Are you having a good day? Well Jalopnik, via ProPublica, is here to ruin that for you. The nonprofit news organization published a story in June about how the blue wall of silence protects cops who speed into groups of children with their squad cars. I just spotted it this morning and man, will it make your blood boil.
It’s rare that an investigative journalist is so personally involved in a story, but ProPublica Deputy Managing Editor Eric Umansky and his family were there when an unmarked New York Police Department cruiser hit a Black teenager in their mostly white suburb on Halloween in 2019. He tried to find out what happened, but all he found was obfuscation and the police protecting one of their own.
After Umansky’s family witnessed a group of teenage boys tackled and arrested, he began digging into the scene. He contacted NYPD Spokesman Al Baker, a former journalist. From ProPublica:
Baker soon called me back. He had looked into it. The boys were being charged with something called “obstructing government administration,” which basically amounts to resisting arrest.
The police hadn’t done anything wrong, Baker said. I don’t know what your wife saw, he explained, but a police car did not hit a kid.
So I went back to my wife and asked her, “Are you sure?” She was sure. It happened right in front of her. Still, memories are fallible. So I went into nearby storefronts and asked if anyone had seen anything the night of Halloween.
“Yeah, I saw a cop car hit a kid,” a waiter told me. He said he had a clear view of it: A handful of kids were running. One of them jumped out into the street and got hit by the police car, “probably going faster than he should have been.” He saw the boy roll over the hood and fall to the ground: “It sounded like when people hit concrete. It made a horrible sound.”
I spoke to four witnesses, including my wife. All of them said they saw the same thing. When I called Baker back, he told me that my wife and the three others were mistaken. The car hadn’t hit the kid. The kid had hit the car.
As his statement put it: “One unknown male fled the scene and ran across the hood of a stationary police car.”
The kid had hit the car. That makes so much sense! Umansky turned to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a depressingly toothless organization that is so overwhelmed with complaints of NYPD abuse that few investigations are ever brought to a conclusion. He found that in 2018 the CCRB looked into 2,919 complaints against the NYPD. Here’s the result:
But even if the CCRB substantiates a case, the commissioner still has complete authority over what to do next. He can decide to simply ignore the recommended punishment. The commissioner can also let the case go before an internal NYPD judge (whose boss is the commissioner). If the judge decides punishment is merited, the commissioner can overturn or downgrade that, too.
The NYPD has rejected the CCRB’s proposed punishment on the most serious cases about two-thirds of the time.
In 2018, the CCRB looked into about 3,000 allegations of misuse of force. It was able to substantiate 73 of those allegations. The biggest punishment? Nine officers who lost vacation days, according to CCRB records. (An additional five officers got a lower level of discipline left to the discretion of their commanding officer.) The most an officer lost was 30 vacation days, for a prohibited chokehold. Another officer wrongly pepper-sprayed someone.
He lost one vacation day.
Another shocking statistic: 9 percent of NYPD officers have six or more complaints against them for excessive force. Just as shocking are the instances of officers attempting to keep parents away from minors during arrests. The report is equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking, especially when Umansky speaks to one of the 14-year-old victims who is the child of an NYPD employee. They still can’t get answers, from her own employer, about what happened that night.
The entire report can be found here and is well worth your time. None of us can look away when such abuses of power happen, especially to children.