NEW YORK — Gwen Carr and Constance Malcolm walked slowly toward the podium, about to speak of the tragedies that brought them together yet again. But when their eyes met the cameras, their blank expressions said it all.
They are mothers of men killed by the police. They have dedicated themselves to reform what they describe as a system that will not provide justice for their sons.
At a press conference Wednesday outside the headquarters of the largest police department in the country, both women expressed outrage over the New York Police Department continuing to give raises to officers involved in their children’s killings.
The officer in question, Daniel Pantaleo, applied a chokehold while arresting Carr’s son, Eric Garner, in 2014. Garner was unarmed and nonviolent, and his repeated cries that he could not breathe were captured on the now infamous video, sparking protests here and nationwide.
Although a medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo — or any of the other NYPD officers involved in Garner’s death. A federal civil rights investigation into Garner’s death remains ongoing.
The NYPD stripped Pantaleo of his badge and gun and demoted him to a desk job. On Monday, however, Politico reported that Pantaleo made nearly $120,000 this fiscal year after receiving overtime pay and “unspecified pay,” which could be retroactive pay or bonuses.
In July, Ramsey Orta, the man who shot the video of Garner’s killing by the police, agreed to a plea deal to serve four years for a mix of weapons and drug charges. Orta has said that he has been the target of a harassment campaign by the NYPD after the notoriety his video earned.
The NYPD did not respond to a request to comment in time for the deadline of this story.
Standing in front of the NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza Wednesday, Carr said that the people who are sworn to uphold the law should be judged and governed by that same law.
“I don’t care whether you wear blue jeans, a blue suit or a blue uniform,” Carr said. “You are supposed to protect and serve, and when you don’t do that, you should pay for the crime that you’ve done.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, criticized what he characterized as the continued preferential treatment of police officers involved in killings of unarmed black men, citing the approximate $40,000 sum of Pantaleo’s extra pay.
“That type of treatment should shock the conscience of every decent New Yorker,” he said. “It is unreasonable. It is unacceptable. It is unconscionable.”
This will tarnish the reputation of departing police commissioner Bill Bratton and must be remedied immediately by incoming commissioner James O’Neill, Jeffries said. O’Neill, who takes over Friday, has already announced an internal investigation into how the NYPD pays overtime to officers facing disciplinary action.
Kirsten John Foy, the northeast regional director of the civil rights organization National Action Network, said this may be the last chance for accountability in Garner’s case. Garner would have turned 46 today.
“We want to make sure they understand that we haven’t forgotten where the buck stops,” Foy said. “This is the case that the Justice Department really has to show improvement on.”
Malcolm’s son Ramarley Graham was shot in the bathroom of Malcolm’s Bronx home by NYPD officer Richard Haste. More than four years later, Haste has been given desk duty and subsequent overtime pay increases, Malcolm said.
"My son has been dead for 4½ years, and still no answer," she said. "Richard Haste made over $31,000 in pay raise. If that’s not crazy I don’t know what is. I don’t even know what to say, it’s just so frustrat[ing]. It’s like every time you think you’re going forward you just get knocked off your feet again and go right back to where you started from.”
Malcolm then turned her frustration toward New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. She has pleaded with the mayor’s office to release the findings of the departmental review of Haste’s actions. Under state law, records of such investigations must remain confidential, and de Blasio has stood by that law.
"The government isn’t doing nothing, the lawmakers are not doing anything, the court is not doing anything,” said a visibly exasperated Malcolm. “They keep letting these officers go. Why? Why? Why are you protecting these officers?"
“A lot of parents out here are scared of their own kids”: Venus Singleton, the mother of a boy shot as part of the blood feud between rival houses in Harlem.
From a Skirmish to a War
NEW YORK — The father of the dead girl takes a look at the brown painted door and shakes his head with contempt. He’s standing where his favorite daughter had danced moments before she was chased down and shot four flights overhead on a cool late summer morning.
“If that door was fixed,” he says pulling at the busted entrance door, “then none of this would’ve happened. She’d be alive. Playing basketball. My life would’ve kept going like it was. But that’s not what happend. It was broken. We’re talking two years later. How can these kids be safe?”
Taylonn Murphy ambles through the same door his daughter, Tayshana, ran through the night she was killed, and into the lobby of 3170 Broadway, one of the nine high-rise buildings that make up the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, near the border of Harlem and Morningside Heights.
“You can’t believe the emotion that I feel walking into this building,” he said, taking a deep breath, as if to steel himself.
He walks slowly through the squalid lobby. A message is scrawled on one of the mailboxes built into the wall to the right of the elevator. It warns the police to keep out. There are two staircases in front of Murphy marked with signs indicating well A and well B.
See more photos from Harlem on JJIE's Art & Photo Blog HERE.
Murphy chooses B, the one his daughter’s killers took the morning they shot her to death on Sept. 11, 2011.
He explains the details of the case the best he knows them, after sitting in on hours of hearings and court trials. There was a fight between groups of youths from the Grant Houses and the Manhattanville Houses that night. Some youths from the Manhattanville Houses had vengeance on their mind.
“It takes a lot out of you,” he said, huffing as he climbed another of the 43 stairs, retracing the killers route one step at a time. “You try to do the best you can.”
According to the Manhattan’s district attorney’s office, Taylonn’s daughter, known to her friends, basketball teammates and family as Chicken, was outside when two young men from Manhattanville came looking to settle the score. Prosecutors described it as a “cold and calculated hit.” The two men criminally charged with shooting Murphy reportedly said they did not “give a fuck” when she pleaded with them that she was not involved in the fight.
Murphy, a senior at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, was considered one of the best players in the nation; a point guard. She had aspirations -- realistic ones according to scouts -- of starting for a WNBA team.
“Chicken ran up the other stairs,” her father said, trudging up the staircase. “Them boys, they came this way.”
Somewhere in the flights above, someone slammed a door sending a report echoing down the building. Murphy paused when he reached the spot where the gunman fired the shots that killed his daughter.
“He got here and at about the same time she came out of the other stairwell, and that’s when it happened,” he said. “He shot her. Pop. Pop. Pop. This is basically the spot where she died. This spot is where it went from a skirmish to a war -- to where we are today.”
Ghostly tributes to Tayshana are barely visible on the dimly lit hallway wall. They show signs of being scrubbed off. One wishes the dead girl, a “Happy 20th BDAY.” Taylonn’s daughter was 18 when she was killed.
“Look at this,” Murphy says, clenching his jaw. It’s the one time he betrays any real anger during the tour of his daughter’s murder scene. “They’ll make sure they clean up a birthday message to my dead daughter,” he hisses through his teeth.
Somewhere upstairs a loud voice echoes in the stairwell. Murphy struggles with his emotion. Tears well for an instant. The moment passes and he finds his composure.
“But they can’t find time to fix a door,” he said. “A door. But they sure as hell make sure they clean this up. What does that say?”
A Broken Door Lets In a Killer and Lets Loose Vengeance
The crack in the dented metal door at 5170 Broadway in the Grant Houses is barely an inch wide. It’s hard to notice. The door is supposed to lock automatically when it slams shut behind you, but it hasn’t worked properly for a long time. On its own, nothing is particularly noteworthy about a broken door in a New York CIty Housing Authority property. Many of the doors in New York City’s housing projects are busted, and residents grow accustomed to it.
But shoddy door repairs and poor upkeep do not explain the role this run-down housing complex has in one of the bloodiest and most violent feuds in the city. Murphy’s killing on an early morning in the gloomily lit fourth floor hallway has led to a series of retaliatory beatings, stabbings and shootings. This historical beef between rival houses has turned into internecine warfare between the two sides since the morning of Murphy’s murder.
On the night she died, Tayshana Murphy was chased into her building by residents of the Manhattanville Houses and gunned down -- “smoked,” as the killer described it -- just feet away from the safety of her apartment and her mother. She was not the first victim to be hunted down, shot and killed in the long-standing feud between the residents of the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, massive apartment complexes that sit across from each other like two ominous fortresses at the intersection between Harlem and Morningside Heights in the northwestern corner of Manhattan. And, judging by the fate of those who’ve been beaten or shot since, she won’t be the last.
