THE BLOG
04/01/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Race and the NYPD: It's Complicated

A shrewd move by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, appointing Phil Banks, a high-ranking black officer, as the NYPD's chief of department.

Kelly acted amidst an ongoing federal trial to determine whether the practice of stop and frisk -- which Kelly maintains has resulted in record low crime rates -- has morphed into old-fashioned racial profiling. Since his return as police commissioner in 2002, police have made literally five million stops of people, mostly young black men, ages 14 to 21. Most of them had committed no crime.

Banks is as qualified as anyone in the NYPD to serve as chief of department.

But as the late Mayor Ed Koch put it when he appointed Ben Ward the city's first black police commissioner in 1983 after a series of damning hearings on police brutality: All things being equal, the fact that Ward was black "didn't hurt."

In short, race matters in New York City. Especially in the New York City Police Department.

Sworn in last week, Banks seemed to vindicate Kelly's judgment on stop and frisk, pronouncing it "an effective policy" when done properly.

Banks said he himself had been stopped by police as a college student outside a building near his home in Brooklyn that had been the scene of drug dealing. He added that that while he didn't like it because he felt disrespected, he viewed the practice as a necessary police tool.

Better yet for Kelly, Banks said he opposed an outside monitor -- which is anathema to Kelly but which many black leaders, the leading mayoral candidate Christine Quinn and various other police critics, black and white, are clamoring for.

Indeed, Banks' pronouncements, coming from the department's highest uniformed officer who is black, may lower the temperature of the increasingly contentious stop and frisk trial. The trial reached fever pitch with the secretly recorded remarks of Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, commander of the high-crime 40th precinct in the Bronx, telling one of his officers to arrest "the right people at the right time at the right location," a line said to have emanated from the office of Banks' predecessor, Joe Esposito.

On the tape McCormack added that he was referring to male black youths between the ages of 14 and 21, who commit most of the city's violent crimes. Virtually all the victims are other black New Yorkers.

To police critics, McCormack's phrase spelled "racism." Professional race-baiters like the Rev. Al Shaprton, currently masquerading as a political commentator on MSNBC, called McCormack's words a "smoking gun" and called for his suspension.

No matter that McCormack also said on the tape that "99 percent of the people in this community are great, hardworking people who deserve to walk to the train, walk to their car, walk to the store," without fear of getting shot.

Twenty-five years ago, the then Bronx borough commander, John McCabe, used exactly those words to this reporter to describe that 99 percent of Bronx citizens, most of whom are black and Hispanic. This might suggest that more than one high-ranking NYPD officer appreciates the struggles and hardships of people living on the edge of poverty in high crime neighborhoods.

Kelly is another of them.

In his brief, 14-month term as police commissioner in 1992-3 under the city's first black mayor, David Dinkins, he traveled every Sunday morning to black churches to recruit black officers.

That he was only marginally successful reflects another facet of race in New York City and the NYPD. Black New Yorkers have historically distrusted the police.

The reasons are multiple but here are just a few over past 40 years.

In 1973, Thomas Shea, a white police officer, shot and killed Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old black boy fleeing across a vacant lot with his grandfather, whom Shea was pursuing. A jury of 11 white men and a black woman found Shea not guilty.

In 1976, Robert Torsney, a white police officer, stopped Randolph Evans, a 15-year-old black youth, in Brooklyn. For no apparent reason, Torsney put his gun to Evans' head and shot him dead. An all-white jury found Torsney not guilty.

In 1983, Michael Stewart a 23-year-old black man was arrested by transit police for smoking a joint at Union Square subway station. He died in police custody. Six white transit officers were acquitted of his death.

In 1999, four police officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. The trial was moved out of the Bronx and the officers were all acquitted.

In reaction to this and other criminal justice failings, some black New Yorkers have made heroes of people like Larry Davis, who shot six cops in the Bronx in 1986, and more recently of Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old Brooklyn gangbanger who police shot after they said he pointed a loaded gun at them. Gray's death sparked protests and vigils, resulting in a mini-riot that followed his wake and funeral.

"Shame on the black community for rioting," said a retired black NYPD commander last week. But he added: "You have to understand there is a lot of anger and frustration among young people who are tired of cops searching them at will and disrespecting them without lawful authority.

"They [the police] are no different than a robber who runs your pockets," he continued. "A cop comes up and says, 'Empty your pockets,' and you feel disrespected, like they are robbing your dignity. Just because they wear a uniform doesn't make it anymore right."

There's an additional NYPD racial factor that the public -- including reporters, even police reporters -- is largely unaware of. Despite black leaders' regular denunciations of police practices, many embrace the police.

During Larry Davis' trial, Father Lawrence Lucas, a charismatic black Catholic priest, entered the courtroom with a class of schoolchildren and gave a bear hug of support to Davis' attorney, William Kunstler.

