Vannesa Boateng is 16 and from the Highbridge section of the Bronx. She has never felt at ease around the many police officers she sees in her neighborhood. Instead, she says she feels watched, like “a mouse in a maze.”
“They’re here to make sure I behave,” Boateng said. “They’re here to make sure I get the cheese, and I go back home — I’m never supposed to do anything else but go to my target and go back home.”
Boateng spoke last week at a virtual forum on youth and policing. It was one of several town halls being held this month, organized by the coalition Communities United for Police Reform, in response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order to “reinvent and modernize” policing.
Cuomo issued the order last June following the death of George Floyd and the massive protests for racial justice. It calls for all 500 municipalities in the state with police departments to review police practices and deployments, and to address issues of trust, fairness and disproportionate policing in communities of color.
Now a deadline is fast-approaching as part of that order: New York City must adopt a plan to reform police practices by April 1st or risk a loss of future funding.
The city is expected to release a draft set of recommended reforms this month in an effort to meet the deadline. But, as of late, Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced some police reforms of his own, including new police discipline guidelines, a proposal to expand the oversight powers of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and a plan to expand community-based groups that are part of the Crisis Management System to address gun violence.
“I want to emphasize this — for seven straight years we have been changing the way we police New York City, making a host of reforms,” de Blasio said last week. He outlined changes in the police department like a reduction in stop and frisk, deploying body-worn cameras to all officers on patrol, and implementing new training programs.
“There's so much to talk about,” de Blasio went on to say, “but it is never-ending work because it's the most human of work. It is so important to keep working on the relationship between those who protect us and the communities they serve.”
The City Council has also moved forward with some of its own proposals, in the form of a package of 11 bills, meant to increase police accountability and reduce the scope of some of the NYPD’s power. Those bills are being introduced this week and next.
But leaders with Communities United for Police Reform said that the city should be focused on reducing police interactions with the public, and must listen more closely to those most harmed by police practices in order to meaningfully “reinvent” public safety. The coalition organized a separate series of meetings this month on various topics, including policing protests, police interactions with LGBTQ people, or tactics in areas like the Bronx and Staten Island.
At one forum this week on police discipline, Constance Malcolm called the newly unveiled police discipline matrix, hailed by city leaders as a major reform, a “sham.”
Her son Ramarley Graham was killed by Police Officer Richard Haste in 2012. Haste shot Graham, who was unarmed, in their home’s bathroom. The officer resigned from the force before getting fired.
“All of these officers always get off,” said Malcolm. “There’s no consequences for them.”
She said officers who use excessive force—or who stand by as a fellow officer uses excessive force—should be fired. Others at the forum argued that officers should be terminated for behavior that routinely humiliates New Yorkers of color and violates their rights, such as improper searches.
“You’re telling me that Black people are not worth anything,” Malcolm said. “That’s what that matrix is telling me.”
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said that the discipline matrix is better than having no guidance at all. But the bar for improvement, around police accountability or other reform measures, is too low, he said.
“I’ve come to the realization that there is no amount of reform that will get to where we want to get to,” Williams said at the forum on police discipline. He added, “What we need to do is get to a spot where we’re not saying, ‘Okay, we’re doing the next best step.’ But where we’re running toward equity, where we’re running toward justice in an intentional way.”
The meetings organized by police reform advocates come months after the NYPD’s own town halls on the subject. The results of those forums, held last fall, will feed into the draft set of reform recommendations that city officials said they will release this month. Communities United for Police Reform plans to also issue its own report.
Yasmeen Khan reports for Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit.