For far too many, the Sean Bell tragedy represented yet another entry in an endless series of “unfortunate” cases where unarmed men of color are gunned down by police. New Yorkers hoped that maybe justice would be served as it was more than a decade ago when a jury found four cops guilty of torturing Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in a station house bathroom with a plunger handle.
Most of the victims are household names to New Yorkers of color. Amadou Diallo. Malcolm Ferguson. Patrick Dorismond. Georgy Louisgene. Timothy Stansbury. Sean Bell. All killed by police after the Louima case. Each death, and the deaths of countless unknown others needlessly gunned down by police served as a reminder to people of color in NYC that their lives were virtually worthless in the eyes of those charged with keeping them safe.
Recent history has many New Yorkers saying ‘here we go again.’ In 2004, after 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury was killed by a startled police officer on the roof of his own building, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly immediately called the case “unjustifiable” — until protests from within the department caused him to distance himself from his initial assessment. A trial judge would later recommend only 30 days of lost vacation time and one year’s probation for the accused officer. One year after the shooting, that officer, Richard Neri, was elected to a paid post in the policemen’s union. Brooklyn activist Djibril Toure told The Village Voice at the time, “It’s indicative of the lack of respect they have for communities of color. The NYPD is not interested in gaining our respect—they are out of control.” Toure would know – he was one of three activists arrested in 2005 for observing and videotaping an arrest in Brooklyn.
There are dangerous racial issues at play, but other important factors are being overlooked at the administrative level. Can Bell’s death and others like it be attributed to the fact that NYPD officers and patrolmen are underpaid and insufficiently trained?
Under current New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, several factors have come into play to add even more to the tension to the situation. Three years ago, an arbitration panel slashed the annual starting salaries of city police cadets to $25,100, and rookie officers to $32,800 because the city and police union failed to come to an agreement. By comparison, officers in Washington D.C. start out at nearly $49,000, and cops in San Jose start out at over $70,000.
Not only are people choosing to skip the test over the low pay, other police departments are poaching NYPD officers. In the two weeks after the New York Daily News ran an article about the recruitment efforts of the Seattle Police Department—where officers start out at around $47,000 – officials reported getting more than 500 applications from the New York area. More than 200 people came out to take the SPD test at NYU last week, the “vast majority” of which were NYPD officers, according to the Daily News. The Seattle PD also joined more than eighty other law enforcement agencies at a job fair held at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice earlier this month.
The situation has gotten to the point where officials in other cities are feeling sympathy for the NYPD. A Seattle official reportedly asked a Daily News reporter, “Why does the NYPD pay so little?” The official went on to say she had “heard stories coming out here of officers who can’t even afford to get married because they have to have a roommate.” The mass exodus threatened (and continues to threaten) the city’s Operation Impact program, in which high-crime areas are flooded with rookie officers. The program had been credited with the drop in crime in many of the city’s most violent neighborhoods but has faced scrutiny from the public as well as internal investigations for mismanagement and lack of organization.
The Gothamist reported that “the city announced that 914 new police recruits will join Operation Impact, essentially doubling the number of officers. There was suggestion that Operation Impact might be “stripped down” because of a lack of resources (recruiting problems, stemming from low pay)…” Does New York expect productivity out of a program that sends armies of new recruits into the most dangerous neighborhoods on foot? This scenario seems incapable of anything but disaster.
In the Bell case and the many others that preceded it, the police – understaffed and underpaid – have had to contend with a constituency that has felt oppressed for quite some time. City Hall has had many opportunities to provide a bridge between the two, but instead created more tension. Only time will tell if the Bell case will provide the necessary catalyst for reconciliation.