Monday, November 07, 2011

Cops Still Creeping on Crown Heights Rooftops

From an anonymous reader regarding continued bad behavior on the part of local police officers:

I remember a while back people were posting about the police doing random roof searches around Crown Heights.  I live in Crown Heights off Franklin Ave and I've recently had the same problem.  Two cops approached my roommate and me while we were eating dinner on our roof and gave us the option of choosing what fine we wanted, which was a $500 ticket for trespassing on our own roof or an open container ticket for drinking a glass of wine with our meal.  This has happened to several people and I was wondering if you'd be interested in composing some sort of conversation on the blog in regards to the issue?  It seems to be a growing problem in the community and people are starting to feel unsafe about the police intruding on their space without notice and harassing the tenants to get into the building. Any thoughts?

Almost exactly two months ago, ILFA ran a post featuring two reports of similarly unwarranted and illegal police behavior, which provoked a fairly extensive debate on this blog, Brooklynian, and elsewhere. In light of this incident, ILFA's editorial opinion remains the same: this sort of policing is counterproductive and must stop at once. Rather than making neighborhoods safer, such petty harassment creates a culture of mutual distrust between police and communities, making neighborhoods less safe and serious crimes harder to solve. While issuing bogus citations on rooftops is a long way from the worst abuses the NYPD has committed (these include gun running, murder, and the perpetuation, through stop-and-frisk tactics, of what many reasonable people rightly consider Jim Crow policing), these are not isolated incidents. They are small but nonetheless instructive examples of the degree to which the NYPD has come to see the people of New York City not as citizens to serve and protect, but as a subject population to be kept cowed and controlled at nearly any cost, particularly in neighborhoods like Crown Heights.

UPDATE: Zachary Goelman at Epichorus, someone who knows a thing or two about dealing with the NYPD, has posted an excellent rundown of what steps individuals (and organized communities) might take to effect a change in the NYPD's behavior. Essential reading for anyone who's concerned about these incidents.

Since we've already had one go-round of comments about this topic, let me try to anticipate some of the more common criticisms of this perspective, and to explain my position a little bit more in the process:

To the suggestion that this sort of policing is the necessary response to awful incidents (last time around, people cited the Labor Day shootout that killed Denise Gay, and I can only imagine that this time people will point to the rooftop shooting that killed Zurana Horton in Brownsville): 

First, the responsive logic that leads to people calling for the elimination of activities related in some way to a shooting confuses proximity with causality. The West Indian Day Parade did not cause Denise Gay's death, nor did access to rooftops cause Zurana Horton's death. If we ban or criminalize every activity associated with some kind of crime in New York City, we'll be left with very little. Secondly, even if we do believe a heightened risk exists on account of rooftop access, and accept "vertical patrols" as a result, it doesn't follow that tickets for legal, peaceable behavior are in any way preventative. If anything, they're a waste of time and money that could be spent preventing actual crimes that actually threaten people. As several of our elected officials have noted in the context of stop-and-frisks or "zero tolerance," petty harassment is counterproductive in the long haul, making serious crime more difficult to prevent and solve (something I observed as a juror in a homicide case a year and a half ago).

To the tiresome nonsense about how either a) "you hipsters deserve this because you moved to a 'dangerous' neighborhood" or b) "you hipster whiners, there are much bigger things to be worried about, and anyway, the locals have it so much worse": 

Last time around, Brownstoner linked this post with a different photo (featuring two reasonably stereotypical hipsters on a roof somewhere in Brooklyn), engendering most of these comments, and the Observer picked up Brownstoner's link and asked "Is 'Rooftop Hipsterism' Becoming Illegal in Crown Heights?" First off, these readers are anonymous - I (and thus you, dear reader) know nothing of their age, race, gender, economic status, or anything else about them except what I can infer from their stories. Even if we designate these contributors as new arrivals, I find the suggestion that these bogus citations are a reasonable price to pay for living in an affordable neighborhood to be total bullshit. The price we pay for policing is our taxes, and no one should be subject to police harassment. With respect to the second point, there are indeed bigger things to be worried about - that's why you'll find ILFA marching against police brutality and constantly supporting SOS Crown Heights, among other such activities - but if anything, one would think that experiencing police harassment such as this would make supposedly-callous new arrivals more sympathetic to the humiliations and violence of stop-and-frisk (and worse) that are a part of daily life for far too many New Yorkers. These incidents reveal that police misbehavior affects everyone, and that anyone, no matter how seemingly "nonthreatening" (however that's being racially-coded and gendered in a particular neighborhood) can be caught up in it when cops take a "control the streets," war-zone mentality out into a community.

