What I learned from an unfortunate incident with the NYPD

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Did you know that Central Park has a curfew? I didn’t.

I was issued a summons for violating the 1 AM curfew back in October. I happened to be passing right by the Greywacke Arch just as a police officer was driving through it. I produced my ID as instructed, was told about the curfew in the park, issued a citation and told that as long as I made my mandatory appearance in court, the matter would be dismissed. All in all, the officer seemed somewhat apologetic and indicated through his body language that he thought this was a pretty farcical part of his job.

What does this have to do with my initiation into the stop-and-frisk club? I’ll get there.

On my way to the Summons Answer Part of the New York Criminal court, my train was delayed twice by “police activity”. The first time, the NYPD were called upon to remove a person who had lost control of their bowels. I myself had moved one train car down due to the smell and caught a glimpse of the hostile interaction between the unfortunate citizen and pair of transit cops. One tug, a slip and a few screams later the elderly lady was off the train and in handcuffs.

Further along, a fight broke out at the other end of the more crowded train car I fled to after the last incident. I heard someone nearby calmly calling it in on the intercom and continued to hear far more than I saw, right up to the point where I saw the four transit officers more or less throw everyone on that end of the train car out onto the platform. Only an instant after the scuffle poured onto the platform, the train doors closed and I felt dumbstruck with luck that I hadn’t been ejected.

The events of that morning, the circumstances of my own ticket and that unfortunate incident in Times Square with the NYPD on the eve of the Super Bowl left me with a greater appreciation of the horrible situation we’ve set out for the NYPD to deal with and how they’re responding to it is making it so much worse in the long run.

In the nearly six hours I spent in court on two separate dates, I saw around a hundred people plead guilty and pay fines for a variety of different petty offenses. Most people just did what they were told to do, as if they didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Some cases qualified for a thing called “ACD“, which basically meant one’s charges would be dismissed if they didn’t commit another offense in 6 months.

A select few were represented by attorneys, almost all of whom jumped to the head of the queue and had their cases dismissed. I managed to see one trial on the charge of urinating in public. While the magistrate established that the officer did not directly see a stream of urine, the really incompetent attorney representing the poor kid did a sufficiently good job of botching the cross of the officer and trying the patience of the magistrate. While the client was eventually found guilty, the attorney managed to eek out one obvious but prescient question:

Q: “How many citations have you written since you saw my client?”

A: “Maybe 40 or 50. We’re required to write 10 citations a month.”

Eventually, my case came up for trial. The court clerks indicated that my case was eligible for ACD and were somewhat shocked I wasn’t offered it when I was arraigned. As my “court appointed attorney” began to explain what ACD was at the beginning of my trial, I explained I had not been offered it. The only choice offered by the magistrate at my arraignment (along with about 50 other people) was to enter a plea, so I plead not guilty.

Why?

Lesson #1: Don’t let the justice system eat you up and spit you out. If you have a right to exercise, even if you’re “in the wrong”, exercise it. Great! Go me! I learned something from the 12 credits of legal topics I took, on top of the many tickets I got out of simply for showing up to court. However, what does this all have to do with being randomly stopped and frisked on the eve of the Super Bowl for responding to a really inappropriate comment about my beard?

The NYPD aren’t tasked with policing, the act of maintaining law and order. They’re tasked with writing citations, scooping up those who don’t comply with the court, engaging in systematic intimidation and picking up the problems that social services can’t cope with. They have a quota. They make it, or they don’t, regardless of what kinds of crime or lack of crime is present in their area. In my experience, the police handle this pressure much better than most of my peers could handle it. They’re largely good people charged with bad policing tactics.

Bad cops make quotas however they can. Good cops get pressure to do what bad cops do well. This leads us to the biggest lesson which I failed to take into account when I was asked, “Is that a Muslim or Hipster beard?” by a crew of three NYPD officers in Times Square:

Lesson #2: Avoid interacting with the NYPD whenever possible. If asked a question, focus on memorizing badge numbers, answer as minimally as possible and focus on ending your interaction with the NYPD as quickly as possible.

The main reason I didn’t file any kind of report or move forward at all was that I don’t have badge numbers. I don’t even know what precinct they were from. Not more than 30 seconds likely elapsed from the time I very unwisely said, “You can’t fucking ask that” to the moment that I was shoved back into a crowd of Super-Bowl’s-eve revelers. While I’ll never know what was on their mind, I’m reasonably certain that the interaction wound down rather quickly once they unzipped my snowboarding jacket, realized I had a tie on and sifted through my wallet enough to grasp the level of privilege my outer attire failed to communicate.

But wait! Bill DeBlasio is the mayor! Stop and frisk is over! Everything is going to get better right? Maybe. Hopefully. However, change is going to come very, very slowly. I had an unfortunate incident that’s been a way of life for the less privileged in NYC for years.

While I really, really would like to bring this all to a decent conclusion, something hopeful and revelatory, I’m really left with only one final lesson. I’m still struggling to figure out how to move forward on in my own life.

Lesson #3: Fsck the police. Fsck is the command line on xnix systems for “file system check“. While it’s an obvious word substitution for a popular profane phrase, I believe the twist of meaning carries precisely the feelings of action that I want to bring to my peers. What this means to me personally is something I’m still wrestling with.

