Magazine article The New Yorker

Safer Streets

Magazine article The New Yorker

Safer Streets

Article excerpt

SAFER STREETS

On June 3, 1999, Loretta Lynch, who was then the chief Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, delivered the final arguments in the prosecution of several police officers accused of having beaten and sodomized a Brooklyn man named Abner Louima almost two years earlier, in an incident that began outside a club in Flatbush. The trial had already taken a dramatic turn. Officer Justin Volpe, whom Louima had identified as the policeman who rammed a broken broomstick up his rectum in a precinct-house bathroom, said that he was the one who had been attacked, and his lawyer argued that the internal injuries Louima suffered were the result of a prior homosexual encounter. Then other officers came forward to testify against Volpe. He ended up tearfully confessing, and Lynch and her colleagues saw him convicted in a case that, she later told the Wall Street Journal , she was determined not to present to the jury as a "referendum on race."

Yet that's how many New Yorkers couldn't help seeing it, and how, last Wednesday, they saw the failure of a Staten Island grand jury to bring an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner--just a week after a grand jury in Missouri had declined to bring an indictment in the shooting death of Michael Brown, who, like Garner, was a black man confronted by a white officer. Lynch, who is also African-American, is now not only the U.S. Attorney but also President Obama's nominee to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General. On Wednesday, she interrupted her round of courtesy visits to the senators who will vote on her confirmation to announce that, in the Garner case, her office would "move forward with its own independent inquiry to determine whether federal civil-rights laws have been violated." Lynch has a reputation as a prosecutor with a strong relationship with the police, but she wasn't necessarily imperilling that. Even many conservatives have conceded the need for a review, given the starkness of the case. A team of officers surrounded Garner, whom they apparently suspected of illegally selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, in Staten Island's Tompkinsville neighborhood. What happened next was recorded in a cell-phone video. Garner told the policemen to leave him alone. When they moved in on him, Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a choke hold--a maneuver banned by the N.Y.P.D.--and pushed him face down on the sidewalk. Garner said, eleven times, "I can't breathe," before he died.

The year of the Louima assault, there were about eight hundred murders in New York City. That's a big number if one considers that this year, so far, there have been two hundred and eighty-six. Crime peaked, though, in 1990, when there were twenty-two hundred and sixty-two murders; nine years later, by the time of the Louima trial, the Broken Windows theory, with its emphasis on quality-of-life policing, and CompStat, the use of statistical analysis to target high-crime spots, were well-worn catchphrases. There are many explanations for the drop in crime--demographics, shifts in the drug trade, and long, hard hours on the beat. But the communities that were epicenters of crime two decades ago were not bystanders in its reduction. The people who live in them made choices, too, to help make their streets safer, for which they deserve credit. …

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