Gotham Gazette

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Criminal Justice

Operation Condor

From Louima to Diallo to Dorismond, Mayor Giuliani has never wavered in his support for the NYPD, a stance that seems equal parts political strategy and personal conviction. Not surprisingly, through months of controversy the Mayor has continued to pursue one central element of the crime war that has defined his administration: a crackdown on misdemeanors and "quality of life" offenses.

That philosophy is carried out everyday by the 500 officers deployed by Operation Condor, a $24 million narcotics enforcement drive. What the Street Crime Unit, the roving elite squad involved in the Diallo case, did for gun seizures, Condor has done for drug activity arrests. In two months, Condor officers have produced a staggering 21,445 arrests, and seem to have inherited from the Street Crime Unit an aggressive, quota-minded approach to policing. Indeed, shortly before his confrontation with Patrick Dorismond, Officer Anthony Vazquez is said to have told his fellow officers that he wanted to get one more "collar" or arrest that night.

Critics claim that too many of these arrests have netted small-time offenders: while arrests for misdemeanors and violations is up 68% from last year, felony arrests are down 9%. But the very essence of the "broken windows" theory Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir have put into practice is that sooner or later lesser offenders commit violent crime. From this standpoint, Operation Condor has accomplished exactly what it has set out to do.

Further down the line in the criminal justice system, Mayor Giuliani is following up the increased police activity with a legislative battle to put more lesser offenders behind bars for longer stays. The Mayor's Criminal Justice Coordinator Steven Fishner recently testified before City Council in favor of legislation that would create tougher sentences for repeat misdemeanor offenders.

Is this the right strategy for the City? Although Commissioner Safir has cited statistics showing further drops in crime, the homicide rate is up 22% this year.

Jerome Sounds Off: If Trends Continue, We Could See...

News review: Week of May 12, 2000:
A police officer shot and killed an unarmed Catholic priest who was driving home after services at his Brooklyn church Wednesday night. According to police department records, Father Smith, who was black, was stopped by two officers for reckless driving at 10:15pm, shortly after finishing a weekly prayer meeting at the Our Ascension Church in the Flatbush neighborhood of Central Brooklyn.

When he was asked to step out of his vehicle, Father Smith began arguing with the officers, who were uniformed and were driving an NYPD patrol car. A brief scuffle ensued, during which time one of the officers shot Father Miller, who died at King's County Hospital later that night.

At a press conference on Thursday, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has faced sharp criticism for his handling of recent police shootings, said "As you know, I am a practicing Catholic, and in no way do I condone the killing of a clergyman. But the fact is, these officers were patrolling a high-crime area." Mayor Giuliani added that Father Miller's behavior was "clearly hostile" and "bears further investigation."

News Review: Week of June 4, 2000
In another fatal police shooting that has once again raised questions about the New York Police Department's tactics in minority neighborhoods, an unarmed man was shot and killed in his Harlem apartment early Thursday morning by an undercover officer.

According to eyewitness accounts, Sgt. Smith Wesson followed William Baga, 22, into his building on Lenox Avenue and approached him as he entered his first-floor apartment. When Mr. Baga attempted to close the door, Sgt. Wesson shot Mr. Baga six times. Mr. Baga was the fifth unarmed black man killed by police in the last 13 months.

Sgt. Wesson was part of "Operation Condor," an aggressive drug crackdown initiative whose officers were involved in the March shooting of an unarmed security guard in Manhattan. Speaking to reporters on Thursday Mayor Giuliani urged New Yorkers to reserve judgment in the shooting. At a Friday press conference, however, Police Commissioner Howard Safir released to the press on Friday copies of pornographic videos and magazines found in Mr Baga's apartment. Mr. Baga, a recent immigrant from Barbados who had been unemployed for six months before the shooting, had also received numerous complaints from neighbors about excessive noise, according to the Commissioner. "This man belonged to an element of society that has done a lot of harm to this City," said Commissioner Safir.

