A Pro-Prison Backlash in New York City

“I’m a progressive person. I’m a humanitarian. But I can also tell you some people are irredeemable, and unless they are treated very, very differently, they pose a danger to our society.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered these ominous words after the October 20 shooting death of NYPD officer Randolph Holder, and the swift arrest and arraignment of suspect Tyrone Howard.

In recent months, De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton have touted reforms to bail requirements and the expansion of public health care services as their progressive response to excessive court delays, overcrowding and rampant abuse at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex.

But – perhaps for fear of being seen as “too soft” by those bastions of journalistic integrity, the New York Post and New York Daily News – these self-proclaimed reformers are now tripping over themselves to flash their “tough-on-crime” credentials.

Once again, the killing of a New York City police officer is being used to shift the discussion away from the much more consistent and unaccountable brutality on the part of police officers – and this time as an opportunity to disparage drug diversion programs that offer alternatives to incarceration.

The mayor, who promotes himself nationally as a leading liberal, raced to put himself in front of the law-and-order backlash, pushing to change state law to allow New York judges more power to consider “dangerousness” – as opposed to merely flight risk – when imposing bail, and to make the rules more stringent when recommending defendants for drug treatment programs.

Had these rules been in place, de Blasio claimed, “Tyrone Howard would have gone to jail. He would not have continued to poison the community around him by selling drugs. He wouldn’t have been roaming East Harlem on Tuesday, and one of NYPD’s good, decent, hard-working cops would still be alive today.”

For his part, Bratton declared that Howard “is the poster boy for not being diverted [into a drug treatment program].”

Yet a number of details about Howard’s case and personal history are worth considering more carefully than the tabloids and even more reputable media sources seem capable or willing.

First, it’s impossible to ignore the glaring double standard on display in this case when compared to, for example, those of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, 28-year-old Akai Gurley or 43-year-old Eric Garner.

While all of these men were unarmed, and it was clear who killed them, indictments against the officers who shot and killed Graham and Gurley took nearly three months of activist pressure to obtain. Graham’s killer, Officer Richard Haste, eventually had his indictment tossed out of court, while the case against Gurley’s killer, Officer Peter Liang, is ongoing. Infamously, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Garner to death on a video seen by millions, was never even charged.

Tyrone Howard, on the other hand, was indicted the day after the shooting and is being held without bail. “I hope you burn,” one officer is said to have yelled during the arraignment. It would be hard to imagine one of Akai Gurley’s friends or family members getting away with saying that to Officer Peter Liang.

While it remains to be seen whether or not Liang will serve any jail time, everybody knows Howard is already as good as convicted.

Tabloids relish the opportunity to use the term “cop killer” – a special designation used to denote a person much worse than one who murders an ordinary civilian – and Howard is no exception to this rule.

Holder and his partner were in plain clothes during the incident, however, so it’s quite possible that the shooter was unaware that Holder was a cop. Despite this fact, during the official news conference, one reporter tried less than subtly to implicate the Black Lives Matter movement by asking Bratton, “Do you feel that there’s a possibility of anti-police mentality…which is fostering, maybe emboldening people with guns?”

At the same press conference, de Blasio implored New Yorkers “to show solidarity and to understand the bond we need to have between all of us and our police. We need to understand that the police are us, they are made up of every community every type of New Yorker. It’s a moment to dig deeper and find that solidarity that we need.

“I urge all New Yorkers today to reflect upon this moment and do something simple: Thank the police officers you come across today because they’re in pain. Every single one of them is in pain, they’ve lost a member of their family. That’s another step towards creating a bond between police and community that will make us a better city and make us safer.”

These words must ring deafeningly hollow to the families of Ramarley Graham, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner and countless others whose encounters with the NYPD have given no reason to thank them or make anyone feel safer. On the contrary, thousands of police officers in this city have caused endless pain and destroyed lives and families – and have yet to be brought to justice.

That is the reality that the mayor is asking his constituents to simply forget. While Howard is portrayed as the ultimate monster, the killers of Graham, Gurley and Garner, we were told, had only good intentions.

The unspoken truth, of course, is that had Holder – a Guyanese immigrant shot and killed near an East Harlem housing project – been a civilian, his death wouldn’t have led to a press conference with the mayor and might not have made it onto the news at all.

While the mayor and police chief joined the campaign to turn Howard into the boogeyman, Judge Edward McLaughlin stood by his original recommendation for drug diversion as “accurate and appropriate” given Howard’s struggle with drug addiction, the fact that his previous convictions were for nonviolent felonies, and the lack of any sign that prison time had helped.

De Blasio’s claim that Officer Holder “would be alive today” had McLaughlin ruled differently appears even more cravenly opportunistic when you consider, as a court spokesperson noted, that Howard “also could have been out on bail awaiting trial” if he hadn’t been offered diversion.

