NEW YORK, Apr 19 2005 (IPS) — Friends, families and supporters of people killed by the New York Police Department (NYPD) gathered Monday evening to remember the dead and to demand that the department stop targeting immigrant and low-income communities.
More than 200 people holding signs like "Take crooked cops off our blocks" stood listening to mothers and fathers of victims tell their stories before beginning a peaceful march. Lining the street next to the crowd were NYPD officers.
The gathering, organised by the NYC Coalition Against Police Brutality, corresponds with Racial Justice Day and comes just one day after the release of a former NYPD officer, Francis Livoti, from a North Carolina prison.
Livoti went to jail in 1998 for using an illegal, minute-long chokehold that resulted in the death of 29-year-old Anthony Baez in 1994.
Baez’s mother, Iris Baez, may have been the only parent to speak who managed to hold back her tears. "This concerns the youth of today and it concerns the youth of tomorrow," she said. "If I don’t speak up I am part of the problem, part of the corruption. Only you can change this," she told the crowd.
Livoti was in the NYPD’s monitoring programme at the time of the killing, so he should not have been interacting with the community. But when a football bounced off Livoti’s car outside Baez’s home, Livoti got out and after an exchange, began choking Baez.
The sergeant assigned to monitor Livoti sat in the car while Baez fell unconscious, never to awake. Livoti did not immediately explain his actions to investigators, invoking the "48-hour rule", which allows officers to wait two days after an incident before giving a statement. The Coalition is calling for the rule to be rescinded.
After being acquitted of criminally negligent homicide, Livoti was finally convicted on federal charges that he violated Baez’s civil rights. Iris Baez said that NYPD personnel would not testify in court because they were afraid of Livoti, who was a police union delegate, and his godfather, then-chief of patrol Louis Anemone.
Anemone is no longer with the NYPD, but shortly after Baez’s death, he said that Livoti was "doing the kind of work that the citizenry of the city and certainly this country are looking for."
New York City settled with the Baez family for three million dollars and PBS made a film, "Every Mother’s Son", about the case.
Other notorious cases include that of Anthony Rosario Jr., 19, and Hilton Vega, 21, killed execution-style in Brooklyn in 1995 by the NYPD, as they lay facedown on the floor. Rosario was shot 14 times in the back and sides, and Vega had eight entrance wounds.
One of the officers who did the shooting, Patrick Brosnan, was a personal friend of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and part of his campaign security. A little more than a year after the killing, Brosnan retired with a tax-free, line-of-duty disability pension after claiming he suffered hearing loss from the shots fired at Rosario and Vega. No one was ever jailed.
Margarita Rosario, mother and aunt of the victims, told the crowd that when she had called up Giuliani’s radio show to talk about the case, he told her that "maybe if you had raised your son differently, he wouldn’t have been killed."
"If you take this to court they (the NYPD) say you’ll be sorry. Why? Because we’re immigrants and we’re supposed to be scared. But we’re not afraid! There’s no need to be afraid! When you get hurt by a cop, take action," she urged.
Another well-publicised case occurred in February 1999, when four New York City policemen searching for a rape suspect knocked on Amadou Diallo’s door to question him. When Diallo, an African immigrant, came to the door and reached inside his jacket, the officers shot at him 41 times, hitting him with 19 bullets. It turns out Diallo was reaching for his wallet.
Such high-profile incidents have waned in recent years, but the overall picture remains bleak. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reports that complaints of police misconduct ranging from verbal abuse to excessive force have risen 52 percent since 2000 – from 4,100 to 6,200 last year.
And the percentage of complaints filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board found to be supported by the evidence has doubled, from about eight percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004.
Ideas for reform mentioned at Monday’s gathering include a residency law requiring officers to live in the communities they police, and an end to the use of dum-dum bullets, which explode in the body. The Coalition also asked for an investigation into past cases like those of Rosario and Vega, in which cover-ups have allegedly occurred.
In response to a growing public outcry, the NYCLU has lent its support to a bill prohibiting racial or ethnic profiling by the NYPD. Twelve states are now mandated to collect data on the race and ethnicity of persons stopped by police.
Statistics show that blacks and Latinos are stopped and frisked by the NYPD far more often than their proportion in the general population should warrant.
The office of New York State Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer produced a revealing report in 1999 based on 175,000 police write-ups of encounters with citizens. It discovered that even when statistics were adjusted for race-specific crime rates and the racial makeup of communities, blacks and Latinos were still being stopped and frisked by police far more than whites.
For example, after figuring in discrepancies between community crime rates, the report found that blacks were still stopped 23 percent more often than whites, across all crime categories, and that Latinos were stopped 39 percent more often.
What’s more, the report found that city-wide, 15.4 percent of all the police officer write-ups examined contained insufficient evidence to justify a stop based upon reasonable suspicion.
And the problem is hardly limited to New York. According to a nationwide study conducted by Amnesty International from July 2003 to August 2004, some 32 million people in the U.S. complain they have already been victims of racial profiling.
There are several reasons why persons of colour are more likely to be stopped and arrested, according to scholars Jeffrey Fagan of Colombia University and Garth Davies of Simon Fraser University, including the greater police presence in minority communities and "tacit approval of these practices by their superiors."
The NYPD suggests that the higher rates of stops and arrests among non-white people merely indicate that there are more severe crime patterns in those neighborhoods.
But the NYCLU says that this argument is basically an acknowledgement that racial profiling is department policy.
While most of the NYPD officers gathered at the rally said they were not allowed to comment, one unnamed officer told IPS that he thought police should not be blamed.
"People make mistakes. They get scared. I don’t think any of this racial profiling still goes on but when you see a gang member do something, and then you see someone else that looks like a gang member, you tend to treat them the same."
"Nobody wants to kill anybody. Nobody wants to shoot anybody. Nobody wants to take their stick and break anyone’s head open. It’s not just traumatising for the families, but for the officers," he said.