Why Don’t Settlements Over Brutality Come Out of Police Budgets?

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 16, 2015.
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On July 17, 2014, New York City police officers choked Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island, to death. This week, nearly one year later, the city announced that it would pay the Garner family $5.9 million to settle their wrongful-death claim.

“Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back. But it is our way of creating balance and giving a family a certain closure,” said the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer to The New York Times.

Families of police brutality victims deserve to be compensated, no doubt. A different question, however, is should police departments be required to pay for their misconduct too?

As I’ve written previously, these steep police brutality payments rarely come from the police department budgets. Rather, cities pay for them through their general coffers or their city insurance plan.

The NYPD has a budget of over $4 billion. Even if the police department wasn’t expected to bear 100 percent of the liability, what if they were asked to pay a share—say 25 percent—of the settlement costs? Having a cut to their budget for misbehavior could motivate senior police officials to be more responsive to police misconduct and lead departmental reforms.

“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues, told me in September. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”

The $5.9 million for Eric Garner’s family will come from a general New York City fund made up of local taxes, fees, fines, and tickets. (No state and federal money will be used.) Taxpayer dollars also finance the NYPD—so either way the taxpayer will be footing the bill—but still, as it stands, the NYPD’s budget is left untouched.

According to data from the New York City Comptroller’s Bureau of Law and Adjustment (BLA), in fiscal year 2012, New York City paid out $485.9 million personal injury and property damage tort settlements and judgments. The largest portion of that came from claims filed against the NYPD—$151.9 million in total. According to their report, “tort claims against the NYPD include, but are not limited to, allegations of police misconduct, civil rights violations, and personal injury and/or property damage arising out of motor vehicle accidents involving police vehicles.”

The question of “who pays” matters particularly as the number of tort claims has trended upward between 2008 and 2012. According to the data, the proportion of new NYPD tort claims rose from 25 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012.

As Doug Turetsky, the Chief of Staff at the New York City Independent Budget Office pointed out, the police department’s budget has also grown significantly since the 1980s.

“It’s a strange sociological story,” muses Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans. “On the one hand we allow the police to beat up victims and on the other hand we pay the victims large sums of money. There are no other occupations I can think of where people would not get punished. If I as a professor cost Columbia University $100,000—maybe even $50,000—they would have fired me. How expensive do police mistakes have to be?”

Though the public may likely protest any huge cutback in police funding, the city council and mayor could always decide to restore funding, if necessary. This would at least help to create a better system of incentives. If police departments felt they had something to lose, then maybe fewer Eric Garners would die needlessly.

Inside the Chaos, Rage and Confusion That Consumed Baltimore Last Night

Originally published in VICE on April 28, 2015.
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 photo credit: Rachel Cohen

As I walked through the streets of West Baltimore on Monday evening, small bright green opiates littered the sidewalk, pills left over from when the local CVS pharmacy was looted hours earlier. The air felt thick and musty—police had fired teargas canisters near the Penn-North subway station. By 6:15 PM, clouds of smoke were pouring out of the empty pharmacy, which filled with flames. At one point, protestors cut the hose that was being used to put out the fire.

Except for a few young activists hoisting “Justice 4 Freddie Gray!” picket signs, most people hanging around were not protestors. The majority of Baltimoreans on the streets were just snapping photos and watching the events unfold as spectators. Unlike Saturday’s protests, where thousands proudly marched, chanted, and gave speeches about accountability and justice for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimore resident who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody earlier this month, Monday felt perilously chaotic.

By the corner of North Avenue and Pennsylvania, just a half-mile down from where Freddie Gray’s funeral took place earlier that day, two Maryland Transit Administration vehicles were burning. A wrecked police car sat in the middle of the street a few hundred feet down—every one of its windshields and windows cracked and shattered. Broken glass lay by its tires. By 9 PM, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan had deployed National Guard troops, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced there would be a weeklong 10 PM curfew, and all public schools were cancelled for Tuesday. The city was officially declared to be in “a state of emergency.”

Saba Nazeer, a local resident who works with the Right to Housing Alliance, a Baltimore housing justice organization, came out to watch one standoff unfold between high school students and the police. The cops knew to meet the teenagers because a flier circulating earlier on social media called for students to meet for a “purge” out by the mall after school. (Frederick Douglass High School is across the street from Mondawmin Mall.) Dozens of cops were ready to meet the 75 or so students that showed up. Things escalated quickly. Students hurled bricks, rocks, and bottles at the police; cops sprayed mace and teargas. Fifteen officers were injured in clashes around the city, six seriously, and two were hospitalized Monday evening.

“These kids were going to fight for their neighborhoods, and they want justice not just for Freddie Gray but for all those who have died at the hands of police in their communities,” Nazeer said, defending the students. “I’ve been seeing it all day, the police try to put fear in the communities, they harass and bully. They’ve been doing it for decades. And people are tired of it.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Speaking out Monday night, hours after the funeral, Freddie Gray’s mother Gloria Darden pleaded for the violence to end. “I want you all to get justice for my son,” she said. “But don’t do it like this here.”

A national conversation on police brutality broke out after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year, but local cops’ excesses have been a major political issue in Baltimore for a while now. A Baltimore Sun investigation released in September found that the city paid out $5.7 million in judgments and settlements in cases related to alleged police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011. Even before Gray’s death, the city was haunted by two recent high-profile incidents of unarmed Baltimore black men dying in police custody— Tyrone West in 2013 and Anthony Anderson a year earlier. Cops faced no charges following the deaths of either men.

