In the waning days of Black History Month, NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton gave it renewed currency during his speech on Tuesday at The Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York in Queens when he noted that “many of the worst parts of Black history would have been impossible without police.”
That frank admission was reminiscent of a recent speech by FBI Director James Comey where recounted some of the deplorable misconduct of the nation’s law enforcement agencies and the need to reform policing.
Bratton said that slavery was our country’s original sin and the practice “sat on a foundation codified by laws and enforced by police, by slave catchers.” He was making reference to the pre and post-Jim Crow system of bondage and discrimination and the “pattyrollers” or patrollers and bounty hunters whose duty it was to contain and roundup runaway slaves.
The commissioner demonstrated his understanding of New York’s slavery, which at one time had more slaves than some states in the South as well as the often volatile relationship between the police and the Black community from the Dutch and Peter Stuyvesant to the succession of British control in 1664.
Rather than dwell on the distant past, Bratton cited a more recent incident in 1964 when James Powell, a Black teenager armed with a knife, slashed Police Officer Thomas Gilligan who shot and killed him. As Bratton recalled, Powell’s death “ignited six nights of riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and half a decade of urban unrest in cities across the country.”
Last year’s tragedies in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island, Bratton said were indications that “police actions can still be a flashpoint.”
An additional flashpoint is the commissioner’s “Broken Windows” policy with its focus on arresting violators of minor offenses in order to prevent major crimes, a quality of life approach. He did not touch on this policy, but there was a reference to it when he mentioned that the NYPD is struggling to police nonwhite neighborhoods that need it most.
His speech was clearly an attempt to mend the fences between the NYPD and the minority communities, and not make the same mistakes of the past.
“We cannot change the past, but working together we can change the future,” he said toward the close of