Nearly two decades before last month’s murders of New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu allegedly by a Black man, the murder of a Black NYPD officer, Charles Davis, anticipated claims we’re hearing that police-community problems aren’t really “Black and white” and the only color that really counts is blue.
Yet the problems do remain “Black and white” for reasons of economic exploitation and isolation that run deeper than race itself and that are gathering force, despite rising numbers of white/Asian and white/Hispanic marriages and of multiracial children, even in the families of police officers themselves. Unless we can face the reasons why more “diversity” in police ranks is a far-from-sufficient condition of justice, American society will remain more racist than many others, and thereby hangs my tale.
Black On Blue
Shortly before Christmas 1996 in the lower-middle-class Queens neighborhood of East Elmhurst, robbers killed Officer Davis as he tried to protect Ira Epstein, the white owner of a check-cashing store where Davis was moonlighting as a security guard to earn extra money to buy holiday gifts for his 6-year-old daughter, Arielle.
Because Davis was off-duty at the time, it’s unclear if his assailants knew that he was a police officer. But because he was one and was murdered for doing what police officers do, his Episcopal funeral Mass in Garden City, Long Island, was a familiar “tableau of pomp and grief,” as the New York Times put it, with thousands of saluting, white-gloved, white-ethnic officers and a flyover by police helicopters.
“Arielle, your daddy, who loved you, who adored you…will always be a hero of New York City,” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told Davis’ daughter from the church pulpit. He asked the congregation to give Arielle something she would remember, and all present responded with a long, wrenching ovation. Noting that Ira Epstein’s widow had called Davis a role model for the city’s youth, Giuliani said, “She was right,” adding that, “When [Davis] died Saturday morning he was doing what he was trained to do – he was trying to protect another man.”
Many funerals of New York City police officers killed in action have been tableaus not only of pomp and grief but of the chasm that yawns between an “occupying army” of mostly white-ethnic officers and an “underclass” of inner-city, Black and Hispanic men. I spent enough time there in the late 1970s to have wished that the sea of blue around Davis’ funeral — and now those of officers Ramos and Liu — would signify something better than a chas
But does it? Or have the examples set by Davis, Liu and Ramos on police forces given the rest of us excuses to rationalize the continuing, calculated, heavily policed and seemingly bottomless isolation of millions of Black men and women? Are economic isolation and social stigmatization still driving some of the isolated — and those who police them — so crazy that it’s a wonder there aren’t even more police killers like those who killed Davis, Liu and Ramos?
Ramos and Wu’s alleged killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, was a perversely politicized, vengeance-crazed Black man. Even the slaying in Ferguson of an unarmed Black teen, Michael Brown, by white officer Darren Wilson has a symbolic but no less telling opposite (Wilson’s nightmare) in another Ferguson – Colin Ferguson, a perversely politicized, vengeance-crazed Black man who, shortly before Christmas of 1993, boarded a suburban Long Island commuter train and shot 23 white passengers, killing six (though none of them cops).
Many New York officers live on Long Island, whose suburban towns their parents or grandparents chose over New York City’s racially changing inner-city neighborhoods and rising Black crime. As Newsday’s Jimmy Breslin put it a day after the Long Island train massacre: “Last night, Brooklyn followed them home.”
Are these officers and prosecutors to blame for provoking their killers’ isolation and rage? Or are they really doing only what our democracy seemingly wants and expects them to do: keep the lid on Blacks and Hispanics who are cheated and sidelined, as the rest of us look the other way and disclaim responsibility – an evasion that seems easier to some whenever a Brinsley or a Colin Ferguson explodes?
In a strange irony, Charles Davis probably reinforced white innocence because he was a generous cop, popular with other officers and with residents of the Queens neighborhood where he supervised youth basketball games and a club for kids who might want to join the NYPD. His large presence, sharp eye and caring strengthened the community policing that had helped to cut New York City’s murder rate in half in less than five years, to below 1,000 for the first time in three decades. (By 2013, that number would plummet to just over 300, and this year it may be even lower, notwithstanding predictable predictions of doom 11 months ago by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that Mayor Bill De Blasio’s curbing of excessive NYPD “stop and frisk” practices would unleash mayhem.)
Blue On Black
But if Davis’ blue uniform and the blue sea at his funeral signified something better than Black-versus-white, that equation took a perverse turn as Queens District Attorney Richard Brown orchestrated the indictment of 19-year-old George Bell, a stock boy at Old Navy who lived with his mother and had no criminal background, and two other Black men, as Davis’ killers. A recent Nation magazine review of the case by Hannah Riley, a former researcher at the Innocence Project and a student of criminology at the University of Cambridge, raises serious doubts that the men convicted and still in prison for killing Davis were really his murderers.
D.A. Brown’s zeal in convicting them may have been fortified by the fact that Davis’ wife had been an assistant district attorney, albeit in another jurisdiction. But all prosecutors who face high-profile, highly charged cases have other, more-powerful incentives to “resolve” them irresponsibly. New Yorkers would be reminded of that in 2002, when the four Black men and one Hispanic man who’d been convicted and imprisoned in 1989 amid public outrage over the infamous assault and rape of the Central Park Jogger were released after years of unjustified incarceration after the real assailant confessed.
Such things happen partly because D.A.s win reelection by pandering to angry, frightened voters’ hunger for revenge and because police officers are literally the prosecutors’ comrades in arms and their witnesses before grand juries and in open trials. (The over-zealous assistant prosecutors and detectives complicit in both the Central Park jogger and Davis cases were women, by the way.) But Hannah Riley has found a would-be whistle-blower in retired NYPD detective Pete Fiorillo, who had been pleased at first to see Giuliani touting the work of other detectives in the case and who’d had, as he put it, “no intention of looking at it for the purpose of taking it apart.”
“But the more he learned,” Riley explains, “the more his doubts grew until he became convinced that the investigation and trial were irredeemably flawed. ‘This case represents a total breakdown of the criminal justice system from the bottom to the top: the police that investigated this case; the DA that prosecuted the case; the judge that tried all three cases,’ said Fiorillo. ‘They just didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.’”
Giuliani, himself an infamously zealous former prosecutor, told the public after Davis’ murder that, “If you shoot and kill a New York City police officer, the Police Department is going to catch you, they’re going to find you, usually in a short period of time, and then at a minimum you’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail. And in this particular situation, it’s quite possible you’ll get executed.”
The word “execution” had a dark double-entendre here, giving the “blue over black” equation another perverse twist: Prosecutorial railroading involves not only beguiling or coercing helpless and apparently hopeless young Black men into confessions and eventual convictions, and not just complicity by grand juries whose secrecy sanitizes such orchestrations. It also involves finding excuses for officers who are spared indictment time and again — even after summarily executing unarmed and even unresisting Black men and, in some cases, women.