By Samali Bikangaga. A rally against police violence at City Hall in early August.
By Samali Bikangaga. A rally against police violence at City Hall on Aug. 1.

Assemblyman says residents should press Bratton’s successor to implement reforms

While attending a block party at a NYCHA complex in Claremont in mid-July, Assemblyman Michael Blake stumbled into a problem he says is symptomatic of the way police treat African-Americans.

When Blake noticed a group of officers surrounding a woman in handcuffs in front of the complex, he approached them to inquire about the incident. He says a heated argument suddenly broke out nearby between a man and a woman, so he rushed over to mediate what he feared was about to become a violent incident.

Blake says he then felt himself being “bear-hugged, lifted off the ground and slammed against the gate,” by an officer from the 44th Precinct. He was taken to the precinct but later released when another officer recognized him as an elected official.

“If it can happen to me, a young black male elected official, it can happen to anybody,” said Blake, adding, “It is another reminder of incidents that happen everyday between communities of color and law enforcement.”

The NYPD has a very different take. They say Blake approached a sergeant from behind and put his hand on the officer’s shoulder without identifying himself, so the cop responded defensively.

Blake contends he wasn’t given time to identify himself. The Assemblyman was taken to the station house for booking, then released, he says, when another officer recognized him as a local elected official.

Blake has since filed an excessive force complaint with the Civilian Complain Review Board, the agency tasked with investigating and disciplining NYPD in such cases, and has asked for a formal apology and a “face-to-face” conversation with the officer. He says he has yet to hear back.

Outgoing NYPD William Bratton subsequently met with Blake, but did not offer an apology. He said in a press conference a day later that the investigation would take about nine months.

“The NYPD has been made aware of Mr. Blake’s allegations and will be conducting a review of the incident,” the NYPD said in a press release. “Any complaints regarding this incident will be thoroughly investigated.”

The incident comes in the midst of heightened tensions around the country between police and urban communities. According to The Counted, a project conducted by British publication The Guardian, that tracks police-on-civilian shootings in the U.S., 640 people have died at the hands of the police so far this year. About a quarter of the victims were black.

The evening of the incident, a coalition of groups led by Millions March NYC and Black Lives Matter gathered in City Hall Park. They had three demands: Bratton’s immediate resignation; the defunding and demilitarization of the police department; and an end to the city’s “broken windows” policing policy, established under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The following day, the first of their wishes came true when Bratton announced his resignation, effective in September. His replacement, James O’Neill, is a thirty-year veteran of the force.

In a statement, Blake wrote that activists should see the change as a chance to push for “comprehensive reform and improvements for training, interactions, use of force, criminal justice and to build a new bond between law enforcement and the community.”

But at least one local activist is skeptical tensions will diminish under new leadership.

“Underneath Bratton’s watch, the NYPD,” had been “losing control and respect from the community,” said Mott Haven CopWatch activist Jose LaSalle, who monitors police activity on the streets of Mott Haven.

In early August, NYPD brass held a press conference to discuss ways to improve relations between cops and communities through neighborhood policing programs such as the Neighborhood Community Officer program. LaSalle said there have to be more fundamental solutions.

“We know the NCO program is not going to bridge the gap between community and police, because it hasn’t been working,” said LaSalle.

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