News Review: Week of June 18, 2000
In an incident that has shocked a city already reeling from a series of police shootings, Commissioner Howard Safir shot and killed an unarmed, black homeless man as he and Mayor Giuliani left a press conference at City Hall Monday morning. The victim, a 38-year-old who frequently panhandled the downtown area, physically threatened the Mayor and Commissioner, according to city officials. When police officers failed to restrain Mr. James, Commissioner Safir drew his weapon and fired 3 times, killing Mr. James. Neither the Mayor or the Commissioner had ever fired a weapon in the line of duty.

The incident sparked massive demonstrations at City Hall, as well as condemnation by Senate candidate Hillary Clinton. In a statement on Tuesday, mayoral aide Bruce Teitelbaum said "Obviously this is a difficult situation and a tragedy that, once again, the Mayor's political opponents have chosen to distort and exploit."

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society. 

DNA Redux

As reported in the Gotham Gazette last month, NYPD Police Commissioner Howard Safir has said DNA testing, which uses samples of genetic material to identify potential suspects, could revolutionize law enforcement, if only legislators would catch up to the technology. He's just gotten his wish. On February 23rd, Governor Pataki proposed new laws that would broadly expand the use of DNA in solving crimes. These proposals, the most aggressive measures in the country, would eliminate the statute of limitations on sixteen felonies and allow police to collect DNA samples from anyone convicted of a crime.

As in most U.S. states, current New York law restricts the use of DNA testing. Only those convicted of the most serious felony cases (about 65% of all felonies) must provide samples, and, with the exception of murder, crimes can only be prosecuted up to five years after they're committed. But DNA samples can reliably identify or clear a suspect well after five years' time, and can link an inmate convicted of one crime to others.

DNA testing has been a hot media topic in recent weeks. In a long piece for City Journal, Commissioner Safir championed DNA testing as a crime-fighting tool. In the pages of Newsweek, the founders of the Innocence Project, a legal center that seeks to overturn mistaken death row sentences, argued that making testing more accessible could help free many inmates who have been wrongly imprisoned. And in an article the Governor said influenced his decision to submit his proposals, the New York Times reported on rape cases in which DNA had identified suspects who could no longer be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.

It's not yet clear how the State Legislature, controlled by Democrats who have rejected some of the Governor's previous criminal justice initiatives, will vote on the new proposals. But with DNA on a fast track from obscurity to the top of New York's criminal justice agenda, don't be surprised to see DNA crime labs getting a lot of funding and attention.

Jerome Sounds Off:

"Verdicts do not send messages," defense attorneys in the Diallo trial told jurors, but of course we know better. The acquittals jurors handed out in Albany last Friday may have been based on sound legal judgment, but they still send a terrible message, especially to those living in the City's minority neighborhoods: no one was at fault in this case. What other response can you expect from the thousands who marched in demonstrations this past weekend? You feel either sadness or terrible rage.

What we need, then, is someone to step forward and deliver another message. Where do we go from here? The Reverend Calvin Butts, no stranger to political opportunism, called on his congregation to work against Mayor Giuliani's probable Senate run. Al Sharpton, who so effectively galvanized protestors last year, suggested a vague, untargeted boycott. Both men fanned their audiences' anger and resentment.

They've got that part right. But now's the time to turn heated emotions into something lasting, a way to change police practices in the City. We can expect the Mayor and Police Commissioner will do nothing until something forces their hand, as protesters did last year. There's no end of specific proposals that public pressure could highlight. Provide more funding for the CCRB and demand a commitment from the Commissioner to disclose how he's punishing officers guilty of abusing their power. Take former Commissioner William Bratton's suggestion to reduce the size of the force by 5,000 officers, allowing more training for those remaining. Curb the Street Crime Unit (a long overdue change that Comissioner Safir began last October when he shut down the infamous squad's headquarters and created eight separate units).

Community leaders could also take on a very unglamorous, time-consuming, and painstaking mission: working with community residents to hold their local precincts accountable. As Eli Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice wrote in the Gotham Gazette last year, "Like most citizens who hold Congress in low esteem but highly value their own Representative, many New Yorkers...resent the [NYPD] but seek more contact with their own beat officer." If the NYPD wants to win back some trust, and residents want to gain some sense of control over how their neighborhood is policed, one place to start is in community meetings with the precinct commander.