Twelve years later, when police officer William Morange, who was known as "The White Prince of Harlem," was sworn in at Police Plaza as chief of patrol, Lucas appeared and hugged Morange.

Lucas said that another white chief he respected was then Chief of Department Louis Anemone, who years before had commanded Harlem's 32nd precinct but who because of his aggressive crime-fighting style, the media -- this reporter included -- portrayed as "insensitive" to black concerns.

Anemone explained at the time that while Lucas "distrusted the police, underneath it, he felt we were both men of good will," and had accepted Anemone's offer to speak at his precinct.

"And he wasn't the only local official critical of the police who we met with," Anemone continued. He cited Calvin Butts, the outspoken minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church; Virginia Fields, then the Manhattan borough president; and Assemblyman Keith Wright, whose father, Judge Bruce Wright, had allowed so many suspects released without bail that cops called him "Turn 'em Loose Bruce."

"In the police department," said Anemone, "you learn how to work with everyone. I'm amazed you guys are shocked by this."

Another former top NYPD official last week echoed Anemone's comments. "Black leaders often have to play the activist in front of their communities but they need the local cops to look the other way when people double park their cars in front of their offices or their churches. They need the cops for crowd control when they are giving away free food."

"That's not being two-faced," he explained. "It's just a reality. Even Sonny Carson [a Brooklyn civil rights activist, later convicted of kidnapping a drug dealer who was murdered] looked to work with the cops when he wanted to do something. Sharpton in his younger days when he got behind closed doors with cops was very reasonable."

OK, so what's gone wrong with stop and frisk? Why do so many New Yorkers -- not just black New Yorkers -- oppose it?

Shrewd as he is, the answer, in this reporter's opinion, is Kelly himself, who is not the same man as in his first term as commissioner.

"He doesn't want anyone to suggest anything to him," said a former top police official. "He thinks he knows what is best about everything. If you tell him it's not a good idea, he will double down. Stop and frisk is constitutional. It's the overuse that is in question. He's made stop and frisk a productivity measure."

Indeed, under Kelly, stop and frisk arrests resemble fishing fleets trolling the oceans for tuna with giant nets that also scoop up lots of smaller fish.

In human terms, stop and frisk may or may not have reduced crime to record levels as Kelly claims. What is certain is that stop and frisk has produced anger and bitterness.

In the trial last week, two cops described how in 2010 they had stopped, frisked and handcuffed 13-year-old Devin Almonor of West Harlem for jaywalking. After they took him to the 30th precinct and he began to cry, one of them taunted him, saying he was "acting like a little girl."

When Almonor's father, a retired cop, went to the 30th precinct, he got into a fight with officers there. He has filed a lawsuit against the NYPD.

Because of public criticism over incidents like this, the number of stops was cut way back 25 percent over the past year. [That murders continued to fall suggests little or no correlation to stop and frisk.]

In cutting back, Kelly seemed to suggest that precinct commanders had gotten it all wrong, absolving himself of responsibility.

He may be too late.

SO LONG, ESPO. Retiring Chief of Department Joe Esposito said he viewed his police career as "a calling, not a job." In that, he reversed the words of the former head of the Internal Affairs Division, John Guido, who years before said that unlike the Irish, he viewed being a police officer as a job and not a calling.

Perhaps Espo's comfort level reflects the rise in numbers of Italian-American officers, who have superseded the Irish as the department's largest ethnic group. And yet there has never been an Italian-American police commissioner. There can be only one reason for that: Italians in New York and in the NYPD are not a political force like other ethnic groups.

Take the NYPD Hispanic Society, which recently issued a news release, captioned "Will the Next Mayor Appoint a Hispanic Police Commissioner?" It concluded: "We challenge the next mayor to demonstrate their commitment to the latino community in New York City by appointing a qualified latino police commissioner. The Hispanic society promises we will continue to make our voices heard until our latino agenda is met."

Espo, meanwhile, had his "walkout" last week. Kelly gave him a lot of credit and news reports mentioned that he was the consummate behind-the-scenes guy. That's because, although he stood by Kelly's side at many news conferences, Kelly didn't allow him to speak.

Espo has told friends he doesn't want to hold a retirement dinner. C'mon, Joe. There are so many people who want to wish him well that a dinner might have to be held over two nights.

HYNES ON CAMERA. Ohboyohboy, a so-called documentary on CBS News Magazine's 48 Hours will air a six-part reality series about Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, coming your way on May 21. Lead players: Hynes, his top assistant Michael Vecchione and his spokesman Jerry Schmetterer, who a CBS news release described as the Daily News police bureau chief in 1979 when Etan Patz disappeared. Wow. Way to go, Jerry.

To paraphrase the former Columbia School of Journalism Professor Melvin Mencher: Don't ever confuse anything you see on TV with journalism.

With editing from Donald Forst.