street and handcuffed his corpse in a display of gruesome inhumanity.

Nearly 100 people gathered in on the streets of Morrisania that night to mourn another victim of police terror. "I can't even believe it," said Cuevas' cousin Mickey Rodriguez. "They shouldn't have shot a defenseless man without a weapon. It happens all the time nowadays. I feel more scared of the cops than the people in the street because they might shoot me right away."

Another cousin, Giselle Guzman, described how Reynaldo had been trying to persevere through a series of family tragedies:

He tried his best to take care of his daughter. He lost his father--he was shot in the DR--and he lost his sister to a heart attack last year. It makes me feel horrible because we have people in our family serving in the NYPD, and they did a horrible thing. They don't make me feel safe at all. If anything, they make me feel more unsafe. Having a weapon doesn't mean you have to shoot at someone who had nothing to do with it.

A small memorial was set up near the bodega with posters written by friends and families, prayer candles, and people singing and playing music. As more people joined the demonstration, the NYPD warned the community that they were "too loud" and would "attract attention."

This incensed the crowd further, and people took the streets, marching to the 42nd Precinct, where the officer who shot Reynaldo now sits on administrative duty. It speaks to the nature of our society that while a family and a community have a loved one ripped from their lives, the police officer responsible essentially gets a paid vacation.

As Robert Ali, a customer of the Nathalie Deli, said:

I don't feel safe around them, and I don't feel like my kids are safe around them. It's just, like, more shit on top of more shit on top of more shit. After a while the cup is going to spill over and people are going to go crazy. We can't take it any more. We need to unite, black, brown, white, as one instead of killing each other, and if we don't unite, we are going to die. We are going to be extinct.

In a city where 35,000 cops patrol the streets, subways and projects every day, more violent and lethal confrontations between the NYPD and people struggling to survive--or who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time--are inevitable. Trigger-happy police are everywhere in New York City, and they are getting away with murder.

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