An Unnecessary Death in New York Police Killing Highlights Flaws of 'Zero Tolerance'

AP/ The New York Times

By Ullrich Fichtner in New York

Part 2: The Trouble with 'Zero Tolerance'


In this part of Manhattan, Seventh Avenue is also called Fashion Avenue. The side streets are filled with shops selling fabric, Indian wedding dresses and gaudy Asian clothes. The urban pace is a little slower here. The sea of lights in Times Square subsides, the buildings become less extravagant and tall, and the cityscape becomes noticeably shabbier.

"I think that under the given circumstances the shooting was justified," says John Eterno, an athletic man with a gray beard and rimless glasses. He wasn't at the scene, and he doesn't know all the facts, but his opinion carries weight. Eterno was a police officer for 21 years, patrolling the streets of Manhattan. He taught at the Police Academy and he has written important pieces on police reform. He left the police force as a captain in 2004, when he went back to school to study criminology.

Eterno now teaches at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, a suburb on Long Island that happens to border Hempstead, the town where Kennedy grew up and is now buried. Depending on the traffic, the drive out to Long Island takes one to two hours, passing through a confusing blur of neighborhoods lined up along both sides of Jamaica Avenue, mile after mile. Then the city comes to an abrupt end and dissolves into postcard images of New England, idyllic villages, neatly divided into lots with small but attractive houses. Rockville Centre, where Eterno teaches, is one of those places. Hempstead, on the other hand, is different. It's poorer, sadder. More black people live there.

Blind Severity Cemented by 9/11

So everything is in order with Kennedy's death, the reporter asks? "Nothing is in order," says Eterno "when you come to discuss the actual state of the NYPD." His office is located in a low building on the edge of the campus, where the late-summer sun is beating down on the roof. Eterno talks for two hours. He makes a compelling case against the city's corrupt, broken security apparatus, which, he says, is still tragically a model for the rest of the world. Eterno's words suggest that Kennedy was also a victim of grim circumstances.

The NYPD developed a worldwide reputation for its "zero tolerance" policy and its great successes in the 1990s. The city was on the brink in the 1980s, with New York's image shaped by pictures of burning garbage cans in the Bronx. That changed with the arrival of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who would soon become famous, and his equally well-known police chief, Bill Bratton. They substantially beefed up the police force and organized it like a business, with strict quality control procedures, applying statistical methods and considerable pressure to succeed. New York became safer and cleaner.

But scandals also became more and more common around the turn of the millennium. Police brutality became an issue, as did the NYPD's blind severity and intimidating presence. The debate over these concerns would undoubtedly have continued if Sept. 11 hadn't permanently changed everything. All of a sudden the NYPD, which until then had regularly faced sharp criticism from citizens' advocacy groups, politicians and the media for every misstep, became an untouchable force made up of heroes. It was no longer kosher to criticize the police, and anyone who did was seen as behaving in a somehow un-American way. The situation began to deteriorate, as statistics suggest.

Unpleasant and Unsettling

In 2002, the New York police stopped around 97,000 people on the streets, often searching them in the procedure known as "stop and frisk." For those affected, the experience is unpleasant, often humiliating and can be very unsettling, especially when plainclothes officers aggressively lay into citizens. The whole thing can feel like an assault.

The problem is that situation has been spinning out of control since 2002. More than 500,000 stop-and-frisk cases were recorded in 2006, and last year the number of cases peaked at 700,000. Most of those being stopped were completely innocent people. "In many parts of the city," says Eterno, "the police behave like a besieging army."

And the NYPD's image of the enemy is as clear as glass. In 2011, about 86 percent of those stopped were blacks like Kennedy or Latinos. In the 17th Precinct, on the east side of Manhattan, where the two minorities together constitute only 7.8 percent of the population, blacks and Latinos made up 71.4 percent of stop-and-frisk cases. Similar statistics apply in Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side and Tribeca.

"It's madness," says Eterno. He says he can prove that the NYPD has figured out how to massage the truth when it comes to performance, encouraged by a city hall and police headquarters that are constantly proclaiming the good news that New York is "the safest big city in America." Successes are talked up while real crime is downplayed. The city touted a 77.75-percent drop in crime between 1990 and 2009, even as it reduced the size of its police force by 6,000 jobs. "These numbers must seem completely crazy to anyone who knows anything about statistics," says Eterno.

To back up his theories, Eterno interviewed a thousand police officers. They told him the most outrageous stories, all of which, upon closer inspection, proved to be true. According to the officers, individual police stations and precincts deliberately cook the books to make themselves look good to those higher up in the chain of command.

Declines in crime levels are artificially produced by documenting serious crimes as less serious offences -- or by not recording crimes at all when they are reported in the first place. Rapes are downgraded to sexual harassment, and muggings are documented as petty theft, bringing down the overall crime count in the process.