This brings us, of course, to the very fair point that policing is a tough, thankless job and that most officers are just doing the best they can to get home to their families at the end of the day. I'm in complete agreement, and you'll almost never find me calling out an individual beat cop here (I've witnessed situations in which individual officers get completely out of hand, but those seem to be the exception, not the rule). This problem of what we might call the "culture of policing" goes straight to the top, where Ray Kelly, Mike Bloomberg, and the rest of the top brass promote it unchecked behind desks and podiums. A comment made by NYPD spokesman Paul J. Browne after the damning "NYPD Tapes" were released by the Village Voice is instructive. Responding to evidence that police commanders, despite official denials, were issuing quotas to regular officers, Browne said "It’s absurd to think that managers can’t establish goals that require minimum productivity." This seems reasonable enough until you remember that the "product" of policing is NOT stops, summonses, or arrests, but rather, safe streets. As the Voice tapes (and many other stories that followed from them) reveal, these quotas are handed down from headquarters and generate the sort of needless, unproductive harassment discussed above, which often escalates harmless incidents into serious ones. A key point here should be that such escalation makes the low-ranking officers themselves more vulnerable: it's not Paul Browne who takes the bullet when someone decides they've been humiliated in a stop-and-frisk for the last time and loses their mind, and it's not Ray Kelly who has to go looking for the shooter in a neighborhood that's become so hostile to the police that no one will talk to him. By suggesting that police "productivity" can be measured by the number of times police arrest someone, rather than by crime rates, the number of times police respond to resident needs, or the sense of safety in a community, Browne demonstrates the fundamental flaw in the way the NYPD's leadership thinks about policing. It's flaw that leads to illegal rooftop raids, stop-and-frisks, and the like in the service of producing numbers for those at the top to crow about, and it's a flaw, sometimes fatal, that affects us all.

If you've been issued a bogus summons or otherwise harassed by the police, contact the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Regardless of where you live or how often you interact with police, take a look at the NYCLU's helpful chart of what to do if you're stopped by a police officer. If you want to do something about this infuriating policing, have a look at Zachary Goelman's helpful how-to on Epichorus.


  1. God bless you, God bless you, God bless you.

  2. Officer Schoolcraft had the courage to speak up about quotas and I think just about everyone is rooting for him, especially the line officers of the NYPD.

    Let's see how the court decides, and if it has any power to change anything.

  3. I grew up in a bad neighborhood (but not in NY) & we never trusted the police either because of the same dirt bag behavior like they pull in CH. afterwards, I got out of there, went to college, lived in 'good' neighborhoods, and nobody I was meeting then understood why I was so freaked out by the police. And, yeah, it's funny in a way to see white people who grew up in the suburbs now realizing what the cops are capable of when I knew that (& everybody else I grew up with) knew that a long time ago. Hey, the more people who realize it, the better. Thanks, Nick!

  4. Very smart! Thanks for taking on the many sides of the issue.

  5. SOME HISTORY: When Amadou Diallo was slaughtered in 1999 in part because the NYPD was under an antiquated task force mentality.

    Universal stop and frisk introduced by Mayor Giuliani and Police Commission Bill Bratton during the highest death rates in the city's history were necessary or at least politically justifiable to get guns off the street. Ok, fine. When these rates collapsed, Bratton wanted to redeploy the task forces for the "Broken Window" theory program, think cops collecting intelligence through public interactions/using discretion/less emphasis on arrest and/or ticket, but Giuliani wouldn't have it and kept them in place($$$$$).

    Mr. Diallo was the victim of too many cowboys with too little to do driving around unfamiliar neighborho­ods and cornering innocent residents.

    The police don't need "stop & frisk" when good old fashion police work would work better. They've no idea, for some reason, who the real criminal are because they don't do the hard work. Stop and frisk is lazy policing. Vertical patrol to get C's is lazy policing. Not caring about who works in your patrol area is lazy policing. Expecting murder convictions after you've fined and arrested half the town to justify your job is lazy policing. Lazy policing is the culture today and it will not change. Unless the politicians decide to. Bloomberg is lazy policing, but trying to connect real racism with the complexities of this issue *cough cough L. James cough* is lazy politicking.

  6. ah, but here is where the conversation gets to be fun!

    If the general public does not perceive cops as "lazy", "antiquated" they will not attempt to force cops to change. Likewise, if the cops themselves do not perceive themselves as lazy or antiquated they will resist change.

    As long as we have a situation in which the majority of police officers and the public feel this way

    about themselves and "the police" things will never change.

  7. The cops who patrol St Johns Place in Crown Heights frequently harass tenants in my building to let them in so they can gain access to our roof. They have ticketed many of us on different occasions. Our landlord gave us explicit permission to be on our roof - so the trespassing argument is BS. Last I checked this building is privately owned (and again, we use the shared space with the owner's permission) - so the ticket for an open container in public is BS too.

    The cops who patrol our block have frequently hit on us and made disgusting sexual comments while "patrolling" to "keep us safe." They are a complete disgrace to the NYPD and to the community they claim to protect.

    The biggest thing that irks me is that they choose to waste their time messing with us for quietly sitting on our roof tops, and in the mean time the 18 year old kid across the street is openly selling drugs all up and down the block. Everyone sees it and everyone knows it, and yet we are the big concern here? Please.