Police Story: Stopping the
Unionized Defense of Police Brutality
The New York New Abolitionists have initiated a campaign to expose the role of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association in the defense of police officers accused of acts of brutality, up to and including murder. The kick-off event was a forum on March 23rd where several speakers addressed the topic. Approximately forty people heard Jill Nelson, the editor of a forthcoming book on police brutality; Graham Weatherspoon, a retired New York City police officer and a member of One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care; Steve Yip of the October 22nd Coalition; and Michelle Billies of the New York abolitionist group. Afterwards, plans were made to meet again in early April to plan for specific activities in the next several months.
The roots of the PBA project lay in the aftermath of the shooting of Amadou Diallo by four members of the Police Department's Street Crimes Unit in February of 1999. Readers will recall that the four officers fired forty-one shots, nineteen of which hit Mr. Diallo, as he attempted to enter the building where he lived. The officers' defense was that the killing was an accident.
The local abolitionists decided to investigate the possibility of developing a campaign that would link the defense of brutal cops to the defense of whiteness. The group's members were especially interested in unearthing information about the ways in which the regular functioning of the police department and the police union was part and parcel of the everyday harassment of non-whites in the city and contributed directly to the all-too-frequent acts leading to the death of innocent people.
The group secured information from the Stolen Lives Project (www.unstoppable.com) on police killings and conducted a search of newspaper articles on the Diallo case and two other more distant events, the 1991 strangling death of Frederico Pereira and the 1994 choking death of Anthony Baez. Our research revealed that the police union had played a key role in orchestrating the defense of the officers involved. In fact, it became clear that the PBA had a well-developed "script" that it followed whenever it thought necessary.
That script involves the use of the 48 hours right after a killing (during which cops can refuse to talk about what happened) to come up with a good story line that portrays the cop or cops as "just doing their job" and the victim as suspicious, dangerous or crazed. The story is sold to the press and to the local district attorney's office in an effort to prevent an indictment (which is usually successful). If the case does go to a trial, the union provides free legal services and, if necessary, rallies off-duty cops to attend court hearings. The union also works to discredit witnesses and to attack the integrity and honesty of the victim's family. All in all, the union does a pretty good job of it-as is evidenced by its success in winning a change of venue for the Diallo trial from the Bronx (where the shooting took place) to Albany, New York-thereby making it far easier to secure an acquittal.
The script has been summarized and illustrated in a 22-page booklet, "A Murder by the Police," which is available for $3 from The New Abolitionist newsletter. The activists are hoping to persuade others in the anti-police brutality movement to recognize the key role played by the PBA and to join their efforts to expose and confront the union. Future issues of The New Abolitionist will contain reports of developments in the campaign.