From my early days as a wide-eyed Bed-Stuy newbie, I recall the brigade of police officers that manned the street corners daily.
Clad in blue, with their batons resting and guns holstered, they said, “We are here,” without having to utter a word.
The corners no longer look like occupied territory. But I often see them leisurely walking about the neighborhood. Back then, officers told me it was a “high-impact zone.” But the neighborhood's residents offered an alternative explanation: Gentrification.
As Bed-Stuy becomes more racially and economically diverse, residents report a more visible police presence. Do police increase enforcement because the demographics have changed? Are there greater incentives now to make Bed-Stuy safer and more attractive for newcomers? Or does the way Bed-Stuy residents engage law enforcement play a significant role?
One officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that “gentrifiers” have higher expectations for the neighborhood and engage police differently than most native residents:
“People moving in are far more educated and in positions where they can reach the higher-ups,” said a 16-year NYPD vet.
“When white people come in, they bring more money, which gives the city more resources. They also complain, write, speak up, and say ‘we have a problem over here.’ White people are going to file complaints; black people aren’t.”
“If black people would stand up for themselves instead of waiting for someone else to speak up, instead of thinking, ‘I’m not going to snitch,’ things could be better. White people are like, [forget] that no snitch business.”
But is it as easy as this officer makes it seem?
Historically, black people in urban communities have had an adversarial relationship with police, which explains why they do not engage the cops in the same manner. Additionally, black men have been and continue to be stopped and harassed at a disproportionate rate.
Even the officer acknowledged this reality. He admitted that there are good cops and bad cops, and that the academy training has a lot to do with the way police officers engage the community.
“The first thing you learn is, us against them – the blue wall. You get brainwashed into thinking that everyone is bad," he said. Recognizing the seeming invincibility of officers he admitted, "As a cop, you have a lot of power-- the power to take someone’s life. You can get away with anything, if you can articulate it properly. Probable cause is everything.”
He recalled an incident where he was making an arrest in plainclothes and it was called in as a robbery-in-progress, and the suspect was a black male, 6’1” with a gun. As armed officers approached him, he shouted, “Plainclothes unit on the scene!” Stating his name, he was forced to explain, “It’s me!”
A fellow officer, who he went to academy with and worked out with frequently, pointed the gun at him and prepared to shoot.
“All he could see was male…black…gun…immediate threat,” the officer recalled. Once the situation diffused, his colleague said, “I was going to shoot you.”
As he sat there telling the story, wearing a t-shirt, dark hoodie, blue jeans and sneakers. I could see how the black, plainclothes cop turned into a perpetrator.
So if Bed-Stuy residents find themselves on the other end of unwarranted harassment, what should they do?
“If a police officer stops and searches you without probable cause, get the badge number and file a complaint with CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board.),” he said. Following through with a complaint is the key, he advised.
Achieving a successful community-policing program in inner-city neighborhoods has proven difficult. How do we heal the wounds of division that reside between communities of color and the police?
Do we all have the power to hold police accountable, yet only some of us use it? Are police in Bed-Stuy to protect and serve all, and is the “no-snitch” rule hurting the community far more than it is helping it?
Sylvia A. Harvey (SAH) is a freelance journalist: she can be reached at www.sylviaaharvey.com