Normally, the precinct meetings held regularly across the city are a charade between self-appointed community VIPs and precinct commanders who play good cop for the evening. But a strong, coordinated group can put legitimate issues on the table and give residents and officers a chance to interact with each other outside of traditional roles.

Admittedly, it takes a little wishful thinking to imagine that people all over the city could be mobilized to improve the performance of their local police precincts. But after the painful unfolding of events this past weekend, I think we're entitled to it.

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

Repeat Offenders

Paris Drake is accused of a senseless and brutal crime on a busy Midtown street in broad daylight. Whether or not he is convicted of bashing a woman's head with a brick, his arrest has highlighted the criminal justice system's failure to deal with repeat offenders.

Before the alleged attack, Drake had been jailed more than twenty times and was a free man for exactly 17 days out of the last eight years. Like many of his fellow inamtes, Drake was arrested several times on drug-related charges (an estimated 70% of the City's 70,000 inmates have a history of drug abuse). Most of his crimes were misdemeanors, which typically bring sentences of only a few weeks or months in jail.

Clearly, the system doesn't work for Drake and thousands of others who spend years cycling in and out of prison. Prison advocates call for more drug programs, but too often inmates themselves complain that these programs don't work. Most of the ex-cons I spoke to in a recent study of parole--even those who insisted they needed help to stay clean--ridiculed the rehab programs available to them. Some skipped out without consequences. When Drake, for instance, was finally ordered to seek treatment after years of revolving-door prison stints, he blew it off.

Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki have called for a kind of "three strikes and you're out" policy that would mandate longer sentences for repeat offenders after a certain number of misdemeanors in a given time period. Steven M. Fishner, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, has said "It is for people like Paris Drake, for offenders who sell marijuana repeatedly in city parks, and for others who make a career of committing crimes and skating under the mandatory sentences for felonies."

Such a plan might please prison-happy public officials, but probably won't change criminal behavior. Why not? The motivation needed to go straight is extremely difficult to manufacture, whether you're giving inmates a boot camp regimen or drug programs, long terms upstate or slap-on-the-wrist sentences. The problem is, for those ex-cons who are determined not to return to prison, it's difficult to find a job that pays the bills, and exceedingly easy to get back into crime, especially selling and using drugs. Until this balance changes--perhaps by making effective pre-release programs a priority--no proposal to reduce the number of repeat offenders is likely to succeed.

Jerome Sounds Off:

Quality of Life Crime #54: Selling cheap goods on the subway. (Good thing too, since mostly recent Chinese immigrants are in that racket nowadays, and with their mangling of the language and their haggard countenances, these people are comical at best, downright disturbing if you're in a bad mood. Not the kind of thing you want the tourists to see. Plus, they're cutting into Duracell and Doublemint sales at legitimate rent-paying stores. And remember the "broken-windows" theory Ð today they're selling yo-yos, tomorrow they're hawking stolen watches, pretty soon they're robbing you at gunpoint when you try to take the train! That's why I'm glad I saw a sting operation last week--six uniformed and two plainclothes officers nabbing two guys who, I was told, make thousands of dollars a week selling $1 batteries. It's a good thing these crooks are off the streets now, but not before pocketing our hard-earned George Washingtons and menacing our quality of life.)

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

Strip Searches

City officials have settled a lawsuit alleging the New York Police Department improperly strip-searched people arrested for minor offenses in Brooklyn, agreeing to pay $650,000 to 20 plaintiffs in the case. But the jury remains out on whether strip-searches are being used by police only in special circumstances for safety and to collect evidence, or as a matter of routine.

The settlement of the suit contrasts sharply with the 2001 settlement of a similar case involving alleged wrongdoing in Manhattan and Queens, when the city agreed to pay up to $50 million in a class-action suit. In that case, the city conceded its Corrections Department illegally strip-searched tens of thousands of people held in custody on minor charges during a ten-month period in 1996 and 1997.

