Commentary: A Disturbance Built on a Tense Relationship With Police

The recent unrest in Brooklyn between police and young people over the death of Kimani Gray, killed by officers, has roots in mutual suspicion.

Posted: 03/13/2013 03:11 PM EDT

There is an unsettled relationship between the police and New York City’s young African-American and Latino citizens that is steeped in deep suspicion and mistrust. It is easily seen anytime a police officer so much as walks near a young New Yorker, when a car is pulled over, when words are exchanged.

It is precisely that mistrust that has led to igniting a gathering of young people in Brooklyn recently that turned dangerously raucous.

As many now know, there was a police shooting of an armed teenager on a dark street in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Then came a group of young people who gathered to conduct a vigil for the deceased teenager. The Monday night event grew unruly and the unrest continued into the following night.

The police said that two plainclothes officers shot and killed 16-year-old Kimani Gray after the teenager produced and pointed a gun at them. Raymond Kelly, the New York City Police commissioner, said that not only did the officers tell Gray not to move, but that there were witnesses who corroborated that account.

To many, the adamant police description of a justifiable homicide rings hollow and insignificant. Since then, there have been accounts that contradict the police version of events.

To say there is mistrust of the police in that area would be an understatement. That is one of the byproducts of the police department’s policy of stop-and-frisk, an initiative championed by Kelly and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Under that policy, hundreds of thousands of young New Yorkers — overwhelmingly Black and Latino — are stopped every year on the streets of New York City. Most often, they are detained by officers who use the coarsest of language as they rifle through the clothes of those whom they stop, offering not a work of explanation. In nearly nine of 10 cases, the practice leads to no discovery of wrongdoing and no charges being filed.

In 2011, nearly 700,000 New Yorkers were stopped by police. The pace has continued through 2012 and into this year. The policy, which leaves young Black and brown New Yorkers humiliated, demeaned and angry, has become part of the culture of life in the nation’s largest city.

Can there be any wonder that the streets of Brooklyn would become a place of turbulence?

Yet, it is a practice that the Bloomberg administration continues to defend as a hallmark of its crime-fighting strategy. Keeping New York City safe requires such measure, Kelly and Bloomberg said.

If so, it will ever be accompanied by the kind of suspicion that fueled the disturbances of East Flatbush. And unless the city’s leaders begin to accept that stop-and-frisk is a policy that is little more than sanctioned racial profiling, such hostilities will ever be a part of the city’s landscape.

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(Photo: REUTERS/Gary Hershorn)

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