On July 16, 1964, a white off-duty New York City police lieutenant fatally shot a black ninth-grader in Harlem on allegations that the teenager had a knife and was lunging at the officer.
While the details of exactly what happened that day are still hotly contested and debated, it would seem that the event was racially motivated. It triggered a wave of riots that not only consumed New York City, but spread to cities like Rochester, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; and Jersey City, New Jersey — all of which were influenced, in part, by allegations of local police brutality.
As the nation continues to deal with instances of alleged aggressive policing, such as recent allegations of a California Highway Patrol officer striking a confused or mentally ill woman on the side of a freeway and the aftermath of New York City’s escalated use of “stop & frisk,” however, questions of the proliferation of police brutality remain relevant.
Examples — such as the April arrest and assault of Neykeyia Parker by a Houston police officer for trespassing 10 feet in front of Parker’s front door, June’s racially-charged vice raid at the Copper Tan and Spa in Chicago, in which the spa’s owner was slapped and insulted by the police while being handcuffed, and the May incident in Georgia in which a baby was severely burned by a “flash bang” grenade thrown by a Special Response Team during a botched late night raid — highlight the growing demand, particularly in minority communities, to address the modern-day role and liability of the police.
At the heart of the events 50 years ago in Harlem was the question of how a police lieutenant with 17 years of experience with the New York Police Department and 16 years of wartime military experience could not control the situation without the use of deadly force — especially considering the officer was nearly twice the size of the teenager and the teenager was only armed with a knife.
On that day, the superintendent of a residential building in a predominately white neighborhood became irate with the black students sitting on the stoops of the building. Allegedly yelling racial epithets, the superintendent turned a hose on the students. As they responded by throwing cans and bottles at the superintendent, one student — James Powell, 15, a passerby who was not part of the group on the stoops — chased the superintendent into the building.
These events were witnessed by Lt. Thomas Gilligan, who had been at a nearby shop. Gilligan ran to the building and fired a warning shot through a window. Alleging that Powell emerged with a knife in his hand, Gilligan fired a second shot through Powell’s forearm and into the teenager’s chest, then a third into his abdomen. While Gilligan would ultimately be exonerated of any wrongdoing in this case (he was charged as a concession to stop the riots, which grew out of the police’s control), the situation touched off frustrations that would ultimately lead to more than 4,000 residents of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant rioting for six nights, resulting in 118 injuries, one death and 465 arrests.
In the 50 years since this tragedy, police brutality continues to be a national problem, with both the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror” being used as rationale for the police to take a stronger crime prevention role, complete with the federal government providing many local police forces with military weapons and vehicles.
This stance has created a law enforcement response that has typically been perceived as being ineffective in responding to non-violent situations tactfully. With a relative few in law enforcement actually being held responsible for aggressive policing, many see the police as being out of control, including, ironically, the police themselves. A 2000 survey by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice found that 84.1 percent of all surveyed police officers have seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians and 61 percent do not report serious abuse of authority violations against fellow officers.
Incidents, such as the January arrest of 16-year-old Darrin Manning in Philadelphia, which resulted in Manning receiving damage and blood clots to one of his testicles from being “frisked” by a female officer, suggest, according to some, a systematic failing in the law enforcement community in determining need for use of force, consistency of training and proper situational evaluation.
In the years since the 1964 Harlem Riot, Harlem has changed. Urban renewal and a move to re-integrate many formerly segregated neighborhoods has led to an infusion of white and Latino residents in the former black-dominated enclave. This has led to a shifting of political and economic influence in the community, which was demonstrated in the House Democratic primary, in which Charles Rangel — who has served as Harlem’s representative to Congress since 1971 — managed to defeat challenger Adriano Espaillat only with Rangel’s promise that this election will be his last.
Despite this, the changing demographics changed little about police response in the neighborhood. During the use of “stop & frisk” during the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Hispanics were selected for inspection at rates equal to or greater than blacks, with Harlem being a hotspot for the police’s targeting. This perceived unwarranted use of force has led many to openly question the police’s motives and loyalties.
Nationwide, only 8 percent of all police misconduct reports are officially substantiated or found to have enough evidence to justify disciplinary action. As most police misconduct cases center around the complaint itself without collaborating testimony or evidence, the vast majority of complaints against police are dismissed or ignored. In Central New Jersey, for example, only 1 percent of all police brutality cases are investigated.
Last June, David Castellani, a 20-year-old man from New Jersey, was clubbed and kicked by a group of five police officers outside an Atlantic City nightclub, with a sixth officer allowing his police dog to attack him. Though the beating was recorded by a surveillance camera, the police officers were found not guilty.
With the incident 50 years ago happening in the wake of the disappearance of three Congress of Racial Equality volunteers in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” campaign, this situation reflected the uncomfortable fact that racial oppression was not just a Southern problem, but a national concern. As New York and the rest of the nation have grown increasingly more diverse, the questions that define the effectiveness of the police — such as racial bias, the role of the police officer as community liaison, and whether the police’s primary duty should be to serve the public or to enforce the law — remain and continue to be asked.