As it was, Howard had a warrant out for his arrest and, according to his brother, considered turning himself in as he battled with his addiction to PCP.

First incarcerated at age 13 and held for three years in a juvenile detention facility – and with two prison terms related to drug charges as an adult behind him, Howard knows New York’s system of jails and prisons well.

In fact, the case could just as easily be made that Howard’s time served in jails and prisons pushed him, as it does so many others, further away from legitimate means of employment and increasingly toward acts of desperation and potential violence. Obviously, job prospects for a youthful offender with two felony convictions and 28 arrests are all but nonexistent.

It’s precisely this cycle, described in painful detail in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, that seems to be Tyrone Howard’s story – if we apply de Blasio’s advice to “dig deeper” to Tyrone Howard and view him as the human being he is.

Bratton demonstrated that he is well aware of this cycle in his response to a reporter’s question about the national push to reduce incarceration:

While I’m supportive…of efforts to reduce arrests, summonses, reduce some of our activities as it relates particularly to minor drug types of crimes…what is missing in this effort – and it is a big miss – is that currently at the federal level, oftentimes at the state and local level, as people are coming out of jail, they’re coming out into an environment in which there is nothing there for them.

The concern I have with the federal release of prisoners at this time is that, all well and good if they’re deemed to be nonviolent, many have been serving long prison terms. They’re coming back into communities in which there are no jobs, there are no services, there’s no housing. Oftentimes, their families have dissolved during their time in jail.

There’s not a safety net, and the expectation, the concern, the warning if you will – the red flag that I’m raising and some of my colleagues are raising in the law enforcement community – is that we can expect to see those individuals reverting back to a life of crime. Some of them even when they’re given opportunities will go back to that life of crime – because that’s what they are is criminals.

Note the tap dance at the end of that statement. Bratton begins by acknowledging that people like Tyrone Howard are failed by a system that dooms them to lives spent under the control the criminal justice system. But then he shifts back to the familiar narrative about irredeemable criminals – the implication being that Howard is one of the latter – thereby clearing society of any responsibility for Holder’s death.

This is the tightrope that Bratton and his boss de Blasio are walking, between reforming the most egregious police and prison abuses and maintaining the so-called “Broken Windows” policing strategy that produces them.

The more than 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. make the country’s image as “the world’s greatest democracy” increasingly difficult to uphold. This, along with budget deficits and grassroots protest, has led to a debate about mass incarceration even among U.S. elites, and to both local reforms like de Blasio’s and the impending release of up to 40,000 federal prisoners.

Predictably, these efforts are meeting with resistance from those who want to keep America’s prison gulag fully intact. For these forces, Tyrone Howard and the image of the hardened criminal who is, as de Blasio put it, “irredeemable” fits an obvious need.

By pushing to allow judges to factor in “dangerousness” when setting bail, de Blasio is making it clear that his reaction to Holder’s death will not be to fight for stronger services for those leaving prison, but instead a “lock ’em up” tilt to the right.

When it was suggested that Howard, under these recommended provisions, might still have been eligible for drug diversion because selling drugs is considered a nonviolent crime, a de Blasio spokesperson suggested that selling drugs “is a dangerous crime.”

As the Legal Aid Society put it in a statement, “[C]hanging the law to undermine the presumption of innocence is not the answer, and would have disastrous consequences for fairness in our criminal justice system.”

Attorney Justine Luongo expanded on the point in a comment to the Observer: “[W]hen the mayor takes the position that drug cases are dangerous, this is why we’re opposing this. Because this notion of an over-broad definition of what ‘dangerousness’ is going to have a disproportionate effect on people with mental illness, poor people and people of color.”

The contradiction – ironically pointed out by Bratton himself – between the inevitable problems of crime and violence engendered by profound social inequality, and the non-solution of mass incarceration that only exacerbates the problem will continue to sharpen in the months and years ahead. Activists have an important role to play in articulating and fighting for real solutions.

De Blasio has demonstrated once again that he is at best a cowardly “ally” in this fight. More accurately, his supposedly progressive administration has combined a few positive but limited reforms with giving liberal cover for disastrous Broken Windows policies – and now the truly dangerous conception of the “irredeemably criminal.”

This is, after all, the argument that has undergirded the harsh sentencing laws and practices that have helped drive incarceration to the current, shameful rate of 716 per 100,000 residents. It insidiously requires that we cease seeing people as human beings and treat them, as de Blasio eerily suggests, “very, very differently.” Once we accept that argument, the logic of punitive measures follows.

We should be careful not to fall into this trap. And we need to step up the fight, not just for alternatives to incarceration, but for further structural changes – equal access to well-paying jobs with good benefits, decent affordable housing, educational opportunities, health care and more – that can offer a real alternative to crime and violence.