Since West’s death in July 2013, Baltimore community members have convened outside City Hall every Wednesday to call for the police to be charged with homicide. (These weekly demonstrations are locally referred to as “West Wednesdays.”) Activists keep count— Monday marked day 648 since West’s death. While an independent review issued in August determined that the police did not use excessive force, some still insist they saw cops kick West in the head, yank him by his dreadlocks, and beat him with batons.

In September, an alarming video surfaced that showed a Baltimore cop repeatedly punching a man. Unable to ignore the damning footage, Mayor Rawlings-Blake vowed to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address police brutality in the city. A few months later, however, she vetoed a bill that would have required city police to wear body cameras. Rawlings-Blake has said she supports the measure, but felt the specific legislation proposed was not within the City Council’s authority.

Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12 after making eye contact with police and taking flight, but more than two weeks later the public has still not been given any meaningful details about how he sustained his fatal injury. (He died on April 19.) Last week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts admitted Gray was unbuckled when police placed him in a van despite being shackled and handcuffed, and noted that Gray’s multiple requests for medical attention were ignored. Other findings from the department’s internal investigation, however, have not been made public. More information will be released on May 1— a deadline Batts set to share findings with Baltimore’s State Attorney.

“This is one case where body cameras certainly would have been useful,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We’d have a lot better idea of what actually happened, and we’d know far more quickly.” (A bystander’s mobile footage showed Gray writhing in agony as police carried him away.)

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots activist group in Baltimore, has announced that they are planning another protest for Freddie Gray Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM. They told me that while their collective has been in “emergency response mode” for the past two weeks, eventually they will begin to outline more long-term plans. The “pace and emotion [has] left us with less space than we normally have to strategize,” they explained. But soon, they will join with other local organizing groups to “turn our attention to the next steps, including legislative strategy at the state level and organizing here at home for the 2016 city elections.”

Speaking at a press conference in the evening, Mayor Rawlings-Blake referred to the Monday rioters as “thugs” who were senselessly “trying to do tear down what so many have fought for.” Some 200 arrests were made by Tuesday morning. Brandon Scott, a city councilman, said, “We can’t let this be a repeat of 1968″—referring to the violent Baltimore riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “Adults have to step up and be adults.”

Tensions between political leaders, police, and community members are unlikely to abate any time soon, but multiple community cleanup efforts are being organized on social media today in West Baltimore. One group will be meeting back by the Penn-North subway station at 10 AM, and another will start at 2 PM by the University of Baltimore. Organizers have asked individuals to bring their own gloves, trash bags, brooms, and food.

On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”

In Baltimore, Protesters Demand Redress for Police Killings of Local Men

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 5, 2014.
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Protesters took the streets of Baltimore on Thursday night, following the announcement that Daniel Pantaleo, the white New York City police officer who used a chokehold to kill Eric Garner, a black man, would not be indicted. Garner’s death at Pantaleo’s hands was captured on video shot by a bystander, who recorded Garner gasping for air, saying “I can’t breathe.” The protests, which succeeded in shutting down the city’s annual holiday lighting event early, came three days after Baltimore’s mayor vetoed a bill that would have required police officers to start wearing body cameras.

Baltimore protesters marched not only for Eric Garner of New York, Michael Brown of Ferguson and Tamir Rice of Cleveland—but also for Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson, two unarmed Baltimore black men who died at the hands of the police in 2013. As in the cases of Garner, Brown and Rice, cops faced no charges following the deaths of West and Anderson.

Every Wednesday since July 2013, community members have gathered outside of Baltimore City Hall, calling for the police to be charged with the homicide of Tyrone West. While an independent review issued this past August concluded that the officers did not use excessive force, several witnesses insist they saw cops kick West in the head, spray him with mace, hit him with batons and pull him by his dreadlocks.

Tawanda Jones, Tyrone West’s sister, traveled to New York City earlier this year to meet with Eric Garner’s parents. When news broke on Wednesday that the officer who killed Garner would not be indicted, the weekly City Hall were protesters further riled.

“They had eyewitnesses in my brother’s case and they did nothing,” Jones told Baltimore’s local ABC affiliate on Wednesday night. “But I thought, O.K., [the Garners] have this video that went viral, that everybody saw all over the world, that something at least was going to get done.”

“One of our major demands is to indict killer police,” an organizer said to a crowd gathered by the Washington Monument on Thursday night. “It’s not enough just to put cameras on them. They have to be indicted.”

When the Maryland legislative session opens next month, Baltimore residents plan to head to Annapolis, the state capital, to pressure the state legislature to repeal key components of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights—a statute which many argue impedes meaningful civilian review of police and prevents the disciplining and firing of bad cops. On November 22, the city held a public hearing on law enforcement reform where community leaders, activists, citizens and cops spoke out for nearly three hours.As The Afro, a newspaper that serves the black community, reports, Diane Butler, the aunt that raised Tyrone West, spoke at the hearing and challenged the Baltimore police present in the room on their brutal behavior.

“When was the beating supposed to stop?” she asked. “My son was on the ground screaming for the beating to stop. Was the beating supposed to continue until he was no longer breathing? No longer moving? My son was dead, and your police officer still was kicking him in the back of his head, and he was cuffed.”

A recent Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city paid $5.7 million in judgments and settlements alleging police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011.

The two groups organizing Thursday night’s protests—the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST) and the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly—stressed repeatedly to the crowd that this was “a movement not a moment” and that police brutality will not be solved without fighting for a more equitable economic society. Earlier in the day, activists in more than 150 cities across the country engaged in one-day strikes and rallies as part of the Fight for 15 campaign.

Although Baltimore activists are still pushing for police to wear body cameras, a failure to indict despite the clear video evidence highlights the need to secure additional reforms.

The next Baltimore protest is scheduled for December 13th, followed by an organized “strike against racism” on January 15th—the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.