One summer night in 2012, Luis Paulino was walking around his East New York neighborhood when he came upon a group of police officers surrounding a young black man. Onlookers told him that the young man had been stopped for riding his bike on the sidewalk. But what appeared to Luis to be a minor incident suddenly exploded in violence. “More officers started arriving on the scene,” he recounts. “They continued to beat his legs. Then he was thrown in handcuffs. They maced him; they tazed him.” Standing on the very corner where his own life had changed forever …
One summer night in 2012, Luis Paulino was walking around his East New York neighborhood when he came upon a group of police officers surrounding a young black man. Onlookers told him that the young man had been stopped for riding his bike on the sidewalk. But what appeared to Luis to be a minor incident suddenly exploded in violence. “More officers started arriving on the scene,” he recounts. “They continued to beat his legs. Then he was thrown in handcuffs. They maced him; they tazed him.”
Standing on the very corner where his own life had changed forever on the night of that assault, Luis recalls feeling he couldn’t walk away. “I just wanted to make sure he was all right,” he tells me. “Honestly the kid could have been my brother.”
He certainly could have been.
Over the last decade more than 80 percent of the people stopped by the New York Police Department have been black or Latino. And that’s just in New York. All over the country black people have been stopped, harassed, arrested, injured and even killed at the hands of the police meant to protect them. From Brooklyn to Baltimore, Atlanta to Anaheim, cellphone videos are waking up the rest of the population to the fact that overly aggressive policing is not new in America, especially in black America.
In 1999, four police officers shot Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, 41 times in the doorway of his own apartment after he took out his wallet to show them his identification. Despite huge protests and the blaze of momentary media spotlights, all the officers were acquitted of murder. In downtown Cincinnati in 2001, riots erupted in black neighborhoods after police shot and killed Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old wanted for nonviolent crimes and traffic citations. Just a month earlier, a judge had ruled that law enforcement there needed to be monitored because they discriminated against black people. A string of police shootings of unarmed black men in Oakland — Gary King in 2007, Oscar Grant in 2009, Derrick Jones the following year, Raheim Brown the next — briefly captured the public’s attention. A Miami Herald report focused on Earl Sampson, a black man who had been stopped 258 times and jailed 56 times in four years, all without ever being convicted of a single crime. He worked at a Quick Stop and was often charged with trespassing for taking out the trash. He was among 200 others videotaped by the owner of the convenience store who were stopped by police.
These are just a few random examples of overly aggressive policing in communities of color over the past 15 years. Practices like “stop and frisk,” meant to bring down crime in the inner cities, have only helped destroy the delicate fabric of trust between law enforcement and black and Latino communities.
I have been reporting on the black community my entire career, most recently developing the documentary series Black in America, which illuminates the lives of black Americans from their point of view. Everyone — and I do mean everyone — I interview in the black community has a story about fear of police, usually their own. My newest documentary, Black and Blue, co-directed with Ross Tuttle and Steve Maing, looks at the emotional impact of overly aggressive policing on a personal level, through the stories of young men like Luis Paulino and Keeshan Harley.
Keeshan, a college student, is not even 20 years old but has been stopped and frisked more than 100 times without ever being charged with a single crime. Both men live their lives in the shadow of police patrols in the neighborhoods where they have lived their whole lives. Every day their mothers worry they may wind up in jail, the hospital or the morgue — not due to gang violence or drug trafficking but due to overly aggressive police officers who are supposed to serve and protect their neighborhoods. They are not the Amadou Diallos or the Michael Browns, whose stories of police victimization dominated national news headlines. They are among the thousands of black Americans whose pain goes unnoticed because they survived their encounters with police. Their altercations may not have been captured on the cellphones of bystanders. Their beatings may not have sparked widespread protests led by civil-rights activists, celebrities and politicians. But the stories they tell reflect an experience that has created a corrosive mistrust between black men, particularly young black men, and the police.
Indeed, a recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that 70 percent of black Americans surveyed believed they are treated less fairly by police than whites are. Just 37 percent of white Americans felt the other way. A Gallup poll done a year before reported that 25 percent of young black males said that police had treated them poorly in the last month — the last month.
The controversy over aggressive policing in the black community is not a one-way street, to be sure. Black and Blue also tells the stories of two black police officers who fear the crime-ridden streets they are sworn to patrol. They, like NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and his predecessor, Ray Kelly, believe that practices like “stop and frisk” unearth real criminal elements in neighborhoods riddled with drug- and gang-related violence. As I rode in their patrol cars and walked their beats in neighborhoods like Crown Heights, it became clear that they are equally threatened by the lack of trust among the very people they are meant to protect. This rift is deep and long-lasting.
