Insisting he is not “anti-cop,” only “anti-bad cop,” civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel last night called for the creation of a New York State prosecutor to investigate police misconduct in the wake of the chokehold death of Eric Garner. At a community forum at St. John’s Lutheran Church in the West Village, he also recommended that training for cadets be extended from six months to a year.
“There needs to be lots of reform in the NYPD,” Siegel told the sparse crowd. Among the dozen attendees were comic Randy Credico, an unsuccessful left-wing candidate for governor in the September 9 Democratic primary; Jose LaSalle, who organizes “cop watches” by citizens videotaping police activities; and Jessica Berk, longtime West Village activist and founder of Residents in Distress.
“There are people in the NYPD who are extremely qualified, but after 10 years of doing this difficult job and being stressed, perhaps [they’re] potentially a walking time bomb,” Siegel said.
Siegel, who was executive director of the New York City Liberties Union for 15 years, believes police should also undergo precinct-wide training to rid themselves of “a lot of racial stereotypes they have when they come into the job.” In addition, he recommended periodic psychological testing of cops, noting they get tested coming into the job “but are never tested again.”
Siegal has long been critical of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which he helped to create during his tenure at the NYCLU. He noted there were more than 1,000 complaints in recent years over police chokeholds, a procedure banned for two decades by the NYPD, then asked rhetorically, “Why wasn’t the board blowing the whistle? In 1992, we created an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board. Now, 21 years later, the dream of creating accountability has been at best deferred. Or even become a nightmare. We don’t have that accountability. Very few [complaints] get validated. Even when they’re validated, punishment is a slap on the wrist.”
He suggested that had there been commentary about chokeholds by officials, Eric Garner “might still be alive today.” (The CCRB has delayed release of its study of police chokeholds.)
Although he voted for Bill de Blasio “twice” in the primary and general election last year, Siegel said he was shocked when the new mayor chose to “bring back” Bill Bratton as the NYPD’s police Commissioner. “Bill Bratton was the architect for the ‘broken windows’ approach” to police work, he said. “I criticized that theory as having had a disproportionate impact on poor people and people of color. A lot of groups should have been more outspoken about the fact that Bill Bratton is out there a second time.”
Siegel drew at least one indignant response after announcing he’s in favor of stop and frisk, a controversial police practice that De Blasio vowed to curtail. “People are always shocked when I say I’m for stop and frisk,” he said. “It’s a valid law enforcement tool. The problem is when cops are not executing stop and frisk constitutionally. They have to have specific evidence—like a bulge in a pocket indicating a gun. What happened in the city was that [police] would frisk young men of color based on racial profiling and they weren’t following the law.”
A black community activist, who declined to give his name to B+B, told Siegel there was “no circumstance” that justified stop and frisk “because it’s based on an assumption. And it’s degrading.”
“What are you supposed to do if you’re a cop and somebody has a gun?” asked Siegel.
“I have a pack of cigarettes—no police should stop me because of a bulge in my pocket,” the activist answered. “The bulge could mean anything.”
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the spelling of Eric Garner’s name.