Successes in the fight against crime can also be manufactured. Officers provoke arrests by charging old men with urban vagrancy when they are merely feeding pigeons. Pregnant women who sit down on the steps of subway stations to rest have been taken away for allegedly disturbing the peace. Unsuspecting citizens out for a stroll are stopped and frisked on playgrounds, because they don't have children with them, as required by city ordinances. These examples are not unsubstantiated accusations by ideological groups hostile to the police. Rather, they are tangible charges, supported by audio recordings and the testimony of police officers who went public and filed complaints against the police force, because their internal grievances were ignored.

A Police Stop Culminates in Death

Kennedy's path to his grave also begins with a police stop. Based on everything that's been revealed to date, on the Saturday of his death, he is standing on the corner of 44th Street and Times Square. Perhaps he is smoking a joint, or perhaps he is not. But while smoking marijuana may be illegal, it is fairly common in the US -- especially in New York.

A policewoman confronts Kennedy. Would she be doing this if she didn't feel pressure to perform, to deliver the right numbers? And would she do it if he were white? And Kennedy, who is having trouble with the police because of a joint for the eighth time in his life, and who has been fed up with this sort of treatment for a long time, suddenly sees red. He snaps. He wields his knife, rages and resists. The pursuit begins.

He makes his way through a city in which worlds are drifting dangerously apart. The New York of a black man has nothing in common with that of a white woman. The former will get to know police officers as disrespectful tormenters, while the latter will encounter them as gallant figures. Police officers are bullies in poor neighborhoods while they hold the door open for citizens in wealthy areas. These contrasts become blurred around Times Square, a Babylon bustling with poor and rich people alike, where visitors mingle with half-crazy denizens of the city. This is the backdrop of Darrius Kennedy's final minutes alive.

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onegai-shimas 10/18/2012
1. Sad topic - but ...
yes. The subject is a tragic one, a sad one. It might seem cold, to mention it as a (first) reaction to the news, but when I realized that an article in spiegel-online, that some RSS feeder brought to my smartfone .. touched me. Some man, that I never heard of before behaved ... well, strange ... and was shot by policemen & women, that I do not know either. All that happened in a place half way round the world. And the story touched, because ... it took a couple of seconds to realize the reason ... because the article belongs into the top quality percent of journalism. This level of journalistic craftsmenship has become rare. Thanks for that. And it might be a sign, that the times they are achanging.... I am obviously one of very few to notice and the only one to take the effort to give this feedback.
retarded-freak 10/19/2012
2.
It's just the USA's new flair for social hygiene, a return to Victorianism, order and ordure. The tourists were all well-scrubbed with expensive bars of soap and their camera lenses were cleaned with alcohol. Everyone was sanitary, and a potential germ was eradicated. They were attracted by blood, which seemed strangely human and possibly dirty. Afterwards, everyone went to their condos and hotels, brushed their teeth, and washed their hands.
jas88 10/20/2012
3. Another unnecessary death from clinging to things you shouldn't
Another of those cases where either doing something utterly trivial or even doing nothing at all would have saved one or more lives: if he had simply dropped the knife, things would have been very different. Like the Russian (Aeroflot 593) and French (Air France 447) airliners which crashed with pilots clinging desperately to controls in situations they didn't properly understand, simply letting go would have allowed the situation to calm down (the Aeroflot Airbus still had a working autopilot that would have levelled off automatically; the French one may or may not have recovered from the stall otherwise, but certainly didn't with the pilot fighting it). From the talk of hating the police and his previous drug offences, it does sound as if he wanted a fight; when they have guns and you don't, that can really only end one way unless you're bright enough to give up.
democratsramshield 10/20/2012
4. Please read my article about the Darrius Kennedy tragedy
I quoted this Spiegel story in my blog diary at the Daily Kos. While I must confess to being disappointed in the lack of reaction my article received, I am hopeful that it has changed some minds. To that end I'd like to invite you to read my blog at the link below and to provide feedback at my email address below. democratsramshield@yahoo.com Here is the URL address for my blog about the tragedy of Darrius Kennedy as being intertwined with the history of racism dating back to slavery in the United States. A history which we Americans to date sadly have never owned. Additionally like 59 million Americans, Darrius was medically uninsured and therefore unable to access mental health services. Therefore sadly I'm afraid that Darrius' tragedy will not be the last such tragedy in the United States. The truth is we Americans need the help of people of conscience from around the world. To that end please read my article at the link below. Thank you! http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/10/19/1146311/-German-Spiegel-says-Both-men-Kelly-and-Browne-aren-t-telling-the-truth-In-shooting-of-Kennedy
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