How the NYPD Gets Away With It

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S1: Hey, everyone. We drop a couple of F bombs in this episode, so get those earmuffs ready.

S2: ProPublica editor Eric Romanski lives in one of those New York neighborhoods you see on TV, the ones with well manicured stoops and a lot of good places to eat. It’s called Carroll Gardens.

S1: But in the last few months, he’s been thinking about the way the cheerful facades all around him, separate people suddenly cutting off the white residents from the black ones. The segregation. It can be hard to see because everyone lives so close together. But it’s there. You can quantify it where I am.

S3: I actually looked up our census track, which is just a few blocks directly around me. Three black residents. Three, three.

S2: Whoa. Eric’s been thinking about this since last year, Halloween night. Ironically, it is one of the days the neighborhood feels like it isn’t segregated. Kids from all over pack the streets looking for those big candy bars. There’s a parade. But last Halloween, Erik’s wife and daughter, Sarah and Alice, they saw a scene they just couldn’t shake.

S3: You know, it was this like bucolic Halloween scene and night, then all of a sudden, Sarah and Dallas police cars sort of swarming together, including a police car going the wrong way up. Quite shrewd, which is a one way street.

S4: My family also saw these kids running who were clearly running away from the police. And at one point, a kid sort of jumped out into the street to keep running. And this NYPD car zoomed in, hit. It didn’t seem to hit him purposely. The kid sort of popped out, but it definitely hit him.

S5: Did your wife have this moment of did that really just happen right in front of me?

S4: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, it’s like our six year old kid, right. Who is, like, really scared. She get scared very easily. But then the kid got up and ran away, actually. Then the cops turn their attention to these other kids. And the who were around there didn’t seem to have anything to do with the group of kids that they had been going after. They were younger. They weren’t together. The only thing they did have in common was that they were black.

S6: The cops put this other group of kids up against the wall of a neighborhood movie theater, pointed weapons at them.

S5: How are these kids reacting to all this? Because you mentioned they were young.

S3: Yeah, they were. So as young as 12, they were freaked out. You know, imagine what your kids with tackled and thrown up against a wall. And Sarah said, you know, one of them was crying, being like, what did I do? The cops were like, well, you have a baseball bat to one of them. And he was like, yeah, this is part of a costume.

S1: Eric’s wife rushed their daughter home. But when they walked in the door, she told Eric, I think you need to go back. Find out what’s going on here.

S3: So I. So I went out.

S5: How did you think of yourself in that moment? Who. Who were you?

S3: I think I was a mix right at once. A journalist and all journalists have the like, oh, gee, this is a potential story. An interesting story or something important. But I was also like, what the fuck? A cop car went down the wrong way of a one way street that was crowded with kids on Hawsawi. And it hit somebody and like, what actually is happening here?

S6: Today on the show, what Eric discovered when he tried to answer that question. He ended up getting an up close view of the broken police system, the protesters around the country and now the world are rallying to fix.

S7: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: When Eric left his home in Carroll Gardens that Halloween night, he didn’t know he was starting a month long reporting project, one that would dovetail with the moment we’re in right now. He just wanted to go see what was happening. Bear witness to this incident that scared his daughter and worried his wife. Apparently, the cops had been investigating reports that a teen had been beat up in a park, had his cell phone stolen. But whoever was involved in all that, these weren’t the teens that the cops had drawn weapons on and made stand against the wall at the local movie theater. So what happened next? You go out on the street to kind of see what’s happening when you get there, what happens.

S3: So they had let two of the kids go. Maybe because or not that they had family who were there with them, which sort of shows how random it is.

S5: Like if you have an adult there to kind of represent for you, like, OK, you can go home. But if you’re here by yourself, not so much.

S3: Yeah. So the kids had already when I got there, the kids had already been put in a police van. But then what I saw and I was just like one of the mothers of the kid who had been one of the kids who had been questioned and released because he was because the mom was there, was trying to get the kids, was sort of 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.

S5: Totally natural thing to do.

S3: 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 to share their phone numbers. Why? 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 kid’s phone numbers and started yelling at her thing wide.

S5: Shut the fuck up.

