A Murder, A Cop, A Union, & A Chief – by Lou Cespedes
Recently, while TV surfing without a full cable package I stumbled upon a fantastic film on PBS, “Anatomy of a Murder” starring James Stewart from 1959. The movie is bit before my time, but fascinating because it delves deep into the fault lines of American jurisprudence, questions of ethics, beliefs, guilt and innocence in the quest for truth. I found the film defining of these issues, albeit sanitized for our contemporary worldview, perhaps too “Americana”, maybe even too foreign for us in its simplistic post-war social backdrop. Our world is much different now, and our criminal justice system even more flawed, strained, and frayed. The truth is harder to see, even when it’s right in front you. It is said “lies can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” even more so in our world of cable-news, social media, and echo-chambers. Today we live in a post-truth society.
On July 17, 2014, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo put his arm around Eric Garner’s neck in an illegal chokehold and wrestled him to the ground causing him to asphyxiate and die on a sidewalk on Staten Island. The offense: selling loosies or resisting arrest depending who you ask. For those of us watching the video, this was murder, plain and simple. But, just then, the “truth” becomes malleable. Enter the writers, the talking heads, the protesters, the rank and file, the lawyers, and the politicians. This movie we have all seen before. Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell – all unarmed, all murdered in cold blood by NYPD officers. How long does it take for us to learn that the “truth” does not apply to us? When will we acknowledge that for a police officer, the truth is relative, and largely free of consequence?
The late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson spoke at my church weeks before he decided not to seek prison time for ex-NYPD officer Peter Liang, found guilty of manslaughter for shooting Akai Gurley in a stairwell at the Pink Houses in E. New York. Thompson would’ve never shown up at my church had he made this decision beforehand. I’m certain he would have run for Mayor, but he passed away. Alas, irony and not justice prevailed, I suppose. In March of 2019, his successor, DA Eric Gonzalez decided to drop a case against two ex-NYPD officers that admitted raping an 18-year-old girl. I use these examples to cite specific lapses of moral courage in the interest preserving “law and order”. The backpedaling on Bail Reform illustrates my point plainly; that prosecutors like Melinda Katz, lacking vision and moral courage, will default to criminalizing the innocent at the behest of the guilty, because our system of criminal justice is structured financially and politically on disenfranchisement. It depends on the disenfranchised to guarantee its own survival.
We, the public, are blackmailed by the NYPD and prosecutors under the constant threat of allowing lawlessness to prevail, and the dread of returning to “the bad old days”. The unspoken reality is that if you want to be mayor in New York City, you must bend to the will of NYPD rank and file union, the Police Benevolent Association and kiss the ring of its President, Pat Lynch – a thug par excellence. He’s been in that position since 1999. He is the one constant in NYPD political circles since 911. He has presided for twenty-one years, over three mayors, and practically every contemporary murder of unarmed black men by police. He once recently referred to Justin Murrell, a 17-year-old teen as a “mutt” even after he was sentenced for a car dragging incident severely injuring NYPD officer Dalsh Veve. Ed Mullins, President of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, declared “war” on Mayor Bill de Blasio just this week.
Conversely, we the public have also been blinded by faux activism infused with irrationality and impatience. We no longer seem to have the capacity to recognize moral courage or consider calibrated strategic thinking. This reinforces detrimental outcomes for our community because were unable to seize opportunities to open dialogue with those we consider our enemies. Such was the case with the latest casualty in the NYPD, Commissioner James O’Neill. He was berated for years for not firing Officer Pantaleo, but when the chips were down and he had to decide, he made the right decision, and we left our man to die on the battlefield. Why wasn’t O’Neill invited to speak at the churches? Why wasn’t he celebrated by the “moral” and “spiritual” leaders of the black community? Why didn’t any of the political leaders in our community stand shoulder to shoulder with an officer that blew a hole into the “Blue Wall”? Why didn’t we defend the one man who showed the courage Mayor Bill de Blasio lacked, to fire Daniel Pantaleo. I suspect it is because our own leaders also lacked the courage to let the NYPD know that O’Neill, not Lynch, represents NY’s Finest.
In “Anatomy of a Murder”, the truth, no matter how inconvenient and uncomfortable is achieved because a good guy did his job. James Stewart’s character, Paul Biegler, wasn’t a perfect man. Jurisprudence and criminal justice are the endeavors of imperfect men, but they are endeavors constantly perfected in a community that seeks truth. We must be able to speak to the truth of racial disparity in the leadership of the NYPD, the truth about racist NYPD policies that target people of color, and the racism of the SBA and PBA’s leadership. We need to repeal 50-a to see that truth.
Community policing will never work unless the public and police are held to the same standard of truth. Truth must be the bedrock of the community we have yet to build, and this should be our principal task. It is urgent! (Isaiah 54 v.16-17) Twitter: @loufor45 Instagram: loucespedes