Policing in New York City has been marked by racism, classism and corruption throughout its history. Here are a few of the highlights:
For more than half of its history, New York City does not have a professional police force. Instead, there are constables who serve out summonses and arrest warrants by day and a rotating night watch that guards against vandalism and arrests any Black person who could not prove that she or he is free, slavery being legal in New York State until 1827.
Amid great disparities in wealth, petty crime, riots and labor strikes by the lower classes become increasingly frequent, to the alarm of the city’s elites. In 1845, the New York City Police Department is founded with a larger force, higher pay and a more centralized military chain of command. Modeled on the London police department, which was founded amid similar circumstances in 1829, the new force’s duties are two-fold: to disperse throughout the city to police the daily lives of the poor and working classes, and to close ranks to take on strikes, riots and major demonstrations.
When the stock market tanks in 1873, the United States quickly sinks into an economic depression. On January 13, 1874, thousands of unemployed rally at Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side to demand government aid and a public jobs program. Instead, hundreds of baton-wielding cops on horses greet them. “Mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality,” labor leader Samuel Gompers later writes of the incident.
The state Senate’s Lexow Committee looks into the influence wielded by the Tammany Hall political machine over the department and uncovers police involvement in extortion, bribery, counterfeiting, voter intimidation, election fraud, brutality and scams. A reform mayor is elected amid vows to clean up the police department.
Would you prefer to pay a hefty bribe or go to prison? That was the stark choice many poor and working-class New Yorkers faced upon being arrested on minor or non-existent charges before the Seabury Commission blew the lid off the collusion between corrupt police, judges, bail bondsmen and attorneys. NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker subsequently resigned while significant reforms were instituted in how the lower courts were to be run.
Spurred by revelations in the press from whistle-blowing cops Frank Serpico and David Durk, the Knapp Commission holds hearings that reveal the NYPD to be a wildly corrupt enterprise in which police routinely collect bribes and collude with criminals. In its final report, the Commission divided the bulk of the NYPD into two groups: “grass eaters” who participated in everyday graft and “meat eaters” who aggressively pursued new and larger opportunities for self-enrichment.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani and incoming Police Commissioner William Bratton institute “broken windows” policing that emphasizes cracking down on minor “quality-of-life” infractions as a way of preventing more serious types of disorder and crime from taking hold. The policy proves popular with many white voters while critics denounce it for criminalizing predominantly Black and Latino communities.
Acting on orders from billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the NYPD destroys the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. Prior to the raid, the encampment served as the nerve center of a decentralized protest movement against the misrule of the “1%” that spread to hundreds of other cities. Speaking two weeks after the raid, Bloomberg described the NYPD as “my own army.”
NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo is caught on video choking Staten Island resident Eric Garner to death. Garner’s crime: selling loose cigarettes for 75 cents apiece. The incident galvanizes opposition to “broken windows” policing that has been building for years. When a grand jury refuses to indict Garner’s killer, the city is convulsed by weeks of protests as demonstrators point to the NYPD killings of more than 150 unarmed civilians over the past 20 years, cases in which killer cops have almost always walked free.
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