Police victims, clockwise from top left: Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Alberta Spruill, Timothy Stansbury, Jr.
When I heard that an unarmed black man had been shot by a white police officer in Brooklyn, my immediate reaction was probably similar to that of many New Yorkers: “Here we go again.” I was saddened by the news, but I was not shocked. I have represented over 100 victims of police misconduct in my career as an attorney. I know that for every outrage that makes it into the newspaper or into the courtroom, there are a good number more that never get reported at all.
The story of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury, Jr., an innocent young man shot without cause, has joined those of Amadou Diallo, Alberta Spruill, Eleanor Bumpurs and Patrick Dorismond as illustrations that something is wrong with police procedures and practices. Stansbury left his elderly grandmother’s apartment at about 1 a.m. on Saturday, January 24. He was walking up the stairs to the roof in order to cross over to another building in the same housing development; people in this development regularly used the roof as a passageway between buildings. But the sight of Stansbury in the stairwell startled Richard Neri, a police officer who was patrolling the roof. He fired his weapon at Stansbury, killing him. A Brooklyn grand jury later cleared Neri of any criminal liability.
Less than 24 hours after I first heard of the killing on the news, I was asked to represent the Stansburys. I accepted, and am now assisting the Stansburys in a lawsuit filed against New York City.
For what we assert are violations of Stansbury’s civil rights, we are asking for $600 million. A judge and jury can order the police department to pay that amount, but they cannot tell the police department that it needs to re-examine its practices. We hope that by hitting the city in its pocketbook, we will force the police department to wake up and look at these chronic problems.
It is easy to think that this story â€“ a young man, going to school, working, who was shot on his way to meet friends at a party -- is an exception. But while publicized cases such as Stansbury’s stand out because they are so blatant, they are hardly isolated events. New York City could significantly reduce the number of these unnecessary, and occasionally tragic, cases of police misconduct by reforming certain practices within the police department:
End The “Blue Wall of Silence”
In the late 1980s, I represented a black woman who said that she had been harassed and then arrested by a white police officer after he pulled her over in Clinton Hill. The woman, a PhD student at the time, was driving a BMW. The case would have been entirely her word against his, except that his partner had also witnessed the incident. During the confrontation, my client had actually called on this man to take note of how she was being treated.
When I questioned the officer’s partner, however, he gave me what I call the "Standard Police Answer": He told me, very politely, that he could not recall anything that had happened. Such forgetfulness is common in police cases, as officers try to avoid saying anything that would get other cops in trouble.
During my investigation for this case, I spoke to several officers who told me, in confidence, that the man involved had a tendency to pull over black people in expensive cars. Often the justification for these traffic stops would be minor or non-existent violations. Had they communicated this to their commanders previously, it could have been dealt with easily through the force’s own disciplinary procedures, instead of in the courts. And at least one woman would not have had this experience.
Breaking down the “blue wall of silence” is not necessarily easy; cops are strongly discouraged from speaking out against other cops. This is the wrong message to send; police officers should realize that they aren’t helping anybody when they cover for bad cops.
Have the Corporation Counsel Report on Patterns of Problems
Last year, Alberta Spruill, a career civil servant, died of a heart attack when police officers threw a flash grenade into her house while serving a search warrant. Sadly, they had the wrong apartment. Many were shocked, but others, myself included, were not surprised. Cases like this only become newsworthy when the victim dies.
I am representing another civil servant, working in law enforcement, who was handcuffed, naked, on the floor of her apartment for three hours while police officers tore it apart looking for drugs. As in Spruill’s case, they had the wrong address.
These two stories are not directly related, but they may indicate a pattern of faulty police work. I do not have the data necessary to make definite conclusions about systematic police failures. But the Corporation Counsel, the city’s law firm, does.
The Corporation Counsel represents New York City police officers and the police department every time they get sued. Surely it should be able to discern patterns of problems within the police department. Issuing a report examining such findings would be a good first step toward addressing many of the problems that the police department has in dealing with the citizens of the city.
Sensitize Police Officers to the Neighborhoods They Patrol
Interactions between white police officers and black and Hispanic New Yorkers end too often in tragedy. Most of us are familiar with the more outrageous examples, cases in which the police often make farfetched claims that they perceived a threat to their safety. In examining these cases, we have to take into account the element they all have in common: race.
I am not suggesting that all white police officers are racist. But many white officers are assigned to patrol communities that they have no understanding of. Often these are minority neighborhoods. When they patrol such areas, white police officers are overly nervous and prone to make very bad judgments about what is or is not a threat.
If you talk to older retired New York City police officers, they will tell you that when they walked a regular beat, they became part of the community. They knew the merchants, the schools, the families that lived in the neighborhood. They knew where the problematic areas in the neighborhood were, and they knew who was involved in criminal activity.
The neighborhood cop on the beat may not be a reasonable expectation anymore, but the police department has to keep up with changes, in a city that is constantly evolving.
This means constantly sensitizing police officers to the neighborhoods in which they work. Black and Latino officers who patrol what we call inner-city neighborhoods aren’t usually involved in cases where innocent civilians are shot or killed. In large part, that is because these officers grew up learning the subtleties and nuances of such neighborhoods.
There are probably officers from every neighborhood in the city on the police force. Let them tell their colleagues about what they might experience, and what to look for.
Improve Weapons Training
The most tragic â€“ and high profile â€“ cases of police misconduct are those in which officers make bad decisions with deadly weapons.
There are cases where police have to use force; training officers to use good judgment in these instances is essential.
Eleanor Bumpurs â€“ an elderly, obese, emotionally disturbed woman â€“ was killed when a police officer shot her with a shotgun. Bumpurs was wielding a knife, there is no doubt about that. But this was not a woman who moved like a halfback; she could probably have been restrained by the group of five or six police officers who confronted her the day of her death.
Even if the use of weapons was necessary, the officers were armed with billy clubs and handguns, which could have been used to disable Bumpurs without killing her.
Yet the weapon that the police chose was a shotgun â€“ which any hunter will tell you is a kill weapon. Better weapons training, in this case, could have prevented a death while dealing with a potentially dangerous situation.
Could changes in police training have saved the life of Timothy Stansbury, Jr.?
If Richard Neri had known, for instance, that the roof he was patrolling was a commonly used passageway, he wouldn’t have been so shocked to see Stansbury. If he had been trained to not keep his finger on the trigger of his weapon, he probably would not have shot him.
Kenneth Ramseur is an attorney in New York City