Activists Demand Sweeping Reforms to NYPD after Garner Death
December 7, 2014
Ned Resnikof / Al Jazeera America & Ranjani Chakraborty & Sheila MacVica / AL Jazeera America
Following the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York Police Department officer, activists are demanding wide-reaching institutional changes to the way the department does business. Six weeks after Michael Brown's death, a police officer killed a black teen in Louisiana with no explanation. Cameron Tillman, a high school freshman and talented athlete, with a 3.7 grade point average and no reputation for trouble, was shot dead.
Activists Demand Sweeping Reforms to NYPD after Garner Death
Ned Resnikof / Al Jazeera America
(December 5, 2014) -- Following the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York Police Department officer, activists are demanding wide-reaching institutional changes to the way the department does business.
Garner, a 43-year-old black man, died on July 17 after a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, strangled him in an attempt to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes.
The incident triggered outrage and frustration, particularly after a New York grand jury revealed on Wednesday that it would not indict Pantaleo over Garner's death. Following the grand jury announcement, thousands of protesters took to the streets, demanding that the city take action to prevent further deaths like Garner's.
Priscilla Gonzalez, director of organizing for the group Communities United for Police Reform (CUPR), said the main issue is a culture of impunity at the NYPD.
"What we're addressing here, long-term, is an historic lack of accountability in cases of police misconduct," she told Al Jazeera.
Police officers, said Gonzalez, are too often given special treatment after being accused of wrongdoing.
"They don't have to go through the same process civilians do when they're involved in incidents of brutality and misconduct," she said. Although Pantaleo was suspended after Garner's death, he continues to draw a paycheck. Other officers accused of brutality have received similar treatment.
Gonzalez hesitated to prescribe any mandatory treatment for officers accused of wrongdoing, saying it would have to depend on the circumstances and the strength of the evidence against them. But she also said something had to be done to address the allegedly cozy relationship between the district attorney's office and the NYPD.
"An elected official has an obligation to be accountable to the public, not the NYPD," she said.
District Attorney Dan Donovan has been accused of soft-pedaling the case against Pantaleo. Saint Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was the subject of similar accusations regarding his handling of grand jury deliberations over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
To guarantee more aggressive prosecution of NYPD officers, some reformers have suggested that special prosecutors handle cases of alleged police misconduct, not the district attorney.
In the aftermath of the Garner decision, New York Public Advocate Leticia James wrote an MSNBC op-ed calling on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor "to investigate and prosecute cases where a police officer is accused of causing the death of, or grievous injury to, another person."
Activists are also calling on the New York City Council to take action. The coalition known as This Stops Today, among other groups, is asking the city's legislature to pass two bills collectively known as the Right to Know Act.
Combined, these two laws would require police officers to identify themselves during encounters with civilians and mandate that officers inform civilians that they have the right to refuse a search for which the police have no legal cause. The proposal has the support of the City Council's Progressive Caucus.
"These bills do not change the framework cops need to engage in good policing, and do not change the existing legal requirements of probable cause for a search and reasonable suspicion for a stop," said Council member Jumaane D. Williams in a statement. "These bills are simply meant to continue the Council's discussion about how the NYPD can engage in better and equitable police practices in all communities across the city."
Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed some reforms of his own. In a Thursday letter to his constituents, the mayor said his long-term plans included "a comprehensive plan to retrain the entire NYPD to reduce the use of excessive force and to work with the community," as well as a plan to equip police officers with body cameras.
Gonzalez described de Blasio's reforms as a positive but insufficient step in the right direction.
"It's not enough," she said. "And while good, it isn't going to the root causes of the problem, which is essentially lack of accountability and hyper-aggressive enforcement."
A spokesperson for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the labor union for NYPD officers, said the union would not comment on proposed reforms to the NYPD.
The Case of Cameron Tillman: Young, Black & Killed by a Cop
Ranjani Chakraborty & Sheila MacVica / Al Jazeera America
HOUMA, La. (December 4, 2014) -- Cameron Tillman, a high school freshman and talented athlete, with a 3.7 grade point average and no reputation for trouble, was shot dead on a Tuesday afternoon.
The house where Cameron died has been empty for about two years, and neighbors say local kids, with the knowledge of the owner, had been using it as an afterschool hangout.
The knock came a little before 5:30 p.m. The four other teens in the house say that when Cameron opened the door, police opened fire. A Terrebonne Parish deputy planted four bullets in Cameron’s 14-year-old body.
The police had received a 911 call about "armed men with guns" going into an abandoned home. The local sheriff said Cameron came to the door with a gun in his hand, but that was later changed to say a BB gun was found "in close proximity" to his body. The teens say the BB gun was on the table.
