I’m never going out again for the rest of my trip.
Young Lords marching in the Puerto Rican Parade, June 1970
As the NYPD has struggled through a brutal month, its main mouthpiece and Commissioner Ray Kelly’s most trusted adviser, Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Browne, has been called out for playing fast and loose with the truth in four separate high-profile cases.
September’s incidents might mark the end of the NYPD’s scandal-proof status.
On September 5, two black public officials at the West Indian Day Parade were bullied and handcuffed by police officers who refused to let them walk into a function at the Brooklyn Museum. Browne told reporters that the officers acted after “a crowd formed and an unknown individual punched a police captain on the scene.” He denied that the men had been arrested. One of the men, City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, called that account “a bald-faced lie” and mocked Browne’s “ghost puncher,” about whom nothing has been heard since.
Just off of the parade route, 56-year-old grandmother Denise Gay was caught in the crossfire as eight police officers traded fire with career criminal Leroy Webster. Browne initially told reporters that three witnesses, including Gay’s daughter, had told police that Webster or the man Webster had shot earlier had fired the fatal shot. But the daughter, Tashmaya Gay, denied having said that, telling the Post that “the cops killed my mother,” and “there’s no way in hell” the fatal bullet could have been fired by Webster.
A few days later, a plainclothes detective in Inwood arresting a suspected pot dealer shot and killed 43-year-old grandfather John Collado. According to Browne, the undercover officer had clearly identified himself, yet Collado, who belonged to a pro-cop Facebook group and wasn’t involved in the drug buy, nonetheless put the detective in a choke hold. “The cops who responded described [the detective] as barely conscious,” Browne said. “He was nearly choked out, and his limbs were numb.” But the family’s lawyer, Patrick Brackley, told reporters that he has seen surveillance video showing that the detective hadn’t identified himself, and that while Collado was trying to break up what he thought was just a fight between his neighbor and a stranger, he was not choking the detective.
Then, last week, the pepper spraying of nonviolent Occupy Wall Street protesters by Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna quickly became a national story—in large part because of Browne’s hotly disputed version of the events. Browne contended that the spray was used “sparingly” and “after individuals confronted officers and tried to prevent them from deploying a mesh barrier—something that was edited out or otherwise not captured in the video.” Other videos of the incident then surfaced and showed no such confrontation and no warning at all from Bologna and his using the spray again a few seconds later.
Browne did not respond to several phone calls and e-mails asking for comment on his recent statements. That no-response is typical of the Bloomberg NYPD’s approach to “public information.”
A longtime observer of the NYPD—from within and outside—calls Browne’s operation “the commissioner’s image office,” and adds: “Browne answers only to Kelly, and the two of them are the only voices that speak for the department. The Public Information Office has a very low opinion of the public.”
A prosecutor who has known Browne for years said the mouthpiece “will zealously protect Kelly, who is still considering throwing his hat into the ring for the mayoralty,” and added: “He’s become more than a spokesperson—it’s not surprising he’s gone across and beyond spinning.”
Despite or perhaps because of that approach to information and message control, the 70-year-old Kelly has been one of the city’s most popular officials, with approval ratings well over 60 percent for most of the past decade. Although he’d prefer a federal appointment, Kelly hasn’t discouraged the idea that he still might step into the mayoral race if that falls through.
With the crime numbers staying down and no successful terror attack, not to mention the strong support of Mayor Bloomberg, the public has shrugged off Kelly’s past excesses, including the 2004 Republican National Convention, when nearly 2,000 protesters and passersby were arrested and held at Pier 57 with little semblance of due process, which eventually cost the city millions in settlements and legal fees. (Bologna himself is the subject of a pending suit alleging false arrest and civil rights violations.)
Meanwhile, millions of stop-and-frisks have led to hundreds of thousands of unjustified marijuana-possession arrests that flouted state law. An abrupt about-face by Kelly in an “operations order” sent out in September appears to have finally put a stop to that policy after years of obfuscation and silence from the department. The department’s arrest quotas were finally exposed last year by the Voice via tapes secretly recorded by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft. The NYPD’s attempts to discredit Schoolcraft included having officers show up at his apartment and forcibly commit him to a psych ward. Also there, according to Schoolcraft, was Browne.
Although Browne, who became chief spokesman in 2004 and has worked closely with Kelly at numerous posts since the 1990s, has dodged criticism before, that shield is crumbling. The department has taken a series of hard public hits, also including a spate of shootings in August, a spike in the subway crime rate, a series of stories exposing the formerly secret Demographics Unit (whose existence Browne had previously denied), and a ticket-fixing scandal that has led to the indictment of 17 officers. That scandal is widening—it points to cops working with drug dealers and to members of the Internal Affairs Bureau tipping off subjects of the probe as well as triggering a citywide ticketing slowdown among the rank and file.
