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The Absurdist Theatre of the NYPD

When NYPD officers turned their backs on de Blasio, they also turned their backs on us.

NYPD officers turned their backs on New York City mayor Bill De Blasio at Officer Rafael Ramos' funeral. Photo by Flickr user Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916.

By now, you’ve likely heard the story of how Ismaaiyl Brinsley—who once testified in a Georgia court that he suffered from mental illness—began the morning of December 20th. He entered his ex-girlfriend Shaneka Thompson’s apartment in Baltimore County using a key he wasn’t supposed to have, then shot and critically wounded her. A trip on a Bolt Bus and several chilling posts to Instagram later, Brinsley ambushed two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, killing the men as they sat in their squad car eating lunch, before turning his weapon on himself.

Though similar threats have streamed into the NYPD—mostly from idiotic trolls outside the N.Y.C area—the general public tends to agree that this tragedy was detrimental to the cause for an end to out-of-control police tactics. (That a few might share the wrong-headed sentiment that murdering any officer is acceptable—or even some sort of victory for “the movement”—is a testament to the deep-seated pain caused by police overreach and violence.) Most have rightly disavowed the actions of Brinsley, casting him as a lone actor with a troubled mind.

Despite this common-sense stance, the department has been “on edge” in the wake of the deaths of Officers Ramos and Liu. (Were they not on edge before all this happened? If not, what kind of mood lead to the November 20th killing of unarmed Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn project stairwell by rookie cop Peter Liang; or the heavy-handed, militaristic response to protests earlier in December; or the laundry list of prior allegations of brutality and general wrongdoing by NYPD officers?)

Just three days ago, cops expressed their discontent by hiring a plane to fly above New York City, bearing a banner stating “De Blasio Our Backs Have Turned to You.” This wild stunt would foreshadow a throng of cops actually turning their backs on de Blasio at the funeral of Officer Ramos in a truly remarkable scene. The deaths of Ramos and Liu were undeniable tragedies. However—given de Blasio’s recent calls for the suspension of large-scale, peaceful protests of Eric Garner’s death-by-NYPD-chokehold (and the non-indictment of the officer responsible)—this display by those sworn to protect and serve careens into the realm of the absurd.

The loss of an officer’s life is absolutely a tragic thing. But as I stated here last month, those who serve on the force made a choice to do so; the men, women, and children who live on only as hashtags to most of us were not given such a choice in the matter of their brown skin. It’s possible to respect the duties and stresses of police life while also demanding police accountability and justice for victims of racial bias and violence from officers. It’s also possible to mourn the deaths of officers lost in the line of duty as well as those of civilians who make headlines (or don’t) after dying by a cop’s gun, Taser, or chokehold. These things are not mutually exclusive.

The NYPD’s pushback against both the public’s calls for justice and their mayor seems a concerted effort to remind us how valuable a cop’s life is (hint: more valuable than yours, especially if you’re black or brown), invoking the reverence for the department in the wake of 9/11—a reptilian-brain patriotism that ignores the recent corruption, racism, and violence plaguing police departments across the country, and the NYPD in particular.

An NYPD vehicle is vandalized with an image of a pig after the Eric Garner decision was announced. Photo by Flickr user Poster Boy.

In late October, NYPD’s chief of department (who is black) resigned rather than take a promotion from Commissioner William Bratton. Additionally, a detective has revealed that planting evidence, or “flaking,” was commonplace during his time on the force. And black officers are speaking out against racial bias within the department—and their own experiences with racial profiling while off-duty. Unequivocal support of a law enforcement system so clearly corroded by corruption, prejudice, and violence is no longer in our best interest as a society—nor even possible among officers themselves.

To be clear, Ismaaiyl Brinsley did not speak for anyone but himself. Even in the darkest recesses of who we are as a nation, the overwhelming majority of us don’t wish death on police—not even the officers who’ve taken the lives of unarmed civilians, yet remain protected against criminal accountability by a clearly biased justice system. The deaths of men and women in uniform will not bring Akai Gurley or Eric Garner back. The loss of life on either side is not conducive to the healing we’re all in need of right now.

And let’s be real: If your house is robbed, your car is stolen, or you’re assaulted, you’ll want to be able to call the police. How tragic it is then that so many of us fear and distrust men and women in uniform. In the wake of Brinsley’s unconscionable ambush, Bratton’s declaration that the NYPD is now a wartime department is at best a no-brainer for those who’ve long lived under its occupation. At worst, it means the game has gotten even more dangerous for those whom justice turned its back on long ago.

My only positive experience with a police officer—one in which I felt I was being genuinely looked out for and not regarded as a nuisance or a threat—involved a member of the NYPD. The young cop, decked out in tactical gear, shouldering an assault rifle, helped me decipher what seemed at the time like a labyrinth: the MTA subway map. With a smile on his face and a calm voice.

The killing of Officers Liu and Ramos is immensely unfortunate, because it drives a wedge further between the community and its officers, reducing the chances that a cop in the subway on a chilly night will be as eager to help a black kid in need. To protect and serve.

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