“It’s called despair,” Taylonn Murphy said. “It’s not just this community, it’s all communities where young men and women are willing to stomp each other, stab each other, shoot each other. This is what things look like when hope is gone.”
Now, with the trial of Robert Cartagena, one of Tayshana Murphy’s accused killers, set to start, there is a palpable fear the violence will increase. Police who patrol the area say it’s just a matter of time until one of those bullets hits a vital organ and kills another teenager in this seemingly pointless warfare between Harlem’s own Montagues and Capulets.
“It’s not like they’re missing on purpose,” said a community affairs officer who works in the 26th Precinct.
No one can articulate why the blood runs so bad between the two houses. Old timers say that in the old days it was about pride, girls, boasting about who was tougher. Back then, fists, not guns, settled the score, residents said.
That is part of what makes the bloodshed so frustrating for people who are trying to stop it. It’s fueled by an almost inscrutable rage against people who live seven-tenths of a mile from one another; who are, they say, trapped in the same predicament of unemployment and listlessness, caught in the crosshairs of a crushing boredom.
“P” is 17 and was born and raised in the Grant Houses. The combatants in this homegrown strife struggle to give a meaningful explanation for their behavior, even though for many it defines who they are. They freely acknowledge that their foes are teenagers and children who, like themselves, have grown up on the same city blocks and have often attended the same school together as little boys. And as teenagers they have more in common, including a shared frustration at their neighborhood and dim prospects. Nevertheless, the rivalry persists.
“When you’re young, growing up, you don’t want to share the block with no one else,” he said. “I want it to stop, but I know it ain’t going to stop anytime soon. We have too much pride, you know? We don’t want them to have the last word. It’s a brotherhood with people you came up with. It’s not about the brick or the mortar, it’s not about the building. It’s about where you come from.”
“That’s what we like to do,” explained a tautological Naquan Brockington, 17, the brother of Tayshana’s killer. “There’s nothing for us to do. We don’t have nothing to do. If we’re not fighting we’re just hanging out. If we ain’t fighting we’re getting locked up.”
Last summer, when Tyshawn Brockington was sentenced to 25 years to life for killing Murphy, Justice Thomas Farber, the judge who heard the case, described the hatred between the two sides as motivated by “desire to create self-worth by creating a sense of otherness in people who should be your brothers and sisters. This is a cold-blooded execution — I can't think of any other way to describe it."
In the months after the verdict, Chicken’s father took that message to heart. He reached out to Arnita Brockington, the mother of his daughter’s killer, and Derrick Haynes, whose brother was the first fatality in the feud, and asked them to help him bring an end to the blood feud that cost his daughter her life. The three have started an anti-violence campaign in the two houses. They have done everything from holding rallies to looking for jobs.
“A lot of the children from the Grant Houses are still angry over what happened to Taylonn’s little girl, Chicken,” Arnita Brockington said. “And a lot of kids from Manhattanville are angry my son is under arrest and in prison. There’s still a lot of hurting on both sides.”
Murphy and Haynes have physically intervened in the feud. They have put their bodies on the line. Pacing the courtyards and streets of Harlem, they reach out to teens who are on the verge of violence, making efforts to negotiate a peace. For a while they were successful. A truce held, but it has since fallen apart.
An Old Feud Fueled By Desperation and Made Deadly by Guns
Dedications to the dead like those to Chicken are familiar in the Grant Houses, as they are less than a mile away and just across Broadway at the Manhattanville Houses. The two apartment complexes sit on superblocks on the northwest corner of Harlem, just a few blocks from Columbia University, which is in the process of building a new science center right in between the houses.
Like much of gentrified New York, the neighborhood has recently transformed in ways that are hard to believe. But even as newer and richer residents have moved in, the prospects for the teenagers in the houses have remained stagnant at best. Occasionally a side street shuts down and some do-gooders roll out a lopsided basketball hoop on wheels, or a scuffed ping pong table or some other ramshackle distraction. But most of the time, it’s a life of monotony. School and the streets, streets and school. No community center, no programs.
“Myself, and Arnita and Taylonn, we’re adamant about this,” Haynes said. “We have a big issue here. Kids are going to die. We negotiated a truce, we got these kids to put their guns down for a while, and check their bad attitudes and be neutral. But there’s only so much we could do.”
The violence can break out anywhere. Haynes and Murphy recalled an incident at the pool over the summer. Some Manhattanville youths saw some Grant youths in the public pool and the two groups collided at the fence and threatened each other through the fence. The violence grew so bad at the juvenile detention facilities that the arrestees from the two houses needed to be sent to different boroughs to keep them from fighting while in custody.
The most recent incident reported to police in this boredom-fueled blood feud occurred a few weeks ago. Some teenagers from the Grant Houses attacked a 17-year-old boy from Manhattanville near a store on Old Broadway.The victim was beaten with an unknown object and suffered cuts to his head and chest. Javon Peterson, 16, and Terrance Milton, 21, were arrested and charged with second degree gang assault, according to police.
A trip to the Lincoln Fried Chicken near Old Broadway, a contested neutral zone where much of the violence occurs, can lead to a brick attack, or a beat down. Often, the victims of these non-life threatening attacks don’t even bother reporting these incidents to police. They bring them back to their people at the houses.
Haynes and Murphy said the local children are indoctrinated into the feud at younger and younger ages. They said boys as young as 11 and 12 are recruited by the older teenagers to start scrums with the children from the other complex. They’ll have them collect rocks, bottles, and any projectiles they can find on the street or rummage from a city garbage can, and go and throw them at their rivals. These lead to fights that lead to beatings that lead to retaliation until the violence ends at the end of the barrel of a gun. And then the cycle of vengeance starts up again.
A Killer’s Mother, A Victim’s Father and a Desperate Plea
It all started with a dance.
Eli Haynes Jr., a 15-year-old, had attended a party one summer night in 1972. He would not make it home to his apartment in the Manhattanville Houses. A trifling dispute over a girl and a dance that lasted too long led to a gun brandished by one of the boys. Eli ran to break it up and was shot. He bled to death on the basketball court. Haynes was 10 when his brother was gunned down. He remembers the frantic moments when the news reached his house, even now as he tries to end the violence that some residents say started this rivalry.
“This right here, we’re two minutes from Ground Zero, so put your helmets on,” Haynes says with a smile.
On the route from Grant to Manhattanville he gives a running commentary of the rivalry.
“A boy was stomped there,” he said pointing to a stretch of wide sidewalk. “Over there one was attacked with bottles. They’ll move from their fists to bottles, from bottles to bats, from bats to knives, and from knives to the gun.”
On the way he runs into an old friend. The Mighty Mike Cee started his rap group in 1972, the same year the feud caught its first body, Haynes’s bother Eli. The band was named the Fearless Four, and it featured two members from Grant and two from Manhattanville. Back then it was no big deal. Now the Mighty Mike Cee, a father of two daughters in Manhattanville, said such a thing would be unimaginable.
“These same kids who are firing at each other and whatnot are the same kids who are going to school with each other,” he said. “It’s about the kids. Ever since that night Chicken got killed there’s been major beef. These kids hope to harm each other.”
Haynes continues his routine patrol, walking back and forth between the Grant and Manhattanville houses when a young man catches his eye. Earlier in the year, Haynes met this boy after he had been arrested and brought into the Bronx juvenile correctional facility where Haynes works. The boy, 16 and a resident of the Grant Houses, recognized Haynes as a prominent resident from Manhattanville. The boy made Haynes a promise that night. He told Haynes that as soon as he got out he’d take care of him on the street.
Now, months later, he is walking along Broadway with a friend near 126th Street. This is the first time they have seen each other since the boy made the threat. Haynes pulls him aside.
“Hey,” he calls out. “You remember me,” he asks with a knowing smile.
A look of recognition flashes on the boy’s face. Haynes approaches him.
“How you doing?”
“Nothing,” the boy responds sullenly.
“What are you doing?”