“It’s really anti-democratic to think the department can ladle out the information it wants to in dribs and drabs,” the longtime observer says. “And their contempt for the press and the City Council has, if anything, increased over the years.
“That the guy would just be throwing out misinformation over a month I think comes from a sense of, ‘Who’s going to catch us, and who’s going to punish us if they do?’”
In a disturbing scene from today’s “Occupy Wall Street” protests, a group of peaceful female protesters were rounded up in an orange-colored mesh pen by police and subsequently sprayed with mace without any provocation.
In spite of multiple reported incidents of possible police violence, major media outlets seem to be content to let the protests go by completely unreported, following the same “who-cares” attitude they have taken toward recent revelations that the NYPD has violated the Constitutional rights of American citizens by spying on them as possible terrorists and enemies of the state despite a complete absence of evidence of any crimes.
This is absolutely disturbing. Penning people up to mace them is police brutality. Period. What will it take to get the mainstream media to pay attention? If you follow the #OccupyWallStreet, you’ll find out that at least 80 were arrested today. AP and Wall Street Journal mentioned the arrests briefly today.
Here’s a longer video that shows slightly more context. Literally, the macing of these protesters came out of nowhere. “I was on the ground sobbing and couldn’t breathe,” said Chelsea Elliott, one of the victims of the macing, who the New York Times actually interviewed in their front-page story on the protests. Elliott claimed she was arrested after shouting “Why are you doing that?” after another protester got arrested. What the heck is this? Why was this reaction called for?
Uhh this is unbelievably beautiful
Shortly before he first ran for office, Michael Bloomberg was asked by New York magazine if he had ever smoked marijuana.
“You bet I did. And I enjoyed it,” he answered bluntly.
The quote would become the basis of an ad campaign by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, but it would never have any effect on Bloomberg’s own practice of aggressively (and, some say, illegally) arresting people for the possession of even meager amounts of pot once he became mayor.
“In 1977, small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized in the New York State Legislature,” says Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance. “So you can have up to 25 grams, which is seven-eighths of an ounce, on your person, and that would be a violation similar to jaywalking or traffic tickets.” It’s something that could carry a $100 fine, she explains, and is only an “arrestable offense … if it’s in plain view or if it’s burning.”
And yet, try explaining that to the NYPD. Their boss might have admitted to having smoked weed himself, as did Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (and nearly every candidate running for his job in 2009). But Mayor Bloomberg has not only forced New York City’s finest to match his predecessor in marijuana arrests, he has also made Rudy “Broken Windows” Giuliani look like Dr. Timothy Leary by comparison.
Consider that, according to a study by Professor Harry Levine of Queens College, Giuliani “only” averaged arresting 24,487 people a year for marijuana. By 2008, Bloomberg was averaging 36,069 pot arrests annually.
In 2010, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, he arrested 50,383 people—”more than capacity seating in Yankee Stadium.”
In 2011, he’s on track to arrest more than 60,000 by year’s end.
Now, while you’re still sober, take a wild guess: What color and gender were most of those arrestees?
Frederique says about 3,000 of them were in Brownsville. Were 3,000 black people—about 80 a day—really walking around all lit up on the street?
“If 3,000 people were smoking marijuana in public, there would be a large cloud,” Frederique says with a laugh. “The air quality would be different. People couldn’t drive buses because the bus drivers would be getting contact highs.”
Frederique is making a hyperbolic joke, but she maintains that the prospect that “young men of color, who are hyper-policed in this city” are actually walking around in large groups smoking pot in open view is absurd. So is the notion that poor black males smoke pot more than richer, paler men and women. But still, they get disproportionately arrested because, under Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the NYPD uses controversial UF-250s—”stop-and-frisks”—on them at a record-setting pace.
“I’m a police officer, I come up to you,” Frederique explains as if she were a cop approaching a young man in East New York. “‘What are you doing? What’s in your pockets? Pull it out.’ Once you pull it out, it becomes ‘marijuana in plain view.’
“And that’s when they arrest you.”
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, more than 600,000 New Yorkers were stopped and frisked last year. Of them, 317,642 were black (53 percent), and 190,491 were Latino (32 percent). Just 55,083 (9 percent) were white. About 70 percent of them were under 30.
And they are inexplicably, lopsidedly male. As NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman notes: “Ninety percent of the people arrested for misdemeanors [for pot] are male. Ninety percent. There is no such gender breakdown for marijuana.”
And now it has come out that the most overpoliced, harassed, questionably searched, often illegally arrested New Yorkers are exactly the citizens the mayor suddenly wants to “help.”
His Young Men’s Initiative, which Bloomberg announced last month to great fanfare, will lavish $127 million of public and private funds on young black and Latino men over the final years of the mayor’s tenure.