It started with “broken windows,” a seemingly obvious belief that cracking down on minor crimes would discourage larger ones; according to the metaphor, with broken windows fixed and graffiti cleaned off inner-city walls, a community would feel invested in preserving the quality of life in a neighborhood with social challenges. The black community already had concerns about racial profiling when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly popularized the belief that “broken windows” was responsible for dramatic drops in the crime rate — even though the program was launched as the trafficking of drugs like crack cocaine had been dissipating and incarceration rates skyrocketing.
In reality, inside the black community, “broken windows” meant police stops of young minority men to raise statistics on “effective” policing. Many black people I spoke to in those early years had been battered by crime and wanted to believe the program and tactics like “stop and frisk” would not violate civil rights and would create more peace in their neighborhoods. But the stops escalated, frustration and fear mounted, and no one seemed to listen to the black voices arguing that the policing strategy was not working. Instead of feeling safer, residents felt like they were losing the freedom to walk their own streets.
It took a white woman from a judicial perch to validate what the black community had been saying all along: that the police practice of “stop and frisk” was criminalizing and cracking the psyche of men who were doing nothing wrong. Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in Floyd et al. v. City of New York et al. that the police department had violated the constitution’s guarantee against making unreasonable searches and engaged in racial profiling. She didn’t just rule on police policy; she ended up ruling on the public misperception. She validated the stories of David Floyd, who’d been stopped by police while trying to let a tenant into his apartment with a set of duplicate keys. She believed David Ourlicht, who claimed two officers had held him at gunpoint just because he was sitting on a bench with a friend. Police claimed there had been a report of a gun in the neighborhood, so they’d searched and questioned Ourlicht, lifting him by his belt. But not only was there no gun; there wasn’t even a report of a gun.
NYPD Commissioner Bratton, back for his second term as the city’s top cop, this time under Mayor Bill de Blasio, told me that stops are way down as police are being retrained to patrol dangerous neighborhoods. He is promising a new and genuine commitment to improve the conflict between black and blue.
But trust is harder to repair.
Bratton’s pronouncement that there has been a dramatic decrease in stops has not calmed fears in neighborhoods like Crown Heights. It’s like that old adage that the streets are safe until you are the one who gets mugged. New incidents, however infrequent, fracture that fragile sense of safety and trust. Incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, or Staten Island elicit sudden rage and fear that boils into the streets. Eric Garner, 44, from Staten Island, was accused of selling loose cigarettes. His past, according to police, made him a suspect, although he was not caught in a criminal act. On July 17, police officers swarmed Garner, one of them holding him in an unbreakable chokehold as he was forced to the concrete. It was all captured on video, one of the only self-defense mechanisms available to blacks in inner cities. Under a pile of police officers, Garner can be heard shouting, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Moments later, he was dead.
It’s hard to preach trust to young black and Latino men after seeing that video or countless others from around the country. Luis Paulino certainly can’t trust. Standing on that corner in Crown Heights, with tears in his eyes, he tells me what happened to him the night he stopped to watch the police surrounding the kid pulled over for riding his bike on the sidewalk: “They yelled at me when I got right here, and they said, ‘Stop right there! Where do you think you are going?!'” Five police officers surrounded him; the tallest tried to grab his left arm. Paulino pulled his arm away and started to walk away. “There’s no reason for you to touch me,” he told the officer. But the cops didn’t walk away.
What happened next was captured on a cellphone camera belonging to someone in the crowd. The officers follow him. He turns around and is met by a punch to the face, courtesy of the tallest officer. He falls onto his back and tries to scramble back to his feet. The officers descend on him, punching and slamming him against the pavement as he lies on the ground, covering his head. Voices on the cellphone recording scream out repeatedly, “He didn’t do nothing! He didn’t do nothing!” As the police subdue Paulino, they cuff him, face down on the pavement with his hands behind his back. Then they yank him to his feet by his cuffed arms, his face straining with pain as his limbs bend in ways they are not supposed to.
As it turned out, the crowd was right. He’d done nothing wrong. A judge would later drop all the charges, including the charge of resisting arrest. But Paulino, a former football player, suffered torn rotator cuffs in the incident and continues to struggle through painful hours of physical therapy. His life has changed forever.
“What would have happened if there was no video?” I ask him.
“There wouldn’t have been anything but my word against 15 police officers,” he says.
And that is precisely the problem. Without video, the word of victims like Luis Paulino means little in the face of policies like “stop and frisk,” aimed at reducing crime in America’s inner cities. Video lends credibility to these victims’ claims but does nothing to restore their faith and trust in law enforcement. And law enforcement officers, including those of color, often live in fear of the mistrust of the very neighborhoods they are sworn to protect.
But young men like Luis Paulino, Keeshawn Harley, and even Amadou Diallo have nowhere to turn when they are being assaulted — not by criminals but by the cops. It’s not like they can dial 9-1-1.
Black in America: Black and Blue airs on CNN tonight, Nov. 18, at 9 p.m. EST.