“You know, chilling,” he responds.
They exchange a few words. Haynes asks if he needs anything. The boy shakes his head sheepishly.
“A job,” he answers without hesitation.
“We’re working on it,” Haynes said, clasping the young man’s hand and pulling him affectionately into his chest . “We’re working on it.”
Both Sides of the Gun
Haynes and Murphy envision turning Old Broadway, the ground zero of all the violence, into a demilitarized zone -- a permanent “play street.” They want to convert two abandoned, shuttered beauty salons into youth community centers, staffed with mediators, intervenors with moral authority, seen by youths from both sides as credible.
“We all are coming together to try to get this thing squashed,” Haynes said. “It’s rare to have parents from both sides of the gun to come together and and bring a message of peace to the community.”
The young people tell Brockington and Haynes and Murphy that they respect what the three survivors are doing. But they add, they need more than three symbols; they need something to do.
“These programs do more than just get them off the street,” Murphy said. “It does more than give them opportunity to get employment. It gives them something else they need -- to show them that someone out there cares,” he said as he walked through the courtyard of the Grant Houses, nodding and making himself visible to anyone who might need his counsel.
While Arnita and Taylonn have been able to set aside their differences, their children have not. Naquan Brockington, Arnita’s son and Tyshawn’s younger brother, and Bam Bam Murphy, Chicken’s younger brother, still resent each other.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of people who are willing to do it, I caught a lot of heat for it, from my mother and my children, but they’re coming around slowly but surely.” “Once we start thinking this is a normal way of life then we’re basically committing to genocide.”
A Passport For Success
It was cramped and hot in the Community Board building. Members from both houses, some of whom had fought in the past, sat scrunched together around a small office table. Outside, Old Broadway had been converted for the day into a “Play Street” with a basketball hoop rolled out for the local youth to shoot around.
A mix of community affairs officers and patrol cops from the 26th Precinct lingered at the end of the street. Inside, Theodore Gershon, an adviser in his 60s from Columbia University’s community affairs office, led a jobs seminar organized by Murphy and Haynes. They described it as a “baby step,” a way to get the two sides to sit down and focus on something other than revenge. Gershon would later comment on how he had never felt so much tension in a room before.
Gershon explained to the teenagers and young adults in attendance, among them Tayshana’s brother, that this was a long step in the often frustrating process of just being able to get a chance to get an opportunity to get in a line for a job. He handed out some forms and leaflets. One of them read: “My Passport For Success” and had bullet points of advice on how to secure and keep a job: “Attitude and Behavior, Initiate and Seek Opportunities, Adapt to change.”
As Gershon walked everyone through what to fill out and where to send it, Bam Bam, 17, noticed through the window that Tyshawn Brockington kept riding and popping wheelies on his bike to get his rivals attention and glowering at him. Bam Bam’s friend elbowed him and motioned with a meaningful expression to Brockington’s display. Their eyes met through the window. Bam Bam exploded.
“This is bullshit man,” he barked. “We need jobs now. Not these forms,” he said slamming his fists on the table.
He got up and headed for the door with his friend in tow. Taylonn hustled after him. Father and son, exchanged heated words. Bam Bam tensed up. Across the street, Brockington kept staring. The young residents from both sides were waiting for something to happen. Police noticed the tension and got ready to move.
Taylonn calmed his son down enough to send him in the direction of the Grant Houses and away from Brockington. He stalked off agitated, but he left without incident.
Afterward, Taylonn was in good spirits.
“That was the first time they’ve been together since Chicken was killed where they have gotten into a physical confrontation,” he said beaming.
We Ain’t No Gang
After Bam Bam left, Arnita led her son over to Gershon. The two had a long conversation, and Brockington took his card with a promise to call him soon.
Bam Bam has a disarming, wide smile and a tattoo that runs the length of his arm that reads “Loyalty Over Love.” It took awhile, he said, for him to come to terms with his father’s mission to embrace the mother of the rival who murdered his sister. And there are times when it’s harder to accept than others.
“At the end of the day we took a loss, we lost my sister, and people have a certain feeling over that,” he said.
He said he is frustrated that outsiders see him and his friends as irredeemable thugs. He says he is just as frustrated by the violence.
“We’re out here strong,” he said. “They labeled us a gang. We ain’t no gang. We just grew up together. We don’t have secret meetings or talk about stuff like that.”
Bam Bam made a motion with his fingers indicating money.
“Listen, man, if we had some money, if we had jobs,” he made a sweeping gesture with his arms taking in both projects. “This whole thing, this beef? There’d be no beef. No one would care.”
Naquan Brockington, although he would never admit in front of Bam Bam, agrees.
“I don’t know why we’re fighting,” he said after a long pause. “We don’t know what we’re fighting for really. Hopefully before someone dies again this thing will be squashed. Nobody knows. Maybe if we had some jobs out here, something to do, we wouldn’t be fighting.”
Brockington said his brother gave him a message to deliver to his people in Manhattanville.
“He tells them all to stop fighting. He gave the call to stop fighting. He don’t want them to be where he’s at. He looks at it, like, that his life is already gone, it’s over. He doesn’t want me or his friends in the situation he in -- behind bars facing 25 to life.”
He talks about his brother obliquely, without explicitly mentioning the killing.
“It’s stressful,” he said about his brother in jail, possibly for the rest of his life. “I’m sad. I’m missing him. I hate that he put himself in that predicament. He don’t really talk about it. When I see him he says he just wants to come home.
“They be trying to stop it, but there’s nothing they can do. They can’t stop it. The only way it’s going to stop is if we stop it. Some of them is listening, but I can’t stop tell them what to do, they’re the same age as me.”
“I want to go to a safe place”
The last thing Venus Singleton remembers hearing as she sat on a bench outside of her building on 550 125th St. in the Grant Houses before the gun shots was her son LaQuint’s voice. He was warning her and his little brother to get inside.
“He went to the little chicken place around the corner,” she said recalling the evening. “He yelled, ‘Mom! You and Karron get back in the building!’ I wasn’t confused. I saw like nine of them together. I yelled at my little son to get back in the building and that’s when it happened.”
She heard five shots. The dents from the bullets are visible on a column above her head where she stands and recounts what happened that evening. Everybody was running up the path toward the building in a frenzy, but not LaQuint. She pushed past the frenzied crowd and headed toward the sound of the gunfire.
“Everybody was running one way and I was going the other,” she said. “Where the hell was LaQuint at? That’s all I was thinking. I needed to see where my son was at.”
When she saw him, at the spot where the pathway meets the sidewalk, lying in a burgeoning pool of his own blood, she thought he was dead.
And then he lifted his head.
“‘Mom calm down,’ he told me,” she said. “‘It don’t hurt that much. I’m money,’ he told me.”
Singleton saw the gunman and his accomplices running across the street toward Old Broadway and the Manhattanville Houses. Someone nearby flagged down a patrol car and paramedics were called. While he was lifted into the back of the ambulance, LaQuint confided to his mother: “I can’t cry, mom. I can’t cry. I can’t cry.”
“It was a lot of pride,” she said. “He wouldn’t drop a tear.”
Singleton said she does not know what the answers are. She said the inexplicable feelings these children have toward each other show no signs of letting up. She wants someone to do something, but isn’t certain what that is.
“In the last few years there have been more shootings, more gunshots, it ain’t getting better, it’s just getting worse,” she said. “A lot of mothers are going to cry if we don’t do something about this. It’s a life or death situation for my sons and I want to go to a safe place but I don’t know where that is.”
A lot changed for Singleton after the shooting. The light went out in LaQuint’s eyes, she said. He used to be full of energy. Now, she said, he just sits and stares. She had to learn how to change a colostomy bag. She consults a sheet obsessively to make sure she is properly following the instructions.
She has learned that the type of bowel movements her son has and the type of bag he uses affects how long to keep the pouch on. He doesn’t have the disposable bags. So she needs to be attentive to wash them out thoroughly. She made an anguished sound trying to explain the sense of shame she felt being disgusted having to handle her son’s excrement.
