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Liyah Kaprice Brown

Abstracted from:   Liyah Kaprice Brown,  Officer or Overseer?: Why Police Desegregation Fails as an Adequate Solution to Racist, Oppressive, and Violent Policing in Black Communities,  29 New York University Review of Law and Social Change 757-794 (2005) (210 Footnotes)

On January 23, 2004, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., a nineteen-year-old Black  man, earned his GED. He planned to attend community college and start a family with his girlfriend. Hours later, Timothy met two of his friends and together they traveled to another friend's party. The three young men took a shortcut across the rooftop of Timothy's building because the intercom in the building where the party was held was frequently broken. As the trio approached the rooftop doorway, Timothy was gunned down by a White police officer who panicked upon seeing Timothy.  This incident occurred in the Louis Armstrong Housing Projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant,  a predominantly Black inner-city neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Both the police officer who killed Timothy and the police officer's partner had their guns drawn, pursuant to a New York Police Department (“NYPD”) policy, while on a routine vertical patrol.  Although NYPD Commissioner Kelly immediately characterized the shooting as unjustified, a grand jury cleared the officer of any wrongdoing.

On the same day of Stansbury's murder, in Bensonhurst  historically Italian and Jewish neighborhood located in Brooklyn, New York--a subway rider complained to the police that a man on the subway had a gun. When police arrived at the subway platform, Kevin Tester, a thirty-eight-year-old security guard, fired three shots at them with his .38 caliber revolver. Instead of drawing their own guns and blasting off rounds, the police took cover, called for backup, and talked Tester into giving up his gun. Tester was subdued without injury before being taken into police custody. Mr. Tester, a White male who was illegally armed and violent, is alive today while Timothy Stansbury, a Black male who was unarmed and law-abiding, is dead.

The blatantly inapposite police tactics employed in these two cases illustrate, in part, why members of the Black community  declare,” No justice, no peace, til the police are off our streets,” and “Our kids are human too!”  Since our  existence in this country, we have been subjected to a dual system of law enforcement in which we remain “at risk”  for police antagonism and violence while Whites enjoy service and protection. The police in our neighborhoods continue to operate as an “occupying force” established to police (not protect) us. 

In this article, I argue three main points. First, historically, White policymakers have mischaracterized the problem between police and the Black community as one of Black hostility and resentment rather than as one of police racism and misconduct. Second, the “solution” of police desegregation, which was recommended after nationwide disturbances erupted during the 1960s, fails to remedy the crisis of law enforcement in Black communities because of a misplaced focus on changing Blacks' perceptions of police as opposed to changing the police itself. Finally, desegregation is a formal rather than substantive remedy that may alter the face of the police but does not eradicate its subordinating nature and thus, serves White but not Black interests.

In Part I, I discuss, in the first subsection, the historical problems between law enforcement and the Black community and, in the second subsection, the manner in which the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders characterized those problems during the 1960s. In Part II, I explore the subsequent police response to the Commission's recommendations to increase the numbers of Black police officers. I use critical race theory in Part III to analyze why desegregation fails as an adequate solution to racist, oppressive, and violent law enforcement in Black communities. This part highlights so-called “reverse discrimination” claims by White police officers and the doctrine of “operational needs,” which arose as a defense for police departments' voluntary affirmative action plans.

* * *

Dynamics between the police and the Black community remain highly charged and may even be as electric as they were during the 1960s. Despite nearly forty years of desegregation, the Black community can cite countless stops, frisks, strip-searches, botched raids, and certainly unanswered calls as evidence of business as usual. The dual system of law enforcement that so many Black people struggled to eradicate remains. While Whites are met with courtesy, professionalism, and respect, Black residents are forced to endure a system that is hostile, sub-par, and offensive.

The current crisis of law enforcement in Black communities flows from the failure of policymakers to correctly assess the causes of tension between Black people and police. It should have been obvious--even to those who would rather not have noticed--that since racist and aggressive policing in the Black community was primarily responsible for the loss of life and economic and social devastation that followed from urban riots, a total reconstruction of police was necessary. But rather than consider what the riots indicated about the police departments, policymakers concerned themselves with what the riots signified about Black people. Those in power blamed Black hostility for the widespread destruction and focused on changing Blacks' perception of police instead of rethinking the police itself. The flawed framing of the problem inevitably infects the solution and is directly responsible for the continuance of police business as usual.

Hindsight reveals that a desegregation model of police reform is inept to address what is really the problem--oppressive and repressive policing in Black communities. As we were during the 1960s and before, Black children, women, and men today are targeted, humiliated, and brutalized by police. Black officers still lack meaningful employment and are concentrated in bottom-level positions. Recently, Black NYPD officers felt the ill-effects of operational needs and its deterioration from a justification for affirmative action to a basis for racist decision-making. Desegregation also fails because it is too simple to address the complexities of racism among those who are racially subordinated. And while police and politicians have benefited from hiring Black officers to perform undercover and race relations work, the Black community has yet to realize what it deemed valuable in having members of our own in law enforcement.

Certainly, the Black community has not agreed on the law enforcement policies that will best serve our interests. But the constant failure of policy-makers to consider our input shows that it is wise for us to take control of the debate. As a very preliminary manner, this paper hopes to inspire a new framework for implementing and evaluating police reform in which the best interests of the Black community remain central. Still yet, the Black community must decide the issue of whether police and criminal justice reform is preferable and viable absent a model for Black liberation and self-determination.

Law Clerk to Hon. Sterling Johnson, E.D.N.Y.; J.D. 2004 New York University School of Law; B.A. 1999 Georgetown University.