POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY AND VIGILANT CITIZENS
Rather than looking at a specific activist group, our team looked at a civic and civil liberties issue, and created our own affinity group to deal with it directly. We began with the persistent problem of the NYPD’s Stop & Frisk policy. This problem is complex and layered, and is felt at the largest institutional level with Police Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg as well as on the street with citizens’ direct contact with individual officers. This issue is known and addressed in a variety of ways. There is currently a Coalition Against Stop & Frisk that is made up of nearly 30 organizations and community groups including Center for Constitutional Rights, CopWatch.com and the Bronx Defenders. h
The groups and initiatives that exist do a variety of things. Some focus on community organizing, planning marches and rallies, while some work on changing laws and policies. Some provide legal services while some feature images and footage of aggressive stops. While many others aggregate news and editorials about Stop & Frisk.
However, there were not any useful, transparent, community-based indices of who the policemen are. We felt it would benefit the community to facilitate larger dialogue around the direct impact the NYPD has had on the people they serve and protect. That is why we fabricated an independent website concept that would be a place for people to safely comment on their experiences with officers and precincts. There has been some commentary recently that 2-way communication is missing from contemporary policing of high crime neighborhoods.
Beat cops used to walk the streets and observe, interact and relate to local residents at a speed and frequency that is less efficient from an accounting perspective. However, bean counting is probably not the only reason that cops don’t breathe in the tenor of their beat in the same way. A disconnect between the officers and those whom they police has been systematically engineered to create a culture of dominance and as a result, oppression. By assigning officers who reside in far away neighborhoods, the police department atrophies the collective and individual empathy officers feel when they deal with residents. There is also a trend in assigning rookies, often more physical and impetuous than veterans, to the rougher neighborhoods. There are other attributes of this institutionalized dynamic. Quotas on 250’s (Stop and Frisk reports) have inspired/pressured cops toward this practice. In contrast, excessive stats in violent and street related crime have seen officers displacing arrests(and complaints) to neighboring precincts with lower stats. Accusations that officers have been intimidating victims out of making reports, and occasionally failing to file reports are materializing with frequency. These examples don’t begin to address elements of corruption and extra-legal activity within or by members of the police department.
Our website would function as both a repository and a portal to available information, legal aid and testimonials about individual officers. The site would have provisions for learning who all the uniformed officers in a precinct are, with a searchable index of court cases, internal investigations, collar stats, documented complaints and other publicly available relevant data that police generate. In addition to these items, there would be a space for “users” to comment socially and critically of their experiences with the officers. There are a lot of details in police interaction that are not illegal, but have a negative impact on the people they engage. This negative impact is the element we feel is at the root of problematic relationship between the police and the policed.
Our primary goal is to affect police behavior with the looming threat of having their words and actions publicized. Almost any degree of improvement would be seen as progress. A secondary goal is cultural climate change in the community. The citizens would feel that having an outlet for expression could not only relieve some of the tension, but also tighten their communities. Local unity is a positive way to connect people with each other and hold themselves accountable for their actions while also fortifying their defenses against targeted abuse.
The strengths in this program range in scale from macro to micro. If you don’t have the education, resources or liberty to affect change in the experiences you endure, then your connection to civic responsibility and positivity are low. If you can’t contribute information or testimony to a court case because of intimidation or fear of losing your job, place in school, children, home or citizenship, then you are being cheated of your right and obligation to civic duty. Often times seemingly unrelated details of your life exempt you from testifying in any official way. Contributing to this site would be empowering. Identifying your police officers is an easier way to relate to them when they are in your space. And though it may sound naive, knowing and identifying officers on the street (officers who do not abuse the people’s trust) helps people empathize with them to some degree. At the very least, it fosters an environment where mutual respect is possible.
Information is power. Knowing your rights is essential. Knowing what resources are available to you is essential. And knowing who, why and how many people have had similar experiences as you have can be just as important. Our site offers a space to satisfy those needs in an environment that is unique. The nature of the site affords it fluidity with other social media like Twitter or Facebook, or as was suggested in class, Yelp and Craigslist. There are different vehicles for information and message dissemination, and the site functions as a home to which all those roads can point back.
The weaknesses of this site rest primarily in the elements that can’t be controlled. Like all anonymously commented spaces, this site would be naturally porous to trolling. From short-sighted, immature or vindictive personalities as well as from adversaries and agents provocateur. Another weakness would be any legal, departmental or governmental push-back. There are obvious interests to be protected, and some possible legal points of contention. Many righteous initiatives have been snuffed or curtailed because they were framed in a perspective that their existence not only kept law enforcement agencies from doing their jobs, but also because they claimed to pose a threat to the safety of officers.
