Column: Police culture – conversation is not instigation

An NYPD police vehicle pictured on the streets of New York City in August 2014. (Emergency_Vehicles/Creative Commons)

On March 17, Glen Grays, a 27-year-old black man, found himself confronted by four NYPD officers on his route as a United States Postal Service worker, arguing with the men after he was nearly struck by their unmarked vehicle.

Footage of the four plainclothes NYPD officers’ interaction with Glen Grays imparts the foul aftertaste of materialized injustice.

The New York Times quoted Grays’ account of the event, which he said began after he shouted at an unmarked car that almost ran him down as he descended from his USPS vehicle. The vehicle reversed, the driver informing Grays that “I have the right of way because I’m law enforcement.”

Grays had no immediate way of discerning that these men were law enforcement from their unmarked car when he yelled; however, that should not be a matter of concern. Unless responding to a call or in pursuit, an officer should not recklessly operate a motor vehicle. Furthermore, when a several thousand-pound mass of moving metal meets flesh and blood, the “right of way” is a nonsensical concept. 

The event would not have made headlines if it were only a traffic dispute. A video filmed by an onlooker shows officers questioning, searching and taking Grays into custody, after they followed the postal worker from his truck to a building on President Street.

Grays can be heard responding to an officer’s command to stop resisting with a denial of any such action – a claim the video corroborates. Near the corner of President St. and Franklin Ave. in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, four agents of the law physically stripped Glen Grays of his civil rights and human dignity, embodying the collective resistance of our city on a hill to the notion of progress.

As the failure of our society to confront our failures and grasp the potential for change, this issue encompasses far more than Grays and these four officers. After several violent incidents, the president of the NYPD union, Patrick Lynch, accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of “creating a climate where every interaction with police officers turns into a confrontation.”

Mr. Lynch’s assessment of the situation reveals a deeply biased understanding of reality. A climate of conversation in which both sides of a deeply polarized issue are heard is inherently beneficial. Laws, such as woefully ineffective stop-and-frisk laws, stemming from the “broken-windows” theory of policing, are unjust. Conversation is a beneficial product of democracy, not an element of provocation.

Law enforcement constitutes a vital and thankless job in any community. For that reason, we must push for the utmost scrutiny of policing methods. Scrutiny must increase with the importance of a position; we cannot allow biases to persist simply to avoid criticizing those who protect us.

We are plummeting to a new nadir in law enforcement community relations, where transparent dialogue is depicted as instigation. The geyser of socially engaged youth is not a sign of societal breakdown, but a reaction to the continued, nonpartisan degradation of entire segments of the population.

It is often said that one cannot blame officers for responding to incidents in crime-ridden communities with an increased degree of harshness, as we have not walked in their shoes. Why then, do we not adopt the same logic to understand the fear of minorities and the impoverished have in interactions with law enforcement after previously witnessing unjust levels of severity?

Those who do not experience such interactions transmute this reality into a skewed fiction, consumed only through the flicker of an LCD or the flip of a page. 

When a man does not resist arrest, but is repeatedly told to stop resisting, earning the treatment of a resistor, is he supposed to feel protected? Officers leave each day with the goal of returning home safely to their families at night – a goal shared equally by individuals in the communities they police.

If we cannot understand the reactions of officers until we walk a mile in their shoes, the same understanding must be given to those who have been made second class citizens by our flawed system.

Glen Grays committed no crime, minor or severe – he yelled at a poorly driven vehicle as thousands have done before him. His interaction ended with handcuffs not because of his behavior, but because of the color of his skin and the poisoned mentality our culture perpetuates.

It is time we transparently dissect the failures of our culture and society, and learn from this dialogue.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.