[News] Disbanding Notorious NYPD Anti-Crime Unit Is a “Shell Game,” Critics Say

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 16 16:23:49 EDT 2020


 https://theintercept.com/2020/06/16/nypd-anti-crime-unit/ Disbanding
Notorious NYPD Anti-Crime Unit Is a “Shell Game,” Critics Say
Alice Speri <https://theintercept.com/staff/alicesperi/>, Ryan Devereaux
<https://theintercept.com/staff/ryan-devereaux/> - June 16 2020
------------------------------

*Facing massive ongoing* protests against police brutality, the New York
City Police Department announced on Monday that it is disbanding a
hyperaggressive and notoriously trigger-happy plainclothes unit.

A majority of the roughly 600 officers in the department’s “anti-crime”
units would be immediately moved to other assignments, NYPD Commissioner
Dermot F. Shea said in a press conference
<https://www.pscp.tv/w/1dRJZZBvBZNJB>, though a portion would continue to
patrol the city’s subways. The reassigned officers will take up positions
in the detective’s bureau and the department’s community policing efforts,
Shea said, as the NYPD replaced its prior emphasis on “brute force” with an
embrace of intelligence and technology-driven policing.

“This is a seismic shift in the culture of how the NYPD polices this great
city,” Shea told reporters. “It will be felt immediately in the communities
that we protect.”

But it was hardly the first time the NYPD had promised change, and the
announcement was met with a great deal of skepticism by advocates wary of
empty talk of reform. Monifa Bandele, vice president of criminal justice
campaigns at MomsRising and a member of the policy leadership team for the
Movement for Black Lives, called the move a “shell game” and a
“distraction,” aimed at diverting New Yorkers’ attention from growing
calls to defund the NYPD
<https://theintercept.com/2020/05/22/la-budget-nyc-police/>.

“It’s moving around resources and actual police officers, shuffling them
around within the department to make it look like what we’re asking for,
but we’re actually calling for a much larger systemic shift,” Bandele told
The Intercept. “We’re not talking about shuffling resources and people
within the police department. We’re talking about moving around resources
within the citywide budget in a way that makes our communities safer. That
means actually moving money out of the NYPD budget, and moving those
resources into education, housing, mental health services, homelessness
services.”

“Internal personnel changes don’t really address the fact that our
communities are over-policed and under-resourced.”

Albert Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project,
called the move to disband the unit “a publicity stunt.”

“They tried this same tactic before,” Cahn told The Intercept. “It’s simply
an easy way for them to take a page out of the NYPD PR handbook and avoid
real structural reform. And if these officers are simply doubling down on
the NYPD bias and broken surveillance of communities of color, it’s going
to result in more police violence.”

“I’ve seen this cycle play out before, where you have outrage and then the
NYPD claims it will fix it,” he added. “And then they do a mild change.”

Indeed, while the disbanding no doubt reflected the immense pressure that
more than two weeks of sustained protests have had on the decision-making
of even the largest police department in the country, the move was also
infused with a bit of déjà vu.

The modern anti-crime units in New York City were born in a similar period
of unrest more than two decades ago. On a winter night in February 1999,
four plainclothes NYPD officers roaming the south Bronx spotted a
22-year-old man stepping out of his apartment. The man’s name was Amadou
Diallo: He was a West African immigrant who sold socks and gloves in
Manhattan to make money for his family back home. The officers would later
claim that Diallo made “furtive gestures.” They opened up on him, firing 41
shots, 19 of which hit their target.

Diallo’s killing was a critical moment in New York City policing history.
In the aftermath, there were protests and litigation — including a lawsuit
that, 14 years later, would find that the NYPD had engaged in a widespread
pattern of racial profiling and give the current mayor an issue on which to
propel himself to office. At the center of the civil turmoil was the
supposedly elite police crew behind the shooting: the Street Crimes Unit.
Reform From Within

The plainclothes cops were the rough face of a new form of numbers-driven
policing, supported by the latest in law enforcement technology and
undergirded by an increasingly fashionable theory of policing called
“broken windows.” A 2000 report
<https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/bp56.pdf> by the Cato
Institute described the culture of the unit as “militaristic,” with
officers talking of “retaking neighborhoods.” Members even designed
T-shirts to represent their clique. Borrowing a line from Hemingway, they
read: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who
have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for
anything else thereafter.”

