On March 16, I videotaped two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers pushing and threatening students from Midwood High School in Brooklyn. Toward the end of the encounter, one of the officers threatened the young people with a Taser, asking them if they wanted to “ride the lightning.” The officers were attempting to disperse these young people from a public sidewalk for reasons unknown to me. I was drawn to the scene because one of the approaching officers had his nightstick out before any interaction with the Black students, who were congregating on a corner across from their school. Regardless of the reason police arrived, the officers’ behavior was unprofessional, offensive and violent.
Following the tragic death of Eric Garner almost three years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD assured the public that they were going to retrain officers in how to deescalate interactions with the public and reform their use-of-force policies to reduce the chances of future tragedies. The officers whom I videotaped did just the opposite. According to Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, “This video confirms the all-too-frequent complaints of NYPD officers abusing their authority to intimidate young people of color. It raises serious questions about the culture of our police department when an officer behaves like the schoolyard bully.”
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Rather than explaining the reason for the dispersal and showing patience and professionalism, these officers immediately resorted to threats and force, repeatedly saying “what you gonna do” when young people expressed anger about their treatment. Using threats and intimidation in that way seems like a grossly unprofessional choice and raised the chances of an escalation in tensions, bad feelings and potentially the use of force. “The behavior in this video is appalling and must not be tolerated by the NYPD,” said Anne Oredeko, staff attorney in the School Justice Project at Youth Represent. “This video captures just one of thousands of threatening interactions with law enforcement that youth of color experience everyday, and that usually go unnoticed.”
I am also deeply concerned about the expansion in the distribution of Tasers to officers. This officer deployed the Taser in a direct violation of department policy. Tasers are only supposed to be used when there is a real threat of violence and when other lesser forms of police action are insufficient. Once again, the deployment of the Taser in this instance was an unprofessional shortcut. In addition, the NYPD Patrol Guide makes clear that Tasers should not be used against minors, except in extraordinary circumstances. This was clearly not one such circumstance. Even if a young person had pushed an officer or thrown a snowball, the use of a Taser would have been grossly inappropriate.
My fear is that Tasers will be increasingly used as a tool of intimidation or in a casual manner, rather than as a worst-case alternative to more lethal forms of police force. This is a concern shared by Mustafa Sullivan, the executive director of FIERCE (an organization in New York City led by LGBTQ youth of color) and a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform. He argues that the video of an NYPD officer bullying and threatening young people with a Taser, for doing nothing other than walking down the street, reaffirms serious concerns already raised by a recent report from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, about the increasingly wide dissemination of Tasers throughout the department. The tasering of a pregnant 17-year-old by NYPD officers in the Bronx in February only increases these apprehensions.
The NYPD — and police departments throughout the country — must completely rethink the way they deal with young people, especially young people of color. What I witnessed was not an isolated incident. According to Sullivan, “Every day, young people continue to experience abusive policing in school, near their schools and in their neighborhoods.”
Onyx Walker, a youth leader with the Urban Youth Collaborative, echoes this assessment: “Sadly, the video of a police officer threatening a student with his Taser captures an everyday experience for Black and Brown youth in New York City schools. Across the city, police officers wait for students right outside our schools and harass us to get off the block or to leave the neighborhood. In front of our own schools we aren’t viewed as young people and students, but as dangerous criminals. The real danger is in the discriminatory policing we face in our schools and communities.”
How is that danger being dealt with? Incidents like this one test the city’s systems of police accountability.
“The NYPD needs to send a clear and definitive message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society. “The department’s relationship with communities of color is already fraught with tension, and conduct like this counters efforts to improve those relationships. We expect real accountability and consequence here for this officer’s absolutely unacceptable actions.” Oredeko added, “If the officer was the young man’s parent, there would likely be an ACS case opened against him; as a police officer, he should face serious consequences. The conduct in this video also highlights the need for the Right to Know Act — legislation that would promote communication and accountability between the NYPD and communities they serve.”
In response to the video, the Civilian Complaint Review Board opened an investigation, with which I am cooperating. Investigators say they will work to identify both the officers in the video and the young people. But will the officers be held accountable for their behavior or will we be told that the city is “working on it”? According to Sullivan, “With incidents like this, it is clear that training — de-escalation or otherwise — cannot produce reform without meaningful changes to accountability.”
While progress has been made in reducing “stop, question, and frisk” practices, and the number of school-based arrests, more change is needed. In all too many cases, police seem to approach these young people as if they are presumed guilty.
Moreover, the mayor needs to find alternatives to relying on the NYPD to deal with the problems faced by these young people, the communities they live in, and the schools they go to. We need restorative justice programs, wrap-around social services and community investment — not gang raids, focused deterrence, and over 5,000 NYPD personnel in city schools. This is why the Urban Youth Collective is calling for the city to divest from school policing, saying: “The NYPD School Safety Division has 5,511 personnel compared to only 2,800 full time guidance counselors. The resources used to follow and police us after school should be reallocated to ensure every student has access to the supports needed to succeed including guidance counselors and social workers.” The history of school policing is rife with racial bias and exaggerated claims about the threats young people pose. Those resources could instead be directed into the kinds of efforts that could really improve the lives of young people and their families and communities. Driving them into the criminal legal system and threatening them with Tasers is a step in the wrong direction.