At first, the process would make her dry heave, but she has started to get used to it. She still calls the nurses several times a day to make sure she doesn’t make a mistake. She worries if she does, that he’ll get an infection. Then, she’ll make things worse than they already are.
[This story is part of a series focusing on false confessions and filming interrogations. Read other stories in the series here.]
NEW YORK--A 14-year-old Raymond Santana sat slumped in a chair, his arms crossed.
Santana sat across the table from then Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer and the police detective who had interviewed the Harlem teenager twice in the last 27 hours. Another officer handled a video camera.
The officer switched the camera on. The time stamp read 2:30 a.m. on April 21, 1989. It was the first time a camera would be used to record any of Santana’s interviews with police, and Lederer read Santana his rights, making sure that the detectives had done the same earlier in the night.
"Yes," Santana kept mumbling in response, his voice barely audible over a growing din at the Central Park precinct station.
"Now that I've advised you of your rights," Lederer began to ask, "are you willing to tell me the truth about what happened on the night of April 19, 1989?"
Santana didn’t know it at the time, but the 30 minutes that would follow the detective’s question would seal Santana’s future and ensure his conviction in a case that featured little other evidence against him or the four other Harlem boys charged along with him.
• • •
In the United States, false confessions play a role in about one in four wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. The confessions often come forth following hours of interrogation, resulting in a statement of guilt put on paper in front of the investigating detectives or, as in Santana's case, on videotape. Although technically a person cannot be convicted on a confession alone, it often plays a crucial role in a trial.
"Confession evidence is heavily relied upon by juries because it’s counterintuitive that one would confess to something that they didn't do," said Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project, the New York-based nonprofit legal clinic that has tracked more than 310 DNA exonerations nationwide.
For Saloom and other reform advocates, a written or videotaped confession only tells part of the story. Capturing an interrogation from beginning to end, on the other hand, creates an undeniable record that ensures the veracity of confessions. That, Saloom said, benefits both the defendant and the prosecution.
Seventeen states – along with the District of Columbia – have already adopted some degree of videotaping requirement. Last September, the commissioner of the world's largest police force announced that it would adopt the practice.
Although New York City prosecutors have selectively taped interrogations for decades, the New York Police Department was supposed to be on track to conduct them on a regular basis in every one of its 76 precincts.
In October, The New York Times reported that only two precincts are videotaping interrogations of felony assaults and sexual assaults, the same two precincts that were part of the NYPD’s pilot program announced in 2010.
Despite its growing popularity, opponents still argue the policy will deter police officers from doing their jobs. But what goes into that job and the means used to get a confession can be just as controversial as the policy itself.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"It gives the prosecutor a greater sense of security because it shows more accurately than the words the defendant's state of mind."[/module]New York City is no stranger to the practice of videotaping suspects. In fact, the Bronx District Attorney's office is the first documented office to videotape confessions on a regular basis. In 1983, The New York Times wrote about how, under Mario Merola's leadership, the Bronx DA's recording policy led the way for neighboring DA's to do the same.
"It gives the prosecutor a greater sense of security because it shows more accurately than the words the defendant's state of mind," former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau told The Times.
Six years later, it was Morgenthau's office that led the investigation into 1989's Central Park jogger case.
• • •
NYPD first picked up Santana at 11 p.m. Complaints were coming into police that as many as 30 black and Latino boys were roaming through Central Park, harassing and assaulting bystanders.
Santana was soon joined by Antron McCray, 15; Kevin Richardson, 14; Yusef Salaam, 15; and Korey Wise, 16, at the police precinct on Central Park West and West 86th Street. They didn’t all know each other when they were arrested, but all five were already in custody when police made a gruesome discovery in the park.
Officers found a female jogger on a path alongside a small river in the park's North Woods around 2 a.m. Near death, she was bleeding and unconscious from a brutal assault and rape. Police spent the next crucial hours connecting the dots between the boys and the jogger.
Headlines across the country didn't wait until the jury's verdict to find the Santana and the four other boys guilty. In this case, the offense was clear and the case was closed: four of the five confessed. The four youngest spent at least five years in juvenile correctional facilities.
Wise, the oldest at 16 years of age, served nearly 12 years in prison as an adult. While there, Wise had a run in with Matías Reyes. Reyes, who was serving time for the 1989 rape and murder of a pregnant woman, was also linked to least seven other rapes in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Reyes apologized to Wise about an earlier fight. They talked for a while. After they spoke, Reyes turned to a correctional employee and said that someone was serving time for a crime that he committed.
Word of Reyes' admission eventually made its way back down to Manhattan, which in 2002 prompted the district attorney’s office to compare Reyes's DNA with samples collected from the Central Park crime scene, samples that never matched any of the boys. The test showed that the DNA was a match for Reyes.
The "new evidence, had it been available to the juries, would have resulted in verdicts more favorable to the defendants, not only on the charges arising from the attack on the female jogger but on the other charges as well,” Morgenthau wrote in a statement that prompted officials in late 2002 to overturn the convictions.
New city leaders had to deal with the aftermath of the exoneration. Less than a year into his first term as mayor, Michael Bloomberg released a statement on the heels of the court's decision.
"I know District Attorney Morgenthau has sought to see justice served, and I have asked Police Commissioner [Ray] Kelly to look at the District Attorney's findings to determine if any changes in police procedures are merited," Bloomberg wrote in January 2003.
• • •
Kelly took no visible steps immediately after Bloomberg released his statement in 2003. In fact, it wasn't until early 2010 — seven years after the Central Park Five’s convictions were overturned — that the NYPD said it would even explore how it might change how officers conduct interrogations.
It took another year for NYPD to actually launch two pilot programs to videotape interrogations, one in the Bronx's 48th Precinct and another in Brooklyn's 67th Precinct. At that point, the cameras were only used for felony assault cases.
In August 2012, The Wall Street Journal followed up on the pilot program and found that progress was slow. Paul Browne, then the police department's deputy commissioner and spokesman, told The Journal that NYPD would expand the pilot program to five precincts from the original two. That suddenly changed the following month.
Five weeks after Browne spoke to The Journal, Kelly began an hour-long speech to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs by announcing that all precincts would adopt the videotaping of interrogations. The policy would also expand beyond just felony assaults, which Kelly said totaled around 300 interviews at the time, to include murders and sex crimes.
"We want to continue to stay ahead of the curve with the help of our recording initiative," Kelly told the audience. He was not specific about a timeline for implementation, nor has the NYPD ever made that information public.
During an unrelated press conference, Bloomberg speculated that significant progress could be made before his third and final term ends in late 2013. That gave NYPD one year to secure a $3 million grant from the New York City Police Foundation to purchase the necessary equipment to update antiquated interrogation rooms and re-train police officers.
Almost 23 years after Raymond Santana and the other boys were taken to the Central Park precinct for questioning, Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg stood in front of the building’s glass doors on a sunny but cold late-March morning.
"Crime in Central Park is down by 80 percent compared to 20 years ago," Kelly said during the event. "This facility underscores just how seriously the City of New York and its police department take our mission of keeping this park safe."
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]A spokesman for the Police Department told The New York Times in October that the NYPD was rolling out the program as fast as it could but that only 28 of the city’s 76 precincts are even outfitted for videotaping interrogations.[/module]Asked during a brief press conference after the ribbon cutting, Kelly said that NYPD would begin to roll out the recording program in Queens "probably" by the first week of April 2014. The other boroughs would soon follow, he added, as they continue to collect funds from the Police Foundation.
"We are assembling money, you might say," he said. "We're committed to going forward."
Seven months later — and with less than eight weeks left in Bloomberg’s administration — NYPD is still only conducting interviews in the same two precincts it launched its pilot program in. A spokesman for the Police Department told The New York Times in October that the NYPD was rolling out the program as fast as it could but that only 28 of the city’s 76 precincts are even outfitted for videotaping interrogations.
• • •
By the time police first questioned him, the 14-year-old Santana hadn't slept for about a day. He was told repeatedly that he could go home as soon as they sorted out his story, and that any charges stemming from the night were likely to go to family court.
