It's Bad Cop, Worse Cop in 'Police Power: Police Abuses in New York City'

Random House

A window-washer and his wife were having drinks at a Harlem bar. When they quaffed their fill, she went out to get a cab: an average evening ending as average evenings do. But on the street, according to one account of the incident, “a policeman, mistaking her flashy clothes for those of a prostitute, ordered her to move on. A vituperative argument ensued, and the wife was knocked down with a punch in the eye. When the husband ran out of the bar with a friend to protest, he was also knocked down.” She got an assault charge; he, disorderly conduct.

This cop-citizen interaction might sound familiar to a New Yorker or, for that matter, the resident of any large American city — Detroit, Albuquerque, New Orleans — where police brutality has recently risen to the fore of public debate. The above incident isn’t new, however. It is recounted by Paul G. Chevigny in his 1969 book, Police Power: Police Abuses in New York City. Based on a study of police brutality for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the book is utterly unlike the dreary tomes of public policy one is likely to encounter today. Yet Police Power remains as relevant as many newer books on the subject.

Though rife with anecdotes of hippies who show up for court dates in “psychedelic cravats,” of cops barging in on gatherings of “obvious homosexuals,” Police Power is more than just a dispatch from a lurid New York on the cusp of its dismal Taxi Driver days. Instead, it is a prescient analysis of “street corner brutality” committed by men sworn to keep the peace yet often disturbing it. And while rooted in bad old Gotham, Police Power reaches beyond the confines of the city: “New York may not be typical, but its police problems are typical of the police problems of the nation.” That is as true today as it was 45 years ago. “The pattern of brutality remains the same,” Chevigny told me when I reached him by phone.

Since late July, much of New York has been outraged by the killing of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who was put in a chokehold by a police officer after being caught selling loose cigarettes. An asthmatic, Garner died pinned to the ground, while screaming that he couldn’t breathe. Garner was black, the arresting officers white. His death has renewed complaints about the NYPD’s tactics, which were called into question during the contentious debate over stop-and-frisk during last year’s mayoral election. “They could’ve handled it a lot better,” Chevigny tells me, citing Garner’s role as an apparent peacemaker in a fight that had been taking place. “Those cops should’ve known who he was.”

This New York problem thrives well outside New York. The Department of Justice recently investigated the police department of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where officers killed 25 people — many of them homeless or mentally ill — in the last four years. Writing in The New York Times, one resident of that city accused the cops of propagating “sanctioned murder.” Even the gossip blog Gawker, usually concerned with Justin Bieber’s latest buffoonery, has taken note, publishing a piece earlier this week titled “It Is Time We Treat Police Brutality as a National Crisis.”

Chevigny saw all this coming. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, he seemed caught up in the Kennedyesque reformist spirit of John V. Lindsay, the mayor from the Upper East Side who some thought was bound for the White House (alas, New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller made sure that never transpired). After participating in the Civil Rights movement in the South, Chevigny went to work as a lawyer in Harlem, where the issue of brutality by police officers came to occupy him, leading him to conduct the NYCLU study that became Police Power. (Today, he is an emeritus professor at NYU Law School.)

Unlike most of those today who delve into public policy, Chevigny knows how to write. Instead of assailing his readers with statistics, he tells stories that persuade with an appeal to basic humanity: two black men in Harlem arrested  for doing nothing more than complaining about “the white motherfuckers that shot James Meredith,” the prominent Civil Rights activist who had desegregated the University of Mississippi; a Puerto Rican youth on the Lower East Side given “a good punch in the jaw” for hanging out in a park that was near a place where someone else was “raising hell.” The victims were often assaulted, handcuffed, taken to The Tombs and charged with disorderly conduct and/or resisting arrest, which Chevigny calls “cover charges” that give false, retroactive rationale for cop-initiated violence. Nothing here is as egregious as the 1997 case of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant sodomized with a broom handle in a Brooklyn precinct house. Nevertheless, the cumulative portrait is a force loose from its moorings.

You can imagine — without condoning — why the cops overreacted in these and many other episodes: in 1965, the city had 836 murders, more than double the rate in 2013 (an astounding 334). But none of the victims in Chevigny’s study was a hardened felon out to rape or kill. For the most part, they were ordinary citizens engaged in a minor offense — or no offense at all. Yet in each, as in the case of Eric Garner, the cops responded with a lot of force and all too little reason.

Chevigny is an insightful analyst of police tactics, cool and clement when another might be self-righteous and histrionic. He notes that most acts of police brutality are not premeditated but, instead, “hotheaded reactions to a real or imagined insult… an act performed in a flash of anger.” That perceived  insult, according to Chevigny, is what drives the cop to an inordinate response: “the policeman sees the defiant person as a troublemaker and a legitimate subject for the discipline of the law.” This may explain why officer Daniel Pantaleo sought to put Garner in a chokehold. The latter’s desire to be left alone — “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today . . .I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone.” — may have struck the officers as an affront, and a public one at that, captured by at least one camera.

As elsewhere, Chevigny is eloquent and incisive on this topic, perhaps because the thinkers of the 1960s were more frank in talking about race than we are today. He notes that “The middle-class man thinks nothing of saying, ‘Sorry, officer,’ but to the oppressed and downtrodden those words are galling” and that “minor irritations make every arrest seem an act of discrimination, even when it is not.” In other words, it wasn’t just about loose cigarettes. It never is.

In some ways, Police Power fell victim a bigger story, which is encapsulated by another book from that era, published four years after Police Power: Serpico, by Peter Maas. Frank Serpico — famously played by Al Pacino in the better-known cinematic version of the book — revealed the staggering corruption in the NYPD, an organization that seemed to rely on graft the way a steam engine relies on coal. His revelations, which led to large-scale reform via the Knapp Commission, overshadowed the less explosive but no less urgent findings in Chevigny’s book.

But the two are related. Maas writes of how the idealistic Serpico was astounded by the venality and indifference of his fellow recruits: “Nobody seemed interested in being a police officer in terms of what he could do, what he could accomplish… Serpico’s first formal class at the Police Academy reflected the mood perfectly — it was on how to get sick leave.”

Even the most strident critics will admit that the police — in New York, in Los Angeles, elsewhere, though not everywhere — have gotten better: less corrupt, more diverse. Yet the “broken windows” approach, championed by New York’s current police commissioner, William J. Bratton, evinces little tolerance for the kind of petty crime of which Garner stood accused. Here, again, Chevigny is elegant and persuasive, but, above all, judicious: “Let us keep in mind that all the acts of the police, even when abusive, reflect the prevailing attitudes in the society.” He might say, today, that fixing broken windows leaves us with bloodied hands. 

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