Empathy For Police Officers and Criminals Alike

Being so close to the criminal justice system this summer has made clear to me many of the inefficiencies that are on the N.Y.P.D. level. I think back to one of my first investigations that took place in a Harlem N.Y.C.H.A. building that participates in the N.Y.P.D. “cleans hallways” program. The client was leaving a friend’s apartment and was stopped by police on his way out and accused of trespassing. Putting aside the many problems with having cops patrolling in the hallways of apartment buildings, this issue could have been resolved fairly quickly with a few questions such as “who were you visiting? Which apartment? Can they vouch for you?” Without saying that the police should be there in the first place, we can at least can say it’s the most efficient way to determine if the person is trespassing. Had this happened when my client was stopped, he could have brought the cops to the third floor, knocked on his friend’s door, had the friend come out, and had her explain that she lives there and that the client is always welcome. This would have wasted five minutes instead of however much time and money gets collectively wasted on a case like that. The police, however, did not take that route, they assumed guilt despite the client’s pleas to take the officer up to his friend’s apartment so that he could prove his innocence. Furthermore, while this was happening in the lobby, one of the client’s other friends who was visiting the same resident, and had stayed a little longer, came down to exit the building and saw what was happening. The cops allowed the client to hand over his skateboard and cell phone to the friend, effectively acknowledging that they knew each other and that the exiting friend was not breaking the law. This alone should have been enough to believe that the client was visiting a tenant of the building and not trespassing.
I didn’t really know how to explain this series of events. Was the arresting officer truly that much of a moron? I certainly didn’t believe that, even a small child could have put the logic together. Was the arresting officer out to get my client in particular? Probably not, if that were the case my client would have been inclined to say that he knows the officer or that they have some kind of negative connection. Was the officer out to get poor people or black people? Maybe, but why? Is he a racist or a truly evil person? Unlikely, because this sort of thing happens across the city so consistently, according to my attorneys, that I would have to assume almost every officer is racist and evil, which seems pretty unreasonable; this is a serious problem with minority officers as well. He may, however, have been out to get people for another reason. This summer I learned about the N.Y.P.D. quota system and it got me thinking. If an officer has to make an arrest to keep up his numbers and there is no one to arrest legitimately, what should he do? My initial reaction was to think that he should maintain his integrity and arrest no one in that situation. What if it effects his career and therefore his ability to support his family? I wouldn’t call a drug dealer who’s trying to support his starving family a terrible person. I wouldn’t call him a great person either because a great person would probably overcome obstacles and support his family in another, more legitimate way but, by definition, not everyone can be a great person. What if that drug dealer is not a great person? Let’s say they’re not smart enough or they lack the confidence; they’re average. What if they’re just like the cop in that they’re not willing to put their integrity above their family’s health and safety. Most people are brought up to believe that putting your family first is the most important thing. However, many people are also brought up to believe that drug dealers and unethical police officers are bad people. There are clearly philosophical issues with supporting impoverished criminals but not everyday police officers. Both groups, in my opinion, are victims of circumstance and institutional flaws.
I have no disdain for the officer who arrested our client in that lobby because I don’t know for sure that he could have done the admirable thing in that type of situation on a consistent basis and still taken care of his family. Maybe he’s just an asshole, that’s a definite possibility. Maybe every drug dealer on that block is a greedy pig who wants to see his community suffer while he counts his cash, that’s also a possibility too. Neither of those possibilities are proven and I can’t condemn one and not the other without being biased and unjust. Coming to this conclusion helped further my understanding that wrongdoing is often a result of circumstances, whether it be NYPD policies set by the highest bureaucrats or extreme poverty that’s been passed down for generations. Going back to the issue of the Eric Gardner’s death: before the officers chocked him out while he said he couldn’t breath, the officers made a decision to go after someone who clearly was not committing a crime. What caused them to do that and who’s fault is it that they did? I still don’t know. I was happy to see the Legal Aid attorney-in-chief describe Mr. Garner’s death as “a sad commentary on the N.Y.P.D. because it made clear that the institution is at fault. I think the individuals are also at fault and I’m glad Mr. James spoke on their liability as well, but to single them out without also blaming the institution for its role wouldn’t have sat well with me.

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