Santana said that the detective didn't start taking notes until the interview turned to the rape. The other boy, he was told, said he was the rapist. That's when his and the others’ stories began to change.
"They knew we were going to confess,” Santana said. “It was just a matter of time."
Santana was tired and began to give details of the assault in hopes of getting out of the precinct. Some of it conflicted with information given by the other boys — what the woman was wearing, who actually raped her and how she was beaten. Arroyo and Hartigan had heard enough, but Santana remembers that the night was far from over.
Although there is no singular or universal method of interrogations, there are certain tactics that detectives have come to regularly rely on, said Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Kassin describes how police typically start the interrogation process with an interview, not unlike what the detectives did with Santana. After asking a few questions, detectives can let a person go if there’s no suspicion of guilt. Or they can turn the sit down into an interrogation.
Over the years, the many interrogation techniques have been codified by John E. Reid & Associates, a private company that still trains clients from both the private and public sectors. The goal is to turn questioners into the equivalent of human lie detectors who can read behavioral tics to determine guilt.
It begins with the isolation of the suspect. Kassin explained that a Reid-trained officer will typically go through nine steps, offering the suspect both positive and negative incentives. The goal of the interrogation, according to Reid & Associates, is to increase the suspect's anxiety associated with denial and decrease the anxiety associated with confessing.
"Basically make it easier psychologically to confess than to deny involvement," he said. "And you do that with the carrot and the stick — both the maximizing techniques that scare the suspects into submission and minimizing techniques that seem to offer a palatable way out."
In “Police Interrogations and False Confessions,” a policy book published by the American Psychological Association in 2010, law professors Richard Leo and Steven Drizin referred to studies by Kassin that revealed the Reid techniques ineffectiveness.
“The method of behavior analysis taught by Reid & Associates has been found empirically to actually lower judgment accuracy,” Leo and Drizin wrote, alluding to how the method may actually be counterproductive to interrogations.
The Supreme Court has also defended deception and misdirection in interrogations. In 1969, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court unanimously decided in Frazier v. Cupp that police deception during an interrogation is not necessarily misconduct.
The Frazier standard allowed detectives to tell each boy in the Central Park jogger case alternate theories as to who did what to the victim. It's what allowed police to tell one of the boys that investigators found his fingerprints on the victim's clothing, a deception that prompted him to confess.
"By definition, interrogation is a guilt-presumptive process," Kassin added. "The judgment they make at that interview stage is pivotal because if they determine that the suspect is truthful and innocent they send them home. If they determine he's lying, they move him to interrogation."
The court-protected ability to deceive, and variations on the Reid technique are tools of the trade for police. Retired NYPD homicide detective Jay Salpeter said he used them all the time when he worked for the 90th Precinct in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]It was seeing false confessions during his time as a private investigator that cemented the need for videotaping interrogations.[/module]Salpeter served on the force for almost 20 years before he retired and found work as a private investigator. He's built a reputation in the post-conviction reform community over the last few years, having worked on multiple high-profile exoneration cases.
Despite a nice and pleasant demeanor off the job, Salpeter said that he never had any reservations about flipping a switch as soon as an interview turns into an interrogation.
"If I want you to confess, you will not walk out of that room until you confess," he said. "Even if I'm not sure you did it, I'll wait out."
But it was seeing false confessions during his time as a private investigator that cemented the need for videotaping interrogations.
"One of the most dramatic things you can see in your life is a confession, especially when it's false," Salpeter said. "I don't see what anyone should be afraid of," Salpeter said. "As long as you're doing the job right, what are you afraid of?"
Not everyone in the police community agrees. As a retired Bronx detective and current president of the Detective’s Endowment Association, he rejected the inference that a false confession is a coerced confession. Michael Palladino, who worked out of the Bronx's 52nd Precinct detective squad for 11 years, is a longtime, vocal opponent of videotaping interrogations.
“It’s in the heart and minds of every New York City detective to solve the case and arrest the right person,” Palladino said. “No detective wants to incarcerate someone who did not commit the crime that they're investigating.”
He called the NYPD policy expensive, unwarranted and a result of political pressure from advocacy groups such as the Innocence Project and the New York Civil Liberties Union—groups that point out that the recordings also protect officers from unfounded claims of unethical behavior.
Regardless, after 34 years in NYPD, Palladino said he’s doesn’t think juries should see what goes on in an interrogation room. Although police know what they can and can’t do in the course of an interrogation, Palladino said that juries don’t always understand that officers can lawfully deceive suspects in the course of an investigation.
"It will find its way to the sympathetic nerves of some jurors," he said.
Commissioner Kelly seems to disagree. While addressing the International Association of Chiefs of Police in late 2012, he told the audience that none of the 300 cases subject to the pilot program had resulted in a trial by jury.
One defendant, he said, unsuccessfully claimed that he was intimidated during his interrogation before the court threw the complaint out.
• • •
In the three years since the NYPD announced its pilot program, the department is still lagging in meeting its goal of citywide recording of interrogations. And with weeks left in the Bloomberg administration, speculation abounds regarding Kelly’s next move after the last 12 years at NYPD’s helm. It’s unclear how the city will proceed, especially in light of the recent election of Bill de Blasio as the city’s next mayor.
Raymond Santana and the other men of the Central Park Five continue to make news; the five remain mired in a $250 million federal lawsuit against the city to definitively prove their innocence. Just prosecuting the case has already cost the city $6 million.
As chair of the New York City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., of Astoria, Queens, keeps in constant communication with agencies, including the NYPD.
Vallone also served as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan for six years, working under Morgenthau at the same time that fellow ADAs Lederer and Linda Fairstein prosecuted the Central Park jogger case in court. He never worked on the Central Park jogger case, but maintains that the boys were guilty.
"They were not false confessions," Vallone said. "They're punks and thugs who served the time they deserve."
But despite ongoing pressure from advocates and local leaders, the Bloomberg administration has refused to settle on the grounds that the city did not prosecute the case maliciously.
Santana, who struggled to find work after his release, and who was jailed for selling drugs, says he is encouraged by news of NYPD’s steps towards increased transparency. After all, Santana said, juries have a right to see what happened before the prosecution shows the jury a well-rehearsed confession.
The last 23 years might have been different, he said, had the 12 men and women who convicted him been able to see how his confession came about.
Had they seen how long he and the other boys were held, or how police deceived them to obtain their confessions, or how many times their stories changed before the prosecutor brought in the video camera, Santana believes they might not have lost those years from their lives for a crime they didn’t commit.
“I think everybody should see that process,” he said.
[This story is part of a series focusing on false confessions and filming interrogations. Read other stories in the series here.]
NEW YORK--The New York Police Department is willingly unfurling its own interrogation recording program, albeit slowly. And yet for some observers, it isn’t enough.
Across the country, lawmakers are making an effort not only to convince authorities to adopt the best practice but to push legislation that creates accountability and oversight of said programs.
New York state has been waging that fight for years now, leaving some local leaders looking for more immediate recourse on a municipal level.
One of the leaders in Albany pushing for legislative reform on interrogations, Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol, said he was happy to hear of NYPD’s move towards the 21st Century. He said internal best practices aren’t enough.
“That would be wrong and would still require legislation in order to make it work effectively,” said Lentol, a former prosecutor.
Almost every major independent criminal justice group and association in New York state supports the videotaping of interrogations. The District Attorneys Association of New York, led by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, holds that the recording of interrogations is best handled by individual jurisdictions as long as it doesn’t either strain resources or adversely affect the investigation or case.
The group has released its own proposal of best practices for recording, as have the New York State Bar Association and New York State Association of Chiefs of Police.
The practice has even caught the attention of N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo. During his 2013 State of the State address, the governor advocated for legislation promoting the videotaping of confessions for suspects in violent crimes and sex offenses.
“This will give us more certainty that the convictions we obtain are actually fair and justified,” Cuomo said.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“This will give us more certainty that the convictions we obtain are actually fair and justified."[/module]While a bill has yet to make it to a successful vote, Cuomo recently took steps to ensure that authorities can at least pursue the recording of interrogations while Albany sorts out the legislation.