Cameron was alive for at least 45 minutes, according to the family's lawyer. But the police offered no medical assistance. The investigation is ongoing, but two months on, the four other boys in the house say they still haven't been interviewed.
Cameron's death happened on Sept. 23, six weeks after a police officer killed Michael Brown. Anger over that unarmed teen's death swept the country like a fever. His hometown of Ferguson, Missouri, became one of the most embattled in the country and his name was catapulted into an international symbol.
But you probably haven't heard of Cameron Tillman. Houma, Louisiana, isn't simmering with protests. There's just a modest memorial outside the house on Kirkglen Loop, where people come by with candles and balloons.
A neighbor banged and yelled at Wyteika Tillman's door. The knock shook her to her knees.
"'Hurry,' she said, 'Cameron's been shot,'" Tillman remembered. "And I said, 'Girl, not my Cameron. That's not Cameron, girl.'"
Cameron's mother went outside, where she saw all the neighborhood kids gathered.
"I just fell to the ground in disbelief," she said. "I fell immediately."
Over the next few hours, the rumble in the crowd was that the officer who killed Cameron was white. Tensions rose.
"That's the first thing that came to our minds: We don't want this. We hope this is not a racial situation, because we don't want that. We don't need that," said John Navy, a parish councilman and guidance counselor at Cameron's high school, who was in the crowd that night. "People were getting upset. You had the police department, you had the state police, you had detectives out there, you had the sheriff's department, and you have hundreds of residents, so it could have turned into a bad situation."
Then, late that night, the Houma sheriff announced that the officer who shot Cameron -- Preston Norman, a seven-year veteran -- was black.
"It was a black cop. It was a black 911 caller," Tillman said. "And I said, 'Who cares what color he is or what color the caller was?'… He shot a 14-year-old kid. I didn't care what he was and I don't know why he emphasized that he was black. It didn't make a difference."
For the community, and the family, this wasn't about race of the cops involved in the incident; it was about the larger problem of bad policing in a place where they believe teens of color are singled out by police.
"Our black kids are targeted more than other kids. This side of town, which is more of the urban side, the police harass our kids," Tillman said. "And it's a problem."
In the weeks after his kid brother's death, 18-year-old Andre Tillman has tried to lose himself on the basketball court. He was one of the teenagers in the house that day and he watched his brother die.
"It was crazy because we were clowning one second and I heard a knocking," he said.
The sheriff's department insists the officials identified themselves when they knocked, but Tillman and the other boys say that isn't true.
"And I seen when he opened the door, I just see him got hit, hit by about four shots, four times, four or five times. I just seen him stumble and everything," he said. "He shot through the door. One of my friends tried to close [the door while] that man was still shooting through the door."
Andre wouldn't lay bare all the details of what happened in those moments, but he told his mother everything that happened.
"My son tried to help him. My son tried to cover his brother," she said. "But my son was kicked in the back and a gun held to his head to move away from him."
On the night of Cameron's death, the officers took Andre and the three other kids into custody for about five hours, according to family attorney Carol Powell-Lexing, who specializes in police abuse cases. But she said her understanding from the teenagers is that they weren't actually questioned about what happened.
Jerry Larpenter, the parish sheriff, called what happened a "freak accident," but hasn't explained the behavior of his deputies. The night of the shooting, he handed the case over to the Louisiana State Police to investigate.
Since then, the family and neighbors say the only contact they've had with investigators are search warrants issued for the boys demanding fingerprints and DNA samples.
The FBI has said it's monitoring the state investigation. But Powell-Lexing says it's time for the US Department of Justice to launch its own investigation into what happened.
"It could make a difference to making sure that the local people are doing what they say they're doing," she said, "that they're conducting a fair and ethical investigation as it relates to getting to the truth of why the deputy sheriff shot 14-year-old Cameron Tillman when he did not have a gun in his hand."
In the meantime, the neighborhood boys visit Cameron's memorial every day.
"Cameron can't be that athlete football player that he wanted, he can't be his undergrad nursing -- he wanted to be an RN -- he can't be that now, it was stolen from him," Cameron’s mother said. "This is torture. It's pure torture every day. It's constant stabbing every single day I have to think about it and relive that, and my son, who had to see it."
Cameron's death had made the community fearful. Tillman said some parents try to keep their children inside. One neighborhood kid came up to her, she said, and asked her what was going to happen, and if he was going to make it to 18.
"I was speechless," she said. "I didn't know what to tell him."
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