This is utterly befuddling to his critics, who have fought him over the past decade as he has suspended young black and Latino males in schools, stopped and frisked them on the streets, and locked them up in record numbers.
The initiative focuses a lot on jobs. But, obstinately challenging the federal government’s four-decade-old attempt to force the FDNY to comply with the Civil Rights Act, Bloomberg has historically fought affirmative action for black and brown men. That’s the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
So what is Bloomberg doing announcing that he now wants to throw $127 million—including $30 million from his own pocket—at black and brown men, just as he’s getting ready to ride off into the sunset? Is he smoking some of that really good stuff only a billionaire could afford?
Or is it just, as Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance puts it, that “at the end of the day, the mayor has essentially fucked poor black people and poor Latinos in this city—to an extraordinary degree. This is a fairly significant maneuver at the end of his term to try to bolster his legacy.”
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Poverty grew nationwide last year, but the increase was even greater in New York City, the Census Bureau will report on Thursday, suggesting that New York was being particularly hard hit by the aftermath of the recession.
From 2009 to 2010, 75,000 city residents were pushed into poverty, increasing the poor population to more than 1.6 million and raising the percentage of New Yorkers living below the official federal poverty line to 20.1 percent, the highest level since 2000. The 1.4-percentage-point annual increase in the poverty rate appeared to be the largest jump in nearly two decades.
Many New Yorkers were spared the worst of the recession, but the median household income has since shriveled to levels last seen in 1980, adjusted for inflation. Household income declined among almost all groups — by 5 percent over all since the beginning of the recession in 2007, to $48,743 in 2010.
Manhattan continued to have the biggest income gap of any county in the country, with the top fifth of earners (with an average income of $371,754) making nearly 38 times as much as the bottom fifth ($9,845).
Poverty among children under 18 rose 2.9 percentage points to 30 percent. The rate also increased for every other group except people 65 and older. Single mothers, blacks and adults lacking a high school diploma fared worst. Among Hispanic single mothers in the Bronx, the poverty rate was nearly 58 percent.
The bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey paints a disturbing portrait of the city. More New Yorkers depended on some form of public assistance than in 2009, and a record 1.8 million residents — nearly one in five households — are now relying on food stamps. Fewer people had health insurance, home ownership declined and housing values plunged; 44 percent of renters were diverting at least 35 percent of their income for housing.
Unemployment rose one percentage point, and more people gave up on finding work, which may be one reason college and graduate school enrollment soared by about 50,000. More living quarters were crowded — from 7.9 percent of all houses and apartments in 2009 to 9.1 percent last year.
Though the poverty rate in the city rose faster than it did nationwide and the Bronx remained the poorest urban county in the country, New York still had a smaller proportion of poor people than many other major cities, including Miami, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston.
An influx of immigrants pushed the city’s foreign-born population to near-record highs (more than three million, and 37.2 percent). Their ranks swelled by about 50,000. Half of New Yorkers 5 and older now do not speak English at home.
The city’s poverty rate had remained about 18 percent since 2007 before climbing from 18.7 percent in 2009. The poverty rate was 20 percent in 1980, 19.3 percent in 1990 and 21.2 percent in 2000, after the dot-com bubble burst.
The 2010 federal poverty threshold for a family of three was $18,310.
Some economists suggested that federal bailout money to prop up failing financial institutions based in New York had spared the city the worst ravages of the recession, which statisticians declared over in 2009.
Advocates for the poor said the size of the problem might have been understated. “Increasing poverty is simply a confirmation of what we see every day in ever-longer lines at food pantries and soup kitchens,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “It is also latest proof our city and state policies are failing in fundamental ways.”
David R. Jones, president of the Community Service Society, an anti-poverty group, said: “Maybe because things looked so good for the well-educated and restaurants are packed, we figured that we missed this bullet. Projecting forward, I don’t think it’s getting better.”
Nationally, the Census Bureau said median household income had declined 2.3 percent to $49,445 from 2009 to 2010, and the poverty rate increased to 15.1 percent from 14.3 percent, the third consecutive annual increase.
In New York City, non-Hispanic whites took the biggest financial hit, according to the figures; their real income fell to $66,330, from $70,627. Median household income among Hispanic New Yorkers inched up to $35,887, from $34,586. Income also rose in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The city computes its own poverty rate, taking into account expenses for health and day care and higher living costs, as well as the benefits of tax credits, food stamps, school lunches and other assistance.
By its measure, the city’s poverty rate in 2009 was 19.9 percent. Mark K. Levitan, director of poverty research for the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity, said a more current poverty rate would be provided early next year.
“We will certainly see a higher poverty rate citywide as a whole,” he said, though he did not foresee as big a rise.
James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a union-supported research and advocacy group, said the latest figures “paint a disturbingly clear picture of a deteriorating living standard for most New Yorkers.”
Larry Fink, Studio 54 New York City 1977