In July 2013, Cuomo announced that the state would make $1 million available to agencies so that they could record criminal interrogations.
“Wrongful convictions not only harm the innocent, but they allow the actual perpetrators of crime to remain free,” the governor said. “The new equipment that will result from this funding will improve the strength of New York’s criminal justice system, making all New Yorkers safer as a result.”
And yet a bill requiring that all authorities adopt a program with oversight has yet to make it to the floor. It came the closest it has ever come to passing in early 2012, when Cuomo signed off on a legislative package that also expanded the state’s DNA database to include materials collected in misdemeanors cases.
The bills that passed originally included a mandate to videotape interrogations statewide, one of a number of recommendations outlined by the state’s Justice Task Force, headed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. They were all eliminated before the bill made its way to the governor’s desk.
“In Albany, even if it seems like a no-brainer, it’s never a no-brainer,” Lentol said. “That’s what happens in negotiations.”
As a legislative issue, the recording of interrogations has been debated in the Albany Capitol since 2003 when former Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV of Harlem first proposed a bill.
Lentol has since picked up the reins. Along with state Sen. Bill Perkins, the two have spent the last few legislative sessions working on a bill that would not only require minimum standards for recording interrogations but also create some exceptions to make the transition easier for police agencies.
Lentol added that he didn’t think passage of future bills would be likely without another similar omnibus bill. And while there aren’t plans for such a package, the recording of interrogations seems to have stuck with Cuomo.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“The more transparent police and prosecutors are about interrogations, the more credibility our system has."[/module]Perkins is more hopeful. Before joining the state Senate, Perkins pushed similar legislation on a local level as a City Councilman. Today, he still argues that the two key elements in question are transparency and accountability.
“There’s no place here that they’re more necessary than in the criminal justice system,” Perkins said. “The more transparent police and prosecutors are about interrogations, the more credibility our system has. Anything short of that contributes to that cynicism we saw in the Central Park Five case.”
Until Albany acts, Perkins thinks that there are some means for transparency, even if they’re not perfect. Referring to a recent law passed by the City Council, an inspector general for the New York Police Department might be able to help properly oversee its interrogations program — even if it’s not a perfect solution.
“An independent inspector general is maybe a better step in that regard, but it’s like the fox watching the coop,” Perkins said. “With all due respect to the good police officers, I would imagine that it’s even more so to their advantage to be able to show how correct they are and to be above any kind of cynicism about the outcome of their interrogations.”
But not everybody agrees that authorities need oversight. One of the inspector general bill’s most ardent detractors was Queens City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who, along with a number of local police unions, argued that the oversight bill was redundant.
“We might as well call our police commissioner ‘deputy monitor’ because they won’t be in charge anymore,” he said during a radio interview earlier this year.
His resistance to police oversight extended to that of the department’s interrogation procedure. Although Vallone supports NYPD’s decision to voluntarily videotape interrogations, he has pushed back on a need for external oversight from the city council or for statewide legislation.
If anything, Vallone said in a phone call, the myriad of regulations would create more "technical violations to get people off."
NEW YORK -- It’s a frigid morning on Staten Island’s South Shore, with the temperature struggling to crack 20 degrees as a stiff wind buffets the Eltingville neighborhood. The elementary school students showing up at P.S. 55 are cocooned in puffy jackets, gloves and hats as they jump out of warm cars and onto the sidewalk towing large backpacks, some adorned with the face of Justin Bieber, others with the logo of the New York Giants.
Amidst an ongoing school bus strike, it’s a fairly orderly scene on this Tuesday. Parents drive up to the curb, let their children out and move on to the rest of the day. Directing traffic, and gently scolding the occasional parent who pulls a U-turn on Koch Boulevard, is Mike Reilly, a former New York City police lieutenant who is a few days shy of his 40th birthday.
Reilly is outside the school each morning mostly to mitigate traffic. But, as the co-author of a controversial school safety plan that calls for the Department of Education to use retired cops armed with guns to protect city schools, he’s also found himself in the middle of the contentious debate over gun control and student safety that has erupted in the wake of the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. At a White House ceremony last week, President Barack Obama, speaking in front of an audience that included children who had written letters to the president asking him to take action against gun violence, introduced a broad set of gun control measures and policy initiatives to make schools safer and crack down on mass shootings. The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has vowed to fight any effort to regulate firearms.
Reilly, who has two daughters at P.S. 55 and a son who went there but has since graduated to middle school, started volunteering at the school in 2007, after he retired from the NYPD because of an injury he suffered chasing a stolen motorcycle in Brooklyn.
Reilly has since joined Community Education Council 31, which covers all of Staten Island. He co-chairs the Safety and Transportation Committee with Frank Squicciarini, a 48-year-old retired NYPD sergeant. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the two former cops have immersed themselves in the issue of school safety in New York.
Reilly and Squicciarini are the authors of a school safety plan that passed CEC 31 earlier this month and calls for the city to hire up to 500 retired police officers to serve as armed guards in schools. The retired officer would dress in plain clothes and carry concealed weapons.
The proposal, billed by CEC 31 as a comprehensive safety plan, also includes the installation of silent alarms, which would be linked to 911, and “buzzer entry systems,” with video cameras, at schools around New York. So far, most of the attention has focused on the armed guards, with critics linking the plan to one proposed by the NRA about a week after the shooting in Newtown.
Even before it passed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch gun control advocate, called the CEC 31 proposal a “terrible idea.” He had previously ripped the NRA’s proposal to put armed guards in all schools across the country as “dystopian.”
But with President Obama pledging to make federal money available to improve school safety across the country, members of CEC 31 say Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott should at least consider using retired cops to guard city schools.
“This isn’t coming from some lobby group,” Reilly said. “We’re trying to do the best we can to protect our kids and our teachers and our administrators. That’s all this is about. These things are going to happen, all we can do is put in best practices to mitigate them.”
Sam Pirozzollo, the president of CEC 31, said some parents were opposed to “armed guards” in schools, until they learned that the plan called for retired law enforcement. “I don’t think what we’re asking for is that radical,” said Pirozzollo, 48, who has two kids in city schools. “It’s not about the NRA. It’s about the kids of Staten Island.”
Squicciarini and Reilly liken their proposal to the federal air marshal program, which puts armed officers in plain clothes on certain flights. Their existence is believed to create a deterrent for would-be hijackers. Squicciarini and Reilly both said, ideally, they would like an armed security officer in each of the city’s more than 1,000 school buildings. But they argued that the existence up to 500-armed officers rotating through the schools would create a deterrent for someone considering an attack.
“Most people attack what are called soft targets, where they know there will be little or no resistance,” said Squicciarini, who spent 24 years with the NYPD and joined the counter-terrorism unit after the attacks of 9/11. “With this, the thought of someone being there, you may have taken away that soft target.”
Reilly and Squicciarini think it’s unfair to tie their proposal to the NRA. They believe they’ve staked out a more moderate position, with key differences between what they’re proposing and the plan pushed by the gun lobby. For one, the retired cops potentially hired by the city would come to the job with at least 20 years of firearms training and a background in law enforcement. And with their concealed weapons and business casual dress code, the security officers would have a somewhat lighter footprint than a traditional uniformed police officer, or armed guard, they said.
“Kids shouldn’t see a gun visible every day walking in an out of school,” Squicciarini said.
“We don’t want this to look like a police state,” Reilly said. “It’s not a security guard, with the uniform on and the sling and the holster. We’re talking about trained professionals with experience in law enforcement.”
In criticizing the NRA’s plan to put armed guards in schools, and by extension the CEC 31 proposal, both Bloomberg and Walcott have argued that New York’s schools are safe. Unarmed school safety agents are present in the city’s school buildings and a DOE spokesman said the department’s close working relationship with the NYPD has led to a drastic reduction in school crime over the last 12 years. Major crime is down 48 percent since the 2000-2001 school year, with violent crime dropping 30 percent in the same time period, DOE said.