Less a weakness than an obstacle, is the discussion about how to provide opportunity, if not parity for both criticism and praise. This was heavily debated in our group, in class and with colleagues with whom we’ve shared our project. I’ve always felt that a strong way to support and validate criticism of the status quo is to juxtapose it against the foil of recognizing positive action. It is possible for good behavior to exist within a police force where bad behavior is common. But there is no expectation that the volume and character of positive and negative comments will be equal. So how do we provide a space for praise without weakening the credibility of the critique? I have reservations about predicting confidently how this site will work and succeed. I’m inclined to build and promote the environment with flexibility to adjust and change. I think the power and gravity of the best commentary will inspire more of the same on both sides.
I love the suggestions in class about stimulating awareness and narrative with clever, potentially viral appropriations of social media. But I think the stickiest, most powerful initiative that we can do, is to retrieve and cull as much concrete information about individual police with known bad behavior. We don’t need to start with “from the street” testimonials of what a bully someone is. That will be supporting narrative that connects the victims to each other. But if you begin with official data, there is less conjecture, and more interpretation. The inspiration for this format comes from sites like Little Sis and Open Government. These sites function similar to wikis, and without comments, and I think that really works for them. But I believe a similar format could work with commentary, imagery and testimonial as well.
The obvious opposition to this site would come from the NYPD, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association of the City of New York and the Mayor’s Office. All three groups have repeatedly voiced support for methodology, rejected transparency and promoted the notion that the NYPD is an unparalleled, dominating force that should be feared... for the good of the city and its communities. A large scale, transparent, available assessment of their legally documented behavior would disrupt the status quo on its own. External review and conversation about that behavior, perceived within the framework of its consistency and coordination, would appear more epidemic, even without editorialization. This could catalyze dissent and response in an unexpected volume and frequency. And unpredictable responses are threats to the status quo that the city is dedicated to marginalizing.
Their strengths are obvious. With “over 34,000 uniformed officers” the Mayor has openly boasted that the NYPD is “the seventh biggest army in the world.” The NYPD has a militaristic surveillance and counter-insurgency apparatus that includes, but is not limited to 6 submarine drones, LRADs, the Domain Awareness System, and known coordination with the CIA and DHS. Their strength comes in the form of resources, impunity and intimidation. These strengths are evident at every level and scale of engagement.
Their weaknesses are the “herding cats” platitude and the Dictator’s Dilemma. Quite simply, chasing after every virtual dissenter who is not breaking the law would be like herding cats. It is neither efficient use of resources nor feasible. Rather than seek out the users, they would be better served disabling the source of the signal. The important variable to negotiate, is that they not suffocate discussion so overtly, giving credence to its existence nor stir larger, more powerful protest and awareness from the citizenry.
The way I would probably do this, given their resources and their expectation of citizens’ fickle attention span, would be to debilitate the “brand” reliability of the site. While this could be attacked superficially with positive or oppositional commenting and trolling, I believe that making the site itself unreliable will weaken the user loyalty and expectation of service. If they hacked the site and shut it down, it or something similar would spring up elsewhere. If they openly, vocally called for it’s take down or approached it’s domain host citing illegality, it would stir up vocal community opposition. But if, with their know relationships and governance of internet bandwidth, imposed unpredictable, rolling brown outs of the site, they would hurt users’ expectation that the site was reliable or legitimate. Users would taper off expecting that the site breaks frequently, representing unserious stewardship and reliability. In the process, small parts of data, css and server structure could be broken or disappeared. Not simply an algorithmic bug or virus, but an organic take down of the health and wellbeing of the entity that is the site would, in my opinion, be the most surgically efficient way to combat this civic instrument.
It is interesting to engage in this idea at its current zygote stage. It’s definitely a project that I would like to investigate further. At this point, it’s hard to predict whether it could inspire a sea change, or dangle in the cosmos like an unknown pirate radio channel. Both the conversation and the instrument are volatile. But at its heart, it is an idea inspired by the desire to promote goodness. Idealism is my achilles heel. But I think, even in light of the unexpected uses of social media we have discussed, the potential energy of racially and socioeconomically marginalized people in America gets undervalued. In 2013, technology use is identifiably different from what it was as recently as two years ago. With the steep incline of smart phone ownership in lower income communities, and the data that shows smartphones as the primary internet access point for the same communities, the ability to express oneself is going to be the most ubiquitous challenge to the status quo. And I endorse that.