In the mean time, as a recap:

  1. Exercise your rights, even if you’re wrong: Download the Stop and Frisk app. Learn the 10 rules for dealing with the police, especially the rules about keeping calm and never raising your voice. Get in the habit of looking for and memorizing badge numbers.
  2. Avoid unnecessary interactions. Don’t engage in crime and don’t engage officers even if they address you incredibly disrespectfully.
  3. Fsck the police. More on that later.

Care to comment?  Please see the discussion thread on HN.

Thanks to Wendy, Gabe and Todd for catching typos!

8 thoughts on “What I learned from an unfortunate incident with the NYPD

  1. AlanCarlBrown

    Perhaps we need a system of incentives that rewards police for a lack of crime where they patrol instead irrelevant things that make them look like they’ve been busy.  And we need to separate crime measurement from policing.

    You get what you measure and reward.

  2. MasonB

    AlanCarlBrownJust have to be careful not to redo that whole no child left behind
    fiasco. It can’t be based on continuing improvement for all time. There
    has to be an upper bound.

  3. cwarner

    As a black male what I take from this is the outcome. While the interaction with the police in this case(s) ends with a citation and some sort of physical shove. A black or latino male of any age would have likely had a much different outcome. Anecdotal observations aside, these lessons simply don’t apply to equal citizenry of a darker shade and it’s a self perpetuating cycle that seems to only increasingly becoming worst.  Exercising my rights? Avoiding unnecessary interactions?? Fsck the police?? Yes, maybe for you.. not for me.

  4. cwarner  I completely agree, up to a point.  Would a black or latino male trader on Wall Street have the same outcome?  I actually happen to BE a Latino male, albeit a paler one.  I pass for White in NYC, so effectively I am in this case.  I’ve also been in certain situations where, through actions I was able to take or contexts I was able to assume, immediately elevate myself out of a situation that may have turned out differently were I not able to pass.  Finally, Are you also saying that none of your peers bring out cameras during a confrontation with the police?

  5. cwarner

    “Would a black or latino male trader on Wall Street have the same outcome?”

    Yes, a resounding emphatic yes. In-fact, it’s simply known as “putting you through the system” by the NYPD. They reserve this tactic for acts they know will only receive desk-tickets or acds. Infact, you can be honored with the privilege of the city council and have this happen to you as Jumanne Williams and many others can attest.

    “Finally, Are you also saying that none of your peers bring out cameras during a confrontation with the police?”

    Sure, they do, but cameras aren’t effective in a single node situation where it’s your camera against the officers. It’ll likely be destroyed. That aside for someone like me who is in the unique position of simply uttering “Ok Glass, record a video” the situation is vastly different. It is in my deepest hopes that the Stop and Frisk app will help however these lessons as prescribed simply aren’t useful for black or latino males whom are law-abiding citizens in New York City. Lastly, this idea that the NYPD as a group operates to the law or within it’s boundaries is simply laughable to my peers and I, because we see the opposite side of the coin every day. If you know a minority male, ask how many times he’s been detained, arrested or hassled for no other reason than his skin color. I can assure you the results will surprise you. So while I try to avoid the NYPD like the plague, to them.. I am prey.

  6. cwarner  The last thing I want to do is engage in a skin-tone argument, since I think we largely agree.  In case you missed it, I am a minority male and the most of my closer friends are minorities of one stripe or another. I admitted to passing for White in NYC since I’m quite aware of the difference having been on both sides of that coin.

    As to your (apparent) assumption that I’m White and all of my friends are White: Some of my Black and Hispanic friends have never been stopped and frisked or had any other interaction with a police officer than a traffic citation or a query for directions.  Others have had the exact experience you’ve described.  The lines cross primarily along class and privilege.  Yes, most of my entirely law abiding White friends have no idea what it’s like or claim that having been arrested via Occupy or the Republican Convention qualifies them to speak on these issues.  I can pass in NYC, but I can’t pass as White in LA, I’m always going to be “some kind of a Spik,” as one (incidentally Black) LAPD officer once put it.  Frankly, as far as police officers go, the NYPD is not nearly as bad as shoot-first Orange County Sheriffs.

    Yes, I agree that the specifics of the three strategies I’ve laid out here are not 100% applicable to everyone in any situation. A lot of my friends don’t have smartphones, the stop-and-frisk app is not an option for them. No amount of a lack of privilege stops anyone from exercising their rights in some way in any interaction. Even someone who doesn’t speak English and gets threatened with deportation in broken Spanish has a right to memorize a badge number and file a complaint.

    Second, avoiding unnecessary interaction is not out of anyone’s reach. I should have simply ignored the police officers and looked at badge numbers instead of swearing at them. I played my privilege card and this is where it got me. Had I not been in a suit or carrying certain objects in my wallet, yeah–I might have ended up in the tombs. Everyone has the option to attempt to end or curtail interaction with a police officer, though not everyone as the option to avoid it entirely.  Hence, the use of the word “unnecessary”. A lot of times this also means, simply, comply.

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