In 2002, with the Street Crimes Unit tied up in litigation stemming from
the Diallo killing, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that the officers
would be rolled into newly emerging, borough-wide units that, according to
the New York Times
<https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/10/nyregion/police-commissioner-closing-controversial-street-crime-unit.html>
would, “perform much the same function as the Street Crime Unit, patrolling
in unmarked cars looking for criminals.” The name of the new units was
anti-crime.

More than a decade and a half later, the NYPD is now saying that
anti-crime, too, has got to go. In the press conference announcing the
decision, Shea praised the “thoughtful discussions about reform” that
emerged from two weeks of protests. The commissioner went on to highlight a
number of bills passed at the state and local levels.

“The truth is that most of these bills will not have significant impact on
day-to-day operations of the NYPD — I say this because most of what is
codified in these bills was already being practiced by policies and
procedures of the NYPD,” Shea claimed. “We welcome reform, but we also
believe that meaningful reform starts from within.”

It was hardly the first time a police commissioner had promised the
department would reform from within. In 2016, two-time NYPD Commissioner
William Bratton, argued on his last day
<https://theintercept.com/2016/09/16/retiring-nypd-commissioner-william-bratton-claims-police-will-reform-from-within-why-havent-they/>
before retirement that police reform couldn’t be legislated and that only
police could change themselves.

“There are police reformers from outside the profession who think that
changing police culture is a matter of passing regulations, establishing
oversight bodies and more or less legislating a new order,” Bratton wrote
in an op-ed then. “It is not. Such oversight usually has only marginal
impact. What changes police culture is leadership from within.”

Those who have been calling for radical changes to policing for years warn
that what the NYPD is calling a seismic shift may in fact be a distraction
to appease the protesters before returning to the old status quo under a
new name.

And as Shea is doing now, Bratton’s successor, James O’Neill, promised a
new era of “community policing
<https://theintercept.com/2016/08/11/new-nypd-commissioners-focus-on-community-policing-is-a-distraction-not-a-solution/>”
in New York City. Before being appointed commissioner, O’Neill had
spearheaded the city’s Neighborhood Coordination Program, New York’s
version of a nationwide push toward what proponents had promised would
be a gentler,
friendlier
<https://theintercept.com/2020/06/11/defund-the-police-joe-biden-cops/>
police presence. The pivot towards community policing, aided by significant
federal investment in local departments, came as the Obama administration’s
response to the protests that from Ferguson, Missouri, spread across the
country starting in 2014.

In New York City, despite little evidence it had done anything to improve
police-community relations, O’Neill’s neighborhood policing initiative was
replicated across precincts, and earlier this year, Shea announced a new
youth-focused police initiative
<https://theintercept.com/2020/02/13/new-york-city-schools-gang-law-enforcement/>
modeled after the Neighborhood Coordination Program. Earlier this month,
before capitulating to protesters’ demands that the city cut the NYPD’s
budget, Mayor Bill de Blasio again touted community policing as the reason
why the NYPD’s resources couldn’t be cut. “I do not believe it is a good
idea to reduce the budget of the agency that is here to keep us safe and
the agency that is instituting neighborhood policing,” said the mayor,
calling the initiative a “game-changer” and the “future of policing.”

[image: NEW YORK, NY - MAY 31: An plainclothes police officer detains and
then releases a person alleged to have vandalized a store on May 31, 2020
in New York City. Major cities across the United States have seen increased
protests against police brutality and civil unrest since the death of
George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. (Photo by Stephanie
Keith/Getty Images)]
<https://theintercept.imgix.net/wp-uploads/sites/1/2020/06/edit_GettyImages-1216620885.jpg?auto=compress%2Cformat&q=90>

An plainclothes police officer detains and then releases a person alleged
to have vandalized a store on May 31, 2020 in New York City.

Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

But the NYPD had plenty of opportunity to show that community policing
works, or that, as Bratton and Shea have both claimed, police can reform
from within. The latest protests, in New York as elsewhere, are yet
more evidence
of the failures of police reform
<https://theintercept.com/2020/05/29/george-floyd-minneapolis-police-reform/>
— but those who have been calling for radical changes to policing for years
warn that what the NYPD is calling a seismic shift may in fact be a
distraction to appease the protesters before returning to the old status
quo under a new name.

Community policing, they say, is particularly insidious because of the
false image it evokes. “It’s a word that they’ve clearly polled and
workshopped,” said Bandela. “So by calling it community policing, they’re
basically pitching an idea to people that feels good and sounds good. But
what we know, in essence, is that it is just the continued over policing of
our community.”

Assigning police to community outreach work, she added, “continues to
broaden the job description of police officers.”

“There are people for whom, that’s their passion, they went to school for
that, they dreamed of being that their whole lives,” she said. “We should
resource them… Continuing to adjust police officers’ job description to
justify their excessive budget has to stop.”

Instead, advocates say, reform should happen at the budgetary and
legislative levels. Since the protests started, New York state legislators
passed two major bills that had been on the table for years: one banning
chokeholds and the other repealing a law, known as 50-a, that has long
protected officers accused of misconduct from public scrutiny. This week,
legislators are expected to vote in favor of the Public Oversight of
Surveillance Technology Act, or POST Act, another piece of legislation that
advocates for greater police transparency have lobbied in favor of for more
than three years.

“Right now we have more state and local policing reform legislation posed
to pass in New York City and New York state than in the past decade
combined,” said Cahn. “I think lawmakers know that it’s not a matter of
whether they can take on NYPD, it’s that they have to take on the NYPD if
they want to keep their jobs.”
21st Century Policing

In 2018, an investigation by The Intercept
<https://theintercept.com/2018/05/09/saheed-vassell-nypd-plain-clothes/>
found that the anti-crime officers Shea is now assigning to detective work
and community policing shot people to death at a considerably higher rate
than their colleagues. Analyzing data from the Fatal Encounters project,
the investigation found that despite their relatively small numbers,
plainclothes NYPD cops were involved in nearly a third of the city’s lethal
police shootings recorded in the nearly two decades after Diallo was killed.

“I think we can do better,” the commissioner told reporters, noting
anti-crime’s “disproportionate” representation in shootings and civilian
complaints. “I think policing in 2020 is not what it was five, 10, or 15
years ago,” Shea said, adding that he began reviewing the unit’s impact on
communities last year. “It was always in the back of my mind.”

Anti-crime units are self-directed, meaning that they spend much of their
time prowling neighbors in unmarked cars looking for “activity” to respond
to.

Unlike uniformed patrol officers, whose work is largely dictated by 911
calls that come over the radio, anti-crime units are self-directed, meaning
that they spend much of their time prowling neighbors in unmarked cars
looking for “activity” to respond to. The units are plainclothes but not
undercover — while they are not dressed in NYPD blue, they are not in
disguise either. Like the Street Crimes Unit of the 1990s, anti-crime units
have been known to wear civilian gear — T-shirts, patches
<https://twitter.com/_elkue/status/1272630598146932739> — that mark their
allegiance to a militarized strain of modern American law enforcement. When
anti-crime officers gunned down Saheed Vassell in Brookyln in the spring of
2018, for example, one of the officers involved was seen wearing a Punisher
T-shirt — the comic book vigilante’s logo is one of the most popular symbols
<https://theintercept.com/2020/06/06/police-brutality-protests-blue-lives-matter/>
of warrior-style policing.

The Vassell killing was one of several high-profile incidents anti-crime
officers have been linked to in recent years. In 2013, anti-crime officers
in the hyperpoliced neighborhood of Flatbush shot 16-year-old Kimani Gray
to death as his friends and neighbors watched, sparking days of protests.
The police claimed that the teen had a gun. Eyewitnesses said Gray was
empty-handed
and begging for his life
<https://www.villagevoice.com/2013/03/13/eyewitness-certain-kimani-gray-was-unarmed-when-police-shot-him/>
when he was killed. During a historic federal trial later that year,
challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices, anti-crime officers were
often linked
<https://ccrjustice.org/files/Floyd-Liability-Opinion-8-12-13.pdf> to some
of the department’s most egregiously unconstitutional policing. The
following summer, anti-crime Officer Daniel Pantelo
<https://www.wnyc.org/story/face-broken-windows/> choked an unarmed Eric
Garner to death in Staten Island, sparking another round of protests.

