A young black man was brutalized by police in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn on the night of March 4, after he was (supposedly) caught toking. The ugly incident was caught on video by a passer-by, and has gone viral. Amid public outrage, the New York Police Department has opened an investigation. But the affair opens fresh wounds over the seemingly intractable problem of racist pot enforcement in Gotham City.
Asking for Justice
In the chilling video, the man is initially accosted by a plainclothes officer as he was leaving a park. The undercover cop does not seem to identify himself as a police officer, and repeatedly refuses to answer the man’s questions about why he is being stopped and whether he is free to leave.
The witness who took the video stated on Twitter: “I’m walking home from work and this undercover cop was holding this man. The guy asked for the cop to identify himself, he ignore that. He asked what crime he commit, he ignore that too. I pulled out my phone.”
At about 40 seconds into the video, close to a dozen uniformed officers swarm in, tackle the young man to the ground, and begin kicking and punching him, oblivious to his screams. “Help me!” the man cries. “I am not resisting!”
The incident turned out to be all about cannabis. An NYPD spokesperson told Gothamist the man was stopped because officers saw “two males inside the park smoking a lit marijuana cigarette and as the officers approached the individuals they fled the location.”
Police commissioner Dermot Shea told the New York Post that the young man, identified as 20-year-old Fitzroy Gayle, faces several charges, including unlawful possession of marijuana and resisting arrest.
Two days later, Gayle (who had no prior arrests) and his mother spoke at a press conference organized by National Action Network, a citizens’ group in New York that has often stood up for victims of police abuse.
“All I want is justice for my son, he was treated like less than an animal,” Daphne Gayle, 58, said of her son Fitzroy, according to the New York Post.
“Something has to be changed, because there’s something wrong,” the mom said after meeting with a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in Manhattan. “This is a nightmare, we are all in a nightmare.”
“It was absolutely not appropriate,” said the witness who took the video, who declined to be named while speaking to Gothamist. “If [he] was allegedly smoking then why didn’t the cop identify himself while he was wearing street clothes. Why did the cop not answer what crime he committed? And why did eight cops have to force him to the ground (while kneeing and stomping him)?”
Gothamist also quoted several city activists who were aghast at the incident. Anthony Posada, supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit at the Legal Aid Society, said the brutality was a result of New York’s failure to fully legalize cannabis.
“If cops can continue to use the odor or presence of marijuana as justification for stops, this is what happens: dehumanizing, aggressive policing tactics in which people’s lives are at stake,” Posada told Gothamist. “This young man is going to be scarred for life.”
Intractable Problem of Racist Pot Enforcement
What’s particularly frustrating about the affair for Big Apple activists is that under the new city policy, cops aren’t even supposed to make pot arrests anymore.
New York City had been the marijuana arrest capital of the nation under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and there have certainly been big improvements since then. The turning point year was 2014, when de Blasio took office and instructed the NYPD to issue summonses rather than make arrests for cannabis possession. That same year, the Brooklyn district attorney announced a new policy of declining to prosecute small-scale cannabis offenses. This was hailed as a de facto decrminalization in the borough. The Manhattan DA followed suit in 2018. And last year, de Blasio ordered the no-arrest policy to be extended to public smoking.
Marijuana arrests in the city have been slashed nearly in half under the new policy. But arrests do continue under “carve-outs” in the policy, such as if the suspect is deemed a nuisance, or has no ID, or is on parole. And the racial disparity has continued too. Upwards of 90% of those arrested for pot in the city continue to be black or Latino. The same disparity exists in summonses for marijuana possession.
The NYPD says in its defense that it is responding to complaints about public smoking, with arrests occurring in the neighborhoods where the complaints are lodged. But when the Daily News crunched the NYPD’s own stats on the question in February 2018, it found that was not true.
NYPD Still Under Federal Monitor
And abuses such as the one in Canarsie continue despite a federal monitor that has been appointed to oversee the NYPD, following a legal challenge over the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy of the Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg administrations.
In August 2013, federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan ruled the stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional and also noted the skewed racial disparity in the policy. Over the past decade, the NYPD had conducted about 5 million stop-and-frisks, with more than 80% of those targeted black or Latino.
Scheindlin appointed an attorney, Peter Zimroth, as a monitor over the NYPD’s efforts to correct the practice. Zimroth has since been documenting the Department’s progress, and filing public reports. But, as Gothamist notes, he has not yet deemed the NYPD’s practices in stopping suspects to be in compliance with the Constitution and the department is likely to be under the monitor’s watch for years to come.
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