S3: And it was bad enough that a commanding officer with a call like a white shirt, you know, it’s like some senior officer because they really wear white shirts and they literally wear white shirts. Went up to that cop who’s plainclothes, by the way, went up to him and pulled him away. And then the kids were brought to the precinct. Actually, the truth is, I then went home. At that point, I didn’t know where they were going. I know I went home, but I had given my phone number to one of the kids who had been questioned but not arrested. And ten minutes after I got home, I actually got face time call from him being like we went. They took the kids to the police precinct, which is again, this is all very close. Right. Which is a couple blocks away. Yeah. Yeah. Saying, you know, we brought the kids, they brought the kids to the police precinct. And I’m here and the kids families are here. You should come here. They’re not letting us see the kids. And you just come here.

S5: I love that he called you. I know that he knew. I called this guy. This guy.

S3: He may feel like he’s not he’s like a mights grade maybe. So he’s going into 10th grade now if he didn’t want to be in the story. But I was just texting him yesterday saying, like, you know, if you hadn’t done that, there would have never been a story.

S1: When Eric got to the station house, the scene was even more upsetting somehow. 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.

S5: And we should remind people the ages of these kids, we’re talking a 12 year old, a 15 year old. Like when my kid, who’s now twelve, does like anything in school, I get a call about it. You know, I think the parents are used to when the government is dealing with your child, when an institution is dealing with your child. The institution is speaking to you. Yeah. There is no institution speaking to.

S8: One of the dads was like kept expressing worry that his son had school the next day. It was getting later and later that there was just something about that that kind of hammered home. Are just black kids at home? Kids were held for hours. They weren’t released until after midnight. Right. Yeah. They weren’t released until close to one o’clock.

S3: And at one point, a another officer came out and basically said, look, we know these kids didn’t do this. This is like 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, you know, they just said you can go to. That’s it. No record of any of it.

S1: Eric took all his reporting from that awful Halloween night and decided to release it on Twitter. See if anybody else saw what he saw. And he got a message back from the CCRA be the Civilian Complaints Review Board. They look over the NYPD and they told Eric they were looking into the matter.

S3: And I was like, oh, great. This is great. I’m ready. It was so easy. The stories at work getting get democracy at work. My work here is done. Thank you all very much. I’m glad I could help. And then I talked to somebody from the CCR beat just to tell me, like, how does this work? And he was like, OK, so 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 when where he wants to do. It’s just like, 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.

S5: They have no authority.

S3: Essentially, they essentially have no authority. And then the more I dug into it, the more I understood that the NYPD has those kind of roadblocks and complete discretion built into the system. So to take one example, body cameras. Right. Which a number of the cops did have that night. It’s standard equipment for uniformed officers in the NYPD. And the CCR be the civilian oversight board. 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 and can say it’s not relevant, can do whatever it wants and can take its time. A thousand requests from the CCR B have been waiting for more than three months with officers involved in what happened that night.

S5: Were you able to figure out if they’d been disciplined at all before?

S3: So that was a quite literally a state secret. Until about two weeks ago, New York had this law. Some listeners may have heard of this hold 50 a it made it illegal to disclose any discipline information about police officers, quite literally illegal. So one of the other things about CCR BS reports is all you would know is if a complaint had been substantiated. Basically, this oversight board says, yeah, you know, we investigated, we found it happened. We can’t tell you if there was any discipline. We even didn’t have power to give that 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.

S5: Does that change make you hopeful after having been through this reporting process over the last few months?

S3: It’s a change and it’s a significant change. But I will say that transparency is different than accountability. One of the things that I really understood in a way that I had not before is it’s not just about that secrecy and the secrecy was the problem. It’s also about the complete discretion that the NYPD has over discipline. I mean, what it really amounts to is who’s really in charge of the NYPD?

S1: The answer to that question, who is in charge of the NYPD became clear to Eric. The more he dug into this story from Halloween, the NYPD is in charge of the NYPD.

S3: You can see it in the statement the police department provided to him about the incident that night, like what might have been actually the single most shocking moment to me was when NYPD spokesman, former journalist who, by the way, former New York Times cops reporter, he called me after I had been digging into it, after I had spoken to multiple witnesses who saw the car hit. The kid who said to me, OK, this is our statement. The kid, a unidentified male, ran over the hood of a stationary NYPD vehicle. Do you think it was laughable? I told him it was laughable. I had this whole conversation where I said, oh, you’re really clear with you. I have four people, including my wife, who saw this. And 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, look, I’m going to call you up. And he said, in not so many words, I can do it. You know, he didn’t say this, but it was the reality. Like, doesn’t matter. Right? The only way you would say that is if if you’re not going to be held to account.