[image: NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 5: Mourners embrace as they arrive before a
rally in protest of the police-involved shooting death of Saheed Vassell,
in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, April 5, 2018 in New York
City. Saheed Vassell, 34, was killed by police officers on Wednesday
afternoon in Crown Heights. He was unarmed but was reportedly acting
erratic and wielding a curved silver pipe that witnesses thought could have
been a gun. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)]
<https://theintercept.imgix.net/wp-uploads/sites/1/2020/06/editGettyImages-942471628.jpg?auto=compress%2Cformat&q=90>

Mourners embrace as they arrive before a rally in protest of the
police-involved shooting death of Saheed Vassell, in the Crown Heights
neighborhood of Brooklyn, April 5, 2018 in New York City.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The NYPD is seeking to distance itself from this violent legacy, Shea said.
“This is 21st century policing,” the commissioner explained. “Intelligence,
data, ShotSpotter, video, DNA, and building prosecutable cases.” Shea added
that, in his view, the decision to disband anti-crime marked a “closing of
one of the last chapters of stop, question, and frisk.”

“I think it’s time to move forward and change how we police in this city,”
the commissioner said. “We can do it with brains, we can do it with guile,
we can move away from brute force.”

Shea added that plainclothes units will continue to serve in the department
for the purposes of surveillance, drug enforcement, “or things of that
nature.”

But the NYPD’s announcement that former anti-crime unit members would shift
toward intelligence and technology-driven policing was a red flag,
advocates noted.

That shift has been underway for years as, mostly in response to the ruling
that found stop-and-frisk to be unconstitutional, the NYPD largely moved
from arbitrarily stopping New Yorkers in mostly black and Latino
communities toward surveilling those same communities under the guise of
anti-gang policing. Starting in 2012, with the launch of the anti-gang
“Operation Crew Cut,” the NYPD started devoting large resources to track
the social media activities of many of the same people officers used to
stop and frisk in the past. As The Intercept has previously reported, the
surveillance effort led to a series
<https://theintercept.com/2016/07/12/in-new-york-gang-sweeps-prosecutors-use-conspiracy-laws-to-score-easy-convictions/>
of mass raids
<https://theintercept.com/2019/04/25/bronx-120-report-mass-gang-prosecution-rico/>
and indictments that caught up dozens of young people based largely on
those they interacted with online and off. It also led to the severe
expansion of a secretive “gang” database
<https://theintercept.com/2018/06/11/new-york-gang-database-expanded-by-70-percent-under-mayor-bill-de-blasio/>
maintained by the NYPD, which as of 2018 included some 42,000 people, based
on a set of arbitrary criteria and often in the absence of criminality.

Much of what the NYPD does as part of what it calls “intelligence and
technology-driven policing” is shielded from public scrutiny, noted Cahn,
who added that the expected passage of the POST Act should shed some light
on those practices.

“We have absolutely no idea how intelligence resources are being allocated
because they’re able to circumvent public oversight and purchase many of
these systems with private and federal funds, and not even tell the city
council what sorts of systems they’re using,” he said. “I’m terrified that
this will mean more reliance on facial recognition, more reliance on
ShotSpotter, more reliance on the so-called gang database, which was
explicitly built out as a digital version of stop-and-frisk.”

And the prospect of more surveillance-based policing, with little public
accountability, was particularly worrisome at a time when the NYPD faced
some of the greatest challenges to its legitimacy as tens of thousands of
New Yorkers took to the street to protest them for more than two weeks.

“We’re absolutely terrified that we’re going to see people going into NYPD
databases for years,” said Cahn, “simply because they exercised their First
Amendment right to protest.”
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