Last Halloween, Eric Umansky’s family saw an unmarked NYPD car hit a Black teenager in Brooklyn. Then the police turned their attention to another group of kids, also Black, and lined them up against the wall of the neighborhood movie theater, pointing a weapon at one of them. Three boys got arrested. They were 15, 14, and 12 years old.
Apparently the cops were investigating reports that a teen had been beat up in a park and had his cellphone stolen. But whoever was involved in that wasn’t among the teens that the cops rounded up. Umansky, deputy managing editor at ProPublica, set out to investigate what happened to those kids—and ended up on a monthslong reporting project. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, Umansky told me what he learned about the NYPD’s culture of impunity. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: So what happened next?
Eric Umansky: They had let two of the kids go, maybe because they had family who were there with them.
Which sort of shows how random it is. If you have an adult there to represent for you, you can go home. But if you’re here by yourself, not so much.
When I got there, the kids had already been put in a police van. But then one of the mothers of one of the kids who had been questioned and released was yelling at the kids to say, “Give me your parents’ phone numbers, and I’ll call your parents and tell them that you’ve been arrested.” Totally natural thing to do. And one cop stood in front of the window of the van to stop the kids from being able to share their phone numbers.
That’s a good question. There was no explanation at the time. Even more than that, another cop went right up into the face of the woman who was asking for the kids’ phone numbers and started yelling at her.
“Shut the fuck up.” And it was bad enough that a commanding officer, what they call a white shirt, went up to that cop, who’s plainclothes, and pulled him away. And then the kids were brought to the precinct.
The scene at the station was even more upsetting. The families of each of the kids had shown up, but not because they’d been contacted by police. They showed up because friends and neighbors had told them what happened. One person saw something about kids being arrested on a police reporting app and just went to the station. So the families are outside; the kids are inside, under arrest; and no one is sharing any information.
And these kids were 12, 14, and 15. When my kid, who’s now 12, does anything in school, I get a call about it. Parents are used to, when an institution is dealing with your child, the institution is speaking to you.
Yeah. There was no institution speaking to them. One of the dads kept expressing worry that his son had school the next day. It was getting later and later. There was just something about that that kind of hammered home: These are just kids. Kids who were held for hours. They weren’t released until close to 1 o’clock. At one point another officer came out and basically said, “Look, we know these kids didn’t do this. This is an unfortunate thing. We’ve just got to process them for release.” And then it still took more hours. And when the kids were finally released, one of them told me [the police] just said, “You can go now.” That’s it. No record of any of it.
So you took all this information and decided to release it on Twitter, and you got a message back from the CCRB, the Civilian Complaint Review Board. They look over the NYPD. And they said they were looking into the matter.
And I was like, Oh, this is great—already! My work here is done. Thank you all very much. I’m glad I could help. And then I talked to somebody from the CCRB. I was like, “How does this work?” And he was like, “We have the full power to investigate, we totally investigate, we’re an independent agency, and then we make recommendations. Then the police chief gets to decide what he wants to do.” Oh, so you’re an independent agency overseeing the NYPD, and then the NYPD can take your oversight and just decide to give you the finger. They essentially have no authority. And then the more I dug into it, the more I understood that the NYPD has those roadblocks and complete discretion built into the system.
So, to take one example, body cameras, which a number of the cops did have that night. It’s standard equipment for uniformed officers in the NYPD. And the CCRB, the way it gets that footage is it has to send an email request to the NYPD that can decide to fulfill it however it wants, can redact stuff, can say it’s not relevant, can do whatever it wants, and can take its time. A thousand requests from the CCRB have been waiting for more than three months.
The officers involved in what happened that night—were you able to figure out if they’d been disciplined at all before?
So that was quite literally a state secret until about two weeks ago. New York had this law called 50-A that made it illegal to disclose any discipline information about police officers. One of the other things about CCRB’s reports is all you would know is if a complaint had been substantiated or not. Basically, this oversight board says, “We investigated it. We found it happened. We can’t tell you if there was any discipline. We even didn’t have power to give the discipline. And we don’t know or we can’t disclose the officer’s history of complaints.” That has literally just changed as of two weeks ago. And now we can know.
Does that change make you hopeful, after having been through this reporting process over the last few months?
It’s a significant change. But transparency is different than accountability. It’s not just about that secrecy. The secrecy was a problem. It’s also about the complete discretion that the NYPD has over discipline. What it really amounts to is, who’s really in charge of the NYPD?
What might have been the single most shocking moment to me was when [an] NYPD spokesman, a former New York Times cops reporter, called me after I had been digging into it, after I had spoken to multiple witnesses who saw the car hit the kid. [He] said to me, “OK, this is our statement. The kid, an unidentified male, ran over the hood of a stationary NYPD vehicle.”
I told him it was laughable. I had this whole conversation where I said, “Let me be really clear with you. I have four people, including my wife, who saw this. You guys are going to say that that didn’t happen, and I am going to put those facts right against each other. And that’s what you’re going to go with?” I basically said, “I’m going to call you out.” And he said, in not so many words, “Do it.” He didn’t say this, but it was the reality—like, “It doesn’t matter.” The only way you would say that is if you’re not going to be held to account.
What was the fallout for the kids that got detained that Halloween night?
First of all, [the NYPD] wouldn’t say that they were innocent, not in any official way. And I spoke to the mom of one of them who said, “They’ll never admit that they’re wrong.” So it was this mastery of, frankly, evasion, because what they would do was say, “It’s an ongoing investigation. We’re not going to say.” In fact, I heard from the commander of the precinct at one point who basically began to say, “We know they didn’t do it. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I should say that in fact the investigation is ongoing.” And meanwhile, they said that they charged them with something called obstructing government administration.
What is that?
I had the same question. It basically means resisting arrest, getting in the way of police doing their job. So you’re like, well, what the hell did the kids do that got in the way of them doing their jobs? The answer is they ran away. From an unmarked car and a plainclothes policeman.
Because they’re minors, there’s a central city office that needs to deal with the charges. I called that office and I said, “Do you guys have a record of this? Have these kids been charged?” And surprisingly enough, the office came back to me and said, “No, we have no record of this.” And what’s more, I followed up with the parents afterward. I was like, “So did the kids get charged?” No. Nothing ever happened.
So do you think this is just some kind of ass-covering move?
I think that that’s one clear possibility.