Growing up in Flatbush in the 2000s, I fell in love with the vibrancy of my community. I loved the way we gelled together — different cultures, with different layers of broken English sprouting from mouth to mouth, speaker to speaker.
One of the most vivid images I still hold on to, however, is the way police patrolled parties and community gatherings. They looked more like corrections officers walking down aisles of prison blocks than the agents of community safety they professed to be.
I remember regularly listening to the news and being told by my mother that I should always respect police officers, that they were “good” people. Sadly, though, far from perceiving the police as badged crusaders taking down villains, I saw police become the very thing that they proclaim they stand against.
From the time I turned 13, police became a regular invasive presence in my life and the lives of my friends. As broken windows policing took over our communities, putting our conduct under intimate surveillance, the police continuously invaded our personal spaces. Over-policing dominated our schools, criminalizing young people of color like me and pushing us out to the streets, where we faced further dehumanization at police hands.
This was the legacy of Bill Bratton I thought of when I heard the news that he will be resigning as NYPD commissioner. I thought about what his leadership of the NYPD — under both mayors Giuliani and de Blasio — has meant for me. I thought about the dozens of times police have stopped me, understanding that the hyper-aggressive broken windows policing introduced by Bratton in the 1990s led to discriminatory and out-of-control stop-and-frisk abuses later on.
I thought about one time in particular, when I was 18 years old and leaving my college classes for the day, and an officer stopped me for no reason and pressed me against the wall. I felt my soul shatter. After I told him that I had rights and that he was not allowed to do this to me, he overturned my belongings from my bag.
Bratton’s legacy is linked to my experience of being harassed by that officer, his eyes looking at me with the certainty of guilt he had already placed upon me and saying to me: “N—–s don’t have rights.” The criminalization of my blackness — and that of so many other New Yorkers and people across the nation — cannot be detached from the broken windows policing that has equated being black with disorder, crime and peril.
Bratton’s legacy to me is also the NYPD targeting black youth who have protested discriminatory policing and police assaults on our community. It is encounters like what I experienced after being interviewed by CNN last year on the need for police reform — when the cops came up to me, handcuffed me as they searched my possessions, went into my pockets, removed my wallet and ID and then taunted me, calling me “Mr. F—ing CNN.”
In NYC, aggressive policing of the broken windows ideology is disproportionately practiced in communities of color and commonly understood within our communities as discriminatory and abusive. The police are in the hallways of our apartment buildings, in schools, in subway stations — where we young people of color are met with hands in our pockets instead of handshakes of affirmation. This is Bratton’s legacy.
And our communities distrust police as a result of this historical and continual abuse. For the last two years, I have participated in a study documenting the decreased legitimacy and trust between communities of color and the NYPD. We surveyed 1,084 young people of color across the city, and we found deep mistrust, fear, and anger.
Young people report fearing involvement with the criminal justice system every time they set foot outside their apartment doors. Sixty five percent of young people we surveyed felt like the police abuse their power. Sixty six percent felt that the police discriminate.
Instead of listening to pleas for reform, Bratton fought against police accountability, trying to block the City Council Right to Know Act bills that would require officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for non-emergency encounters with the public, curbing coercive and unlawful searches. His unwillingness to hold officers accountable has shown police that they can kill or brutalize members of our community with impunity.
Changes of the NYPD Commissioner — Jimmy O’Neill now, and whomever follows him — will not make a difference unless there is a commitment to deconstruct this system of institutionalized racism and hyper-aggressive militarism, and consistently hold officers accountable for brutality and misconduct in a timely, meaningful way.
Otherwise, our communities can never feel safe around police, no matter how strong the promised commitment to “neighborhood policing.”
Darian Agostini is a member of Make the Road New York and Communities United for Police Reform.
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