Federal courts have ruled since the 1980s that strip-searches are allowed for those arrested for minor crimes only under special circumstances, such as when police have reason to suspect a detainee may have a hidden weapon or contraband, usually drugs.

In settling the Brooklyn case, the city has admitted no wrongdoing, although statements from those plaintiffs involved in the suit describe how they were humiliated after being arrested for misdemeanor crimes, sometimes publicly strip-searched in view of other inmates and officers of the opposite sex.

Police policy says strip searches, when necessary, should be "conducted by a member of the same sex as the arrested person in a secure area in utmost privacy and with no other arrestee present."

Yet the lawsuit and a report(in pdf format) issued in May by the Civilian Complaint Review Board paint a far different picture. The board investigated dozens of complaints filed since 2002, and found that in 2003, they were substantiated at a rate of about 19 percent.

Twelve strip-search complaints were substantiated by the review board last year. Through July of this year, the board has substantiated 14 strip-search complaints.

While those overall numbers are small, officers interviewed by the Civilian Complaint Review Board in response to complaints often described strip-searches as routine and necessary to look for drugs, even if the person was arrested for different reasons. This led the review board to express concern that the problem was more wide-spread than the number of complaints might suggest.

The review board sent a letter to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly calling for better training of officers on how to conduct strip-searches and when strip-searches were permissible. Police officials have responded by saying that a new training video has been under development to give officers a better grasp of department policies on strip-searches.

Those involved in the lawsuit described their disappointment in the settlement to The New York Times.

One man in the Brooklyn lawsuit described for the Times how he was strip-searched after a traffic accident in which he was arrested on suspicion of having a suspended license. He described the crowded, dirty conditions of the holding cell, and then being asked to drop his pants in view of female officers.

"When the lawyers offered [the settlement] to me," the man told The Times, "they said, 'That's not bad for one night.' I said, 'You go try it.' I'm a knockaround guy. That night was pretty horrible."

When and how police conduct strip-searches have been questions raised by similar lawsuits across the country, and even the definition of "strip" search is not completely clear. Some legal scholars wonderexactly how much of a right people have not to be strip-searched.

But aside from when and where strip-searches are allowed, federal courts have ruled in similar cases this year that in order to reach class-action status -- and be eligible for multi-million dollar payouts, like the 2001 lawsuit -- the plaintiffs must prove that they are likely to be harmed in the future by police strip-searches. If those involved in the lawsuit were only involved in minor crimes, then it is unclear that those involved would be arrested again and subjected to similar treatment, according to the explanation presented by The Times.














What Goes In Must Come Out

What goes in must come out. Sasha Abramsky's "When They Get Out," in June's Atlantic Monthly, considers how booming incarceration rates have affected our society, and speculates about what will happen when these prisoners are released. The article focuses on national trends (in twelve states, for instance, ex-offenders can never vote again, which may lead to widespread disenfranchisement), but the implications for New York are obvious. One organizer estimates that beginning in the year 2005, New York's prisons will release about 30,000 inmates a year -- people who will have a hard time finding work and medical care. Abramsky asks important questions about a problem we've swept under the rug, but one we'll have to face up to eventually.

Jerome Sounds Off:

41 bullets, 1000 arrests, and countless Mayoral defensive postures later, what have we learned from the City's police brutality crisis? The infamous Street Crime Unit now sports uniforms -- not that the City's minority residents had too much trouble spotting groups of beefy white guys cruising their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, according to a recent poll, 25% of New York's white voters consider police brutality a "serious problem," compared to 81% of black voters. Despite the unlikely multiracial coalition that rallied around Al Sharpton's City Hall protests, as the chant goes, "No justice, no peace" -- at least not until both sides acknowledge common ground. Shrill activists have their sound bites. But who's speaking for residents of poor neighborhoods, who want more, not fewer, cops on the beat? And when will the Mayor and the Commissioner acknowledge the systemic racism that plagues the force? Sit back, we'll be here a while.

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

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