by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department
The New York Police Department announced on Thursday that it has established new and unprecedented guidelines governing the use of force, and perhaps more importantly, the reporting and recording of each instance in which an NYPD officer uses force, whether or not it results in an actual arrest. According to The New York Times, not only will the use of force during incidents resulting in lawful arrests be reported and investigated, “but also in other encounters with the public, including the sort of brief, violent detention and release that occurs routinely on the street.”
Huh? This raises at least two questions: In what universe are the police routinely engaging in violent encounters and detentions with the public on the street that result in that one-time “suspect” being released without arrest and criminal charge? On what legal basis was the stop initiated in the first place? James Blake, the African American tennis star who was attacked and thrown to the ground by an NYPD officer in September, is an example of just such a “brief, violent detention.” These “encounters” (assaults) apparently occur with such frequency in New York City that it is only now, in 2015, after an attack on a celebrity former professional athlete attending the U.S. Open, that these incidents of “rough police play” are even seen as worthy of being recorded and investigated.
Any encounter or stop on the street between a police officer and a member of the public that results in a “violent” detention, no matter how brief, where there is no reasonable suspicion or probable cause that results in an arrest is a de facto instance of excessive force. Without doubt, there will be rare and infrequent instances where officers strongly believe that they have the reasonable suspicion or probable cause required to make a legal stop on the street and in so doing see their suspicions dispelled upon further investigation. The police may even see the need to use some level of force in making the stop.
But the routinization of the use of violence by the police in New York City in making street stops of innocent and law abiding citizens like Mr. Blake is troubling, as it should be. The world saw what the NYPD did to Mr. Blake; what we have not witnessed are the no doubt hundreds of thousands of other instances during the past several years of men, women and children of color being knocked down, bundled, tackled, beaten and then unceremoniously sent on their way without arrest or charge by the NYPD.