Reilly, Pizorrollo and Squicciarini are not swayed by the crime statistics cited by DOE. They understand that schools have gotten safer, by some measures, but worry about the schools’ exposure to the type of tragedy that unfolded in Newtown. They pointed to the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, and the city’s effort to retool security protocols in its aftermath. They have not seen a similar change in school policy, despite a string of mass shootings around the country in recent years.
“Crime is the lowest it’s been, I understand that,” Reilly said. “This isn’t about crime. This is about preventing an active shooter.”
This story was produced by JJIE's New York City Bureau.
Photo by Craig Giammona.
This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity
When Minerva Dickson first saw her high school she thought it looked like a prison. After her first week she realized how right her initial impressions were.
Every day when she arrived at the Thomas Jefferson Campus in Brownsville, Brooklyn, she waited in a line that snaked out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. She would shuffle up two steps passing beneath words from Abraham Lincoln inscribed on the neo-classical pediment: “Let Reverence for the Laws Become the Political Religion of the Nation.”
Next, she reached into her pocket for her identification card and slid it through a machine. When it recognized her, it blurted an approving beep and a green light would flash. When it didn’t, the machine made an abrasive buzzing noise and lit up red.
Clear of the reader, she headed to the metal detectors. There, at least a half dozen school safety agents waited. School safety agents, who answer to the New York City Police Department, wear a police uniform and a shield. A pair of handcuffs dangles from their belts.
Under their gaze, Dickson would remove her jewelry, hairpins, and shoes. She would place her purse and her backpack on the conveyor belt and wait for an agent to nod her through. Another would run a security wand around her diminutive frame while she stood arms out, legs spread.
She’d collect her belongings, slip on her shoes and hurry to first period.
“They never said anything to us,” she said, standing outside her school one recent evening. “There was no relationship at all. They just stared at the monitors. They treated us like criminals. It made me hate school. When you cage up students like that it doesn’t make us safe, it makes things worse.”
More than the arrests, the summonses, and the substitution of detention halls with jail cells, critics of the burgeoning police presence in public schools point to the corrosive daily experiences of students like Dickson to explain why the system needs to change. Students have grown to see school as a joyless place where they are treated like perps instead of pupils, critics say.
With the growth of the police presence in New York City in the last decade, students’ have seen their confidence erode not only in school, but other civic institutions, too. Critics worry that poor and minority students more and more see education as extension of a burgeoning police state, one that seems to disproportionately target them. Whether with stop-and-frisks in the streets or in “the Riker’s Island treatment” on their way to class, students say they feel like the government’s push to make them secure in school has left them feeling like inmates instead. And with authority for school safety lodged in the most powerful police department in the world, educators feel like they are helpless to change it.
Miller concedes there needs to be security at schools. But it needs to be supervised by the schools, not the police. Now, she notes, there are more cops in the schools than guidance counselors and social workers combined.
“It shouldn’t be a permanent occupation,” she said. "What’s the point of putting kids through this nightmare?"
In December, 2010, after languishing in various committees, the City Council unanimously passed the School Safety Act. The act mandates that the NYPD release reports on police activity in the schools. For the first time in the country, disciplinary activity of students would be made public as a matter of law. Advocates hope the act serves as a model for reform.
But people in the system say even the most transparent reporting system misses the point. Dickson said there is no way to quantify what she went through attending a high school outfitted like a fortress. She said you can’t put a number on four years of being searched, and scanned, of turning a hallway corner to see a cop staring back.
Although it did not comment on this story, the NYPD’s position on school safety has been clear. In mid-August, in response to the first public release of school arrests, the NYPD’s chief spokesman, Paul Browne, said in interviews with numerous publications that the NYCLU, "persists in smearing school safety agents and police officers who do good work professionally and in an unbiased manner."
He said critics like the NYCLU and others dismiss the incidents that lead to arrests as typical horseplay among children, but he said that assumption is wrong.
“It can involve serious assaults, with weapons, and including sexual assaults and including serious crimes,” he said at the time.
He also said again and again that the high number arrests of blacks and Latinos was not driven by bias but instead it was a result of the descriptions of suspects provided by victims.
He said school crime has plummeted under the current administration. In 2001 before the current administration took office, that there were 1,577 felonies compared to 801 felonies during the last school year under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
One morning in her senior year Dickson was working on a school project. She snapped a picture with a digital camera of agents in the hallway. None of the agents faces were in the picture, just their backs. According to Dickson here’s what happened.
An agent shouted at Dickson: “Young lady, come here.” The flash, Dickson suspects, must have caught their attention.
The agent said: “Give me the camera.”
Agent: “You can’t take pictures of agents that’s why.”
Dickson: "But there's no faces in it."
Agent: "Get out of my face young lady."
A dean snatched the camera away and escorted Dickson to the school's assistant principal of security. The dean, the agent and the principal proceeded to go through the pictures erasing any that included agents. They were going to confiscate the camera. It was the first time she had ever been in trouble.
"I started crying," she said. "Tears were pouring down my face. My eyes were all red."
It wasn't until a teacher saw her that anyone in the school tried to comfort her, she said. She later learned that the pictures were legal, but that they were not sanctioned. She was told she could use pictures approved by the Board of Education -- generic pictures of metal detectors and security stations pulled from a Google search-- but no pictures of agents.
The incident was never reported but it made an impression.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Dickson said. “It made me feel like a criminal for taking pictures. She made me feel like an inmate.”
In 1998 then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signed off on a 15 page memorandum of understanding between the city’s Board of Education and police department transferring control of school safety from educators to officers.
With bland wording, the mayor revolutionized policing in the schools: “...it is therefore appropriate that the parties take all necessary steps to transfer the school security and ancillary functions performed by the Division of School Safety of the Board to the NYPD.”
At the time it was approved there were 3000 School Safety Agents. Now, there are 5200 agents (but 70,000 fewer students), up more than 60 percent from the 1998 staffing levels.
The mayor was responding in part to a notorious shooting that occurred at Dickson’s high school in Feburary, 1992 when Khalil Sumpter, 15, shot Ian Moore, 17, in the chest and Tyrone Sinkler, 16 in the head in second-floor hallway, killing them both. Although the shooting took place under Mayor David Dinkins watch, it cast a shadow into Giuliani’s administration.
The NYC Board of Education has not responded to requests for comment. The teachers' union declined to comment.
As years went by the Sumpter shootings became shorthand for safer schools. At the time, no one put up much of a fight. Even political opponents of Giuliani recognized that his consolidation of the housing and traffic cops police in the NYPD was a smart and efficient move. When he did the same with school safety, Eugene O’Donnell, Professor of Police Studies at John Jay College, believed that nobody thought it would lead to this.
“It’s shocking that education got shunted aside in a large degree by scare-mongering,” O’Donnell said. “ You had the Thomas Jefferson shootings and other high profile incidents and they pounded on those incidents to expand the policing in the schools.”
O’Donnell said he is concerned that the “encampment approach” institutionalizes low expectations. It sets the bar at “no stabbings or shootings”, but does nothing to help children.
“The problem is that there’s a populist logic to a punitive approach,” he said. “Don’t give anyone a break, zero tolerance, don’t let anything slip by. After a while you lose your way.”
Critics can point to a list of high profile anecdotes over the years illustrating the agent overreach.
Chelsea Fraser, the 13-year old arrested and handcuffed in front of her classmates in April, 2007 at Dyker Heights Intermediate School for writing “okay” in her desk. Dennis Rivera, 5, a kindergartener, who had his tiny hands cuffed behind his back in January 2008 by an agent for throwing a temper tantrum at P.S. 81. Principal Mark Federman, a decorated educator and veteran of the city’s public school system, who was arrested for trying to stop one of his students from getting arrested.
The problem with emphasizing the extreme cases, critics say, is that it fails to show the toll a massive police presence has on students, educators and the learning environment.
One teacher, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because she was worried about ramifications from her superiors, said in her school, there is no question of who is in charge.
“The educators defer to the police,” she said. “Absolutely. If the schools were in charge the agents would get to know the students and the techniques and the theories and the new ideas behind education and positive re-enforcement -- right now the agents are not part of any of that.”