S1: And as for the kids that got detained that Halloween night, Eric says the fallout for them is still unclear.

S3: First of all, they wouldn’t say that they were innocent. Right. That not in any official way. They wouldn’t say. And I spoke to the mom of one of them who said, you know, they’ll never admit that they’re wrong. So it was this sort of mastery of, frankly, evasion, because what they would do was they would say, well, it’s an ongoing investigation, we’re not going to say. And in fact, I spoke to the ah, I heard from the commander of the precinct at one point who basically began to say at one point, you know, 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, what they charged. Well, they said that they charged them with something called obstructing government administration. What is that? So obstructing. I had the same question. What the hell is obstructing government administration? It basically means resisting arrest. Right. Like 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, well, they ran away now from an unmarked car, from an unmarked car and a plainclothes policemen. But they. So because they’re minors. There’s a central city office that needs to deal with charges. So I. 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 yet. And what’s more, I followed up with the parents afterword. And I was like said, did the kids get charge now? No, nothing ever. Nothing ever happened.

S5: So how do you think of this is just some kind of, like, ask covering move?

S3: I think that that’s one clear possibility.

S1: Huh. After pushing to figure out the NYPD side of the story and hitting so much resistance. Eric wanted to talk to the other people involved in this incident, the boys who were detained. Eventually, he got one of the boys to talk on the record, a kid named Dvorin.

S3: He’s this very sort of soft spoken kid agreed to speak with me basically because like his mom and the head of his school, you asked him to be the head of the school, pointed out to me the difference. You know, she double checked, never had any discipline or suspension issues at school. And when she said that we were all sitting down, Devon said, yeah. I never even get in trouble at all.

S5: When you met with Devon. His mom was there. With sheep pursuing some kind of complaint process with the police department.

S3: So here’s a crazy fact, she said to me, first of all, she pointed out how traumatized not just Devon has been, but she has been. She makes Devon call him when he goes down to the corner store because she’s worried about him being outside. And so she said, you know, I’ve been able to get some help, though. I get some counseling through work. And I said, oh, do you mind if I ask what kind of work you do? I said, well, I work in school safety. I said, well, OK. Was that mean? She said, I’m a school safety officer. And I said, Oh, well, where? And she said in Brooklyn. And I happen to know because my kids go to public school. Every school has a school safety officer and they are NYPD cops. So I was like, do you work for the NYPD? Your answer was, yes, I do. So Difference Mom is a officer herself, works in schools and among other things, therefore knows exactly how the system works. So she’s been trying to get records. You know, she was sort of referring to this sixty one report. And also, I don’t know what a sixty one report is, just like, hey. I’m telling you, I know this exists and that exists. And she being able to get anything, anything. And she’s particularly worried because she’s worried that Deferent has some record in the system. Right. And if he gets stopped again and the cop puts his name in the system, this thing’s going to pop up. Right. And then there’s another problem. And yet, at the same time, she has no access to any of it. She told me, look, you know, I have no records. I have no paperwork. All I have is the story. And when she she went to a number of lawyers to because she’s been thinking about suing and a bunch of them told her. Well, what do you got? Right. Like what? What what’s the evidence? She said, I don’t have any evidence. And they said, well, this is going to be really hard.

S5: So something that seems minor to the NYPD by all evidence from how they’ve spoken about it with you, is this major not just trauma, but concern for this woman and her family?

S3: Yes. I mean, it’s an ongoing thing. She she told me we checked in a few days ago. She told me that Devon was saying the kid loves basketball and was playing basketball. And by the way, this is the pandemic. So he had just started being able to do it again. And he said he called her and said, Mom, there are a bunch of police here who are just taking her out, but should I go home? What should I do? And, you know, it was worse. She said, keep playing basketball. But, you know, that’s what he’s dealing with and that’s what he’s doing.

S5: Kind of like it stands out to me, like your whole story begins with I saw a kid get hit by a cop car. But we never even find out what happened to that kid. There’s so many people touched by this night that we don’t know what happened.

S3: Yeah, I actually happen to know who that kid is and he’s not interested in talking, but, you know, I can’t really blame.

S9: Eric Romanski, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you guys for having me. Eric Hermansky is the deputy managing editor over at ProPublica.

S6: And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewitt. We are led everyday by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery tomorrow. Stay tuned to this feed for what next TBD. Henry Gabbar will be filling in for Lizzie O’Leary. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back here on Monday.