New York City voters who bought into new Mayor Eric Adams’ pledge to bring “swagger” back to City Hall surely weren’t disappointed when the former police captain dialed up the outrage over a judge’s decision to grant bail to a 16-year-old teen rapper called C Blu involved in a gun scuffle that wounded a cop.
Adams said that a jurist would set $250,000 bail despite the police-reported facts of the case — that this teenager, whose real name is Camrin Williams, had deliberately fired a shot that injured NYPD Officer Kaseem Pennant — showed how New York State’s new laws on bail reform are compounding a crime wave in America’s largest city.
“New Yorkers should all be outraged that a repeat offender, accused of shooting at a police officer, is today walking free on bond because judges are precluded from even considering danger to the community, like every other state and our federal courts,” the New York mayor said after the January incident. “It is further proof that our current system is failing us.”
Except a lot of the “proof” that Adams cited that day wasn’t true. This month, a separate Bronx judge ruled that the officer who arrested the 16-year-old, who was also shot in the groin by his own gun during the scuffle, had lied under oath and presented a false version of what actually happened. Judge Naita Semaj said police stopped and searched Williams illegally, the youth complied with police orders, and his gun went off accidentally as they patted him down. “There was absolutely zero reason for any of those officers to approach this individual,” said Semaj, sending the case to the less punitive Family Court. “They approached him, they detained him, they searched him, and no officer even bothered to come up with a halfway legitimate reason for any of that.”
Perhaps it was fitting that Adams leaned on a case larded with police lies to make a political argument against bail reform — a nationwide law enforcement crusade that’s also built upon a foundation of falsehoods. Numerous studies have shown that recent efforts to reduce the pretrial jailing of defendants — often locked up for lack of money, not any threat level — aren’t linked to any rise in crime. The research finds about 95% commit no crime during their release, and that 99% do not commit a violent crime.
The “copaganda” surrounding the C Blu case in New York is just one dramatic example of how endemic lying has become to the modern culture of policing in America. Sometimes it’s around creating a narrative to hide wrongdoing in a high-profile case. Sometimes it’s presenting a false picture of the broader causes of crime to push for policies that mean more money and power for law enforcement, while clinging to a regime of mass incarceration.
We saw this, to some extent, in Philadelphia in another dramatic, front-page case: The police killing of a 12-year-old suspect, Thomas “TJ” Siderio of South Philadelphia. In the hazy aftermath of TJ’s death, there were conflicting accounts of whether the plainclothes officers used a siren or identified themselves as cops, and the first reports didn’t disclose that TJ had tossed his gun five rowhouses, or 60 feet, from where he was ultimately shot in the back.
To her credit, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw — who hasn’t always been an avatar of police reform — moved quickly in this case to fire the officer linked to the fatal shot once more facts in the case became clear. But one, small, halting step toward police accountability is also a reminder of how much farther we have to go.
After all, it was the glaring contrast between an initial Minneapolis police report in May 2020 saying that George Floyd was handcuffed “in medical distress,” without mentioning that an officer had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes before he died, that heightened the outrage that sent millions of protesters into the streets that spring. At the time, politicians — Democrats but even a few Republicans — promised there would be major changes.
As the two-year anniversary approaches, those changes have only come haphazardly on the local or state level, and have been far less consequential than was pledged. The main federal police reform bill died — with a lack of major help from the new Biden administration — and then the public and media conversation pivoted amid the pandemic to related spikes first in homicides and then in some other crime categories like carjacking.
In his first State of the Union address earlier this month, Biden produced a made-for-TV moment when he alluded to voters’ crime concerns and said: “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training.” The cameras showed top Republicans applauding the quadruple mentioning of “fund.” There was no real effort to explain what exactly these dollars were for, but more important is what was not said. The idea that police need to radically change the way they do business, and their broader culture — which was critical for young Black and brown voters who put Biden over the top in the 2020 election — was no longer worth even a mention.
As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie noted, Biden’s remarks were praised even though police budgets generally rose in 2021 — even in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Austin where leaders had promised spending cuts during the George Floyd protests — and there’s no evidence that increased funding led to drops in crime. Wrote Bouie: “If anything, police departments and their allies have skillfully used anxiety over ‘defund’ to successfully lobby for even larger budgets, despite the striking inability of many police departments to solve crimes and clear murders.”
But the situation is even worse than that. Because while law enforcement lobbies for more funding, police departments continue to squander billions of taxpayer dollars because of a giant elephant in the room: officers’ inability to obey the law. Earlier this month, an extensive Washington Post investigation found that the nation’s 25 largest police and sheriff departments paid out a whopping $3.2 billion over the last decade to settle lawsuits or claims of misconduct, often keeping taxpayers in the dark about details.
One can reasonably assume the national total is far greater, given the thousands of mid- and small-sized departments not surveyed. In other words, our police chiefs and mayors are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every single year to cover up for a sick culture — the disclosure of which might make you less likely to say “fund” the police four times. The tragedy here is that these wasted dollars could have been put to such better use — not so much for the Biden-esque goal of expanded cop training, since police misconduct seems more the product of an ingrained culture, but for the community services that actually reduce crime.
But then, publicizing the truth about the costs of police abuse might also puncture the greater myths about law and order and the need for “warrior cops.” When it comes to meaningful reforms like curbing or eliminating cash bail, Adams and the other naysayers don’t want you to think or even know about the money that’s saved when people awaiting trial are leading normal, productive lives instead of rotting in a taxpayer-funded jail cell — $638 million a year just in New York State, one study found. That’s on top of the injustice of imprisoning those who are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Instead, bashing bail reform is a talking point for trying to oust the small number of progressive prosecutors and maintaining a corrupt status quo.
The sad part is that everyone in this debate agrees on one key fact: Every murder is a tragedy, and we need to be doing more to bring the homicide rate back down. If Biden and others think the solution is spending more money, let’s hear less rhetoric and more real talk about public safety built around social services, proven violence reduction techniques, and police as community guardians — not as a larger occupying army of warrior cops. But that conversation can only happen with something that’s in short supply these days: the truth.
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