It’s not just the gruff demeanor or the arguments they instigate with parents. She said the agents play into destructive stereotypes.
She said she has a number of students enrolled in her school who are poor and Latino and live in nearby city housing projects. She says the agents -- as many as 8 stationed in the halls at one time over the years -- constantly say behave or else. Agents say that dealing with them -- the police -- is a preparation for real life.
“The agents are acting like, ‘this is how it is in the hood’ or ‘this what these kids need’ and ‘this is what these kids are used to’ is something I’ve heard a lot over the years,” she said. “But If we’re going to break this dreary cycle were going to need to give the student an opportunity to get out of that environment, that mentality. These agents are adding to the cycle; they’re not giving the kid a chance to get out.”
She said her lowest moment as a teacher came when she didn’t stop an aggressive agent. When she first started as an elementary school teacher in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she once saw an agent telling a poor Latina how if she kept misbehaving she would be taken to jail. The mother of the child had brought the student into school to orchestrate an intervention. She was pantomiming concern, the teacher said, pleading with the agent not to take her daughter. At the time she refused to participate. Now, with seven years experience, she would’ve stopped it.
“You can’t arrest a child for misbehaving in school,” she said. “What kind of relationship does that tell the kid to form with authority at the age of eight? It just tells them all the rumors they hear in the street are true. You should hate the cops. They are out to get you. Not only is it ridiculous, but how is it helpful? ”
The student’s behavior deteriorated, she said. Later in the school year the student was singled out for searches. She said agents made an “embarrassing show” of them.
“It affected her,” said the teacher who watched the student become more withdrawn over the year. “It was part of her experience. That’s the standard she was held to as an 8-year old.”
The teacher said the students’ exposure to an intrusive police presence undermines the school’s sense of community.
“School should be a safe place for children,” she said. “Safe doesn’t mean there’s some big, bad ass cop at the door. It means that students can relax and express themselves freely and be open to learning. This is elementary school, this is where these ideas need to start changing.”
On a recent overcast afternoon at the Grand Street Campus, a sprawling complex home to several high schools in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Bushwick, hundreds of school safety agents gathered after saying goodbye to one of their own. The sidewalks surrounding Grand Campus, normally a staging area for agents, had been converted into an impromptu parking lot. The agents stowed their cars while they attended a colleague’s funeral. Among them was an agent who agreed to talk about the job, on condition that he do so anonymously, for fear that speaking would get him in trouble.
"We’re out here busting out chops," he said. "Fatigue sets in. After awhile they come in for the money, the check. They don't come in for the heart."
The agent, who is 42, was in his uniform but his shirt was unbuttoned and untucked since
he was off duty. One problem is that agents don't get the same respect that cops do. He pointed to the haggard looking agents climbing into their economy cars as an example. If a cop died, he said, there would be bagpipes and helicopters flying overhead.
"When you're a cop all you have to do is put your hand on your gun, you don't even have to pull it out, you just need to put your hand on it and all the sudden you get some attention," he said. “We're babysitting."
Unlike babysitters, he said he has to deal with riots, assaults and gang initiations. The agent said he used to be assigned to the Belmont Academy -- a shuttered suspension center -- where students knew how to counterfeit money, smuggle weapons and make bombs.
“Unfortunately, we have students who don’t want to abide by the rules and regulations,” he said. “Take one of those civil liberties lawyers and put them in schools and see what we see and see why they get arrested it would change their minds. These kids these days, they’re off the chain.”
In his more than seven years working as an agent, he said he has made numerous arrests. He works with the Brooklyn Patrol, one of the city's ten task forces that assist agents who need back up. When he gets called, he said, someone is getting arrested.
He suggested introducing a law course to the curriculum. If the children are taught the law, the logic goes, and they will understand their rights in the hybrid educational-criminal justice system.
"Then maybe they think twice," he said. "They learn that if you F up, your freedom will be taken from you."
But he said a bigger problem is a deep misunderstanding educators have of what his role is in the system. A common experience, he said, is when he goes on a call and subdues a student. When he begins cuffing him, a teacher will run up and start shouting.
"’What's going on? What are you doing?,’ they shout," he said. "I tell them, ‘I'm doing my job!’"
What people need to understand, he explains, is that school safety agents are not in the guidance counselor business. At the end of the day, he said, he and his fellow agents are there to enforce the law.
"If the agent is on the job and he sees a student disobey the law then he'll throw you up against the wall and that's that," he said.
Henry Leonardatos remembers walking through the Wise Towers with his mother and how she’d shoo him away from the blank-faced men swaying on the benches. The next day he would see syringes scattered on the ground. He lived in a public housing project known at the time as “Needle Park” for its concentration of heroin addicts. Now he is a principal at Clarkstown High School North, 25 miles from Time’s Square and decades removed from the towers.
“I lived in projects for seven years, we were one of the few white families there,” he said. “When I left I learned that that wasn’t the real world. What teachers and educators should be doing is getting these students to think outside of that world and prepare them to be productive instead of re-enforcing these patterns and norms out of them.”
Putting students through the rigamarole of pat downs and metal detectors and beefed up security ends up teaching students to not think for themselves.
“What do the kids do,” he said. “They play the role that is expected of them -- they will play the role of the criminal and victimizer because the cops will say, ‘don’t do this and don’t that.’ When you do that to a kid you’re telling the kid that this is how the world is supposed to be. You end putting the idea in the kid’s head that this is what he’s supposed to be doing.”
He said agents can’t police everyone in school -- they need to work together with the teachers, the administrators and the students.
“They can’t play out this version of policing that we see on the street where an agent sees someone do something and then shoves him against a wall, spreads him, searches then arrests him,” he said. “We can’t replicate that.”
Leonardatos has been the principal of 1500 poor, middle class, and rich students at the Rockland County school for eight years. There is one officer who sits at the entrance. He greets the students when they come in the morning.
“It’s two different worlds,” he said.
He said the agents in the city don’t know the students.
“They’re there to see who makes an infraction and make the arrest,” he said.
Leonardatos did his training in the Bronx, the borough with the most school arrests, in the early aughts. He said the students in poor, minority communities can’t escape. They’re stopped and frisked in their neighborhoods, then they have agents at school. They end up seeing their school as another “appendage to the police state.”
As a principal he has overseen one arrest in his school in seven years. And that was done at the police station because of an “extreme situation.” If there’s a problem in his school the officer reports to him.
“It’s a safe environment to work in not because of the one officer at the door,” he said. “It’s because of trust. Communication. If there were arrests and pat downs and metal detectors the community wouldn’t stand for it. There’d be a rebellion.”
Dickson estimates she wasted hours waiting in lines at school. Once at a conference she
met a student from Staten Island who, “blew her mind.” He told her that his school he didn’t have a garrison of agents greeting him.
“I thought all schools were like mine,” she said. “I couldn’t believe a student could just walk into their school without dealing with all that.”
Eventually after weeks and months of security checks and the ubiquitous presence of uniformed agents prowling the halls she internalized the “encampment mentality,” she said.
“We got used to it,” Dickson said. “We said to ourselves we can’t wait to grow up and get out of that school.”
Dickson, now a 19-year-old freshman psychology major at Ithaca College, does not dispute that students need to be safe. The legacy of the fatal killings of Sumpter and Moore still haunt her school. She said she knows that means taking some precautions. But she wonders whether having cops at school is the answer.
“I asked an agent once why she treated us like this,” she said. “She told me she didn’t have to answer me or any one of us. She told me she didn’t work for the school; she said she worked for the police department.”
Despite having a trying time at school, Dickson was eager to get her yearbook. Due to a printing error, the yearbook was available after Dickson’s class had already graduated. Earlier in the summer she went back to pick it up. She was greeted by school safety agents. They told her if she wanted to get it she’d have to go through security.
Dickson protested but the agents would not relent. She left without her yearbook, which housed a year’s worth of memories, but with a reminder, she said, of why she is so happy she never has to go back in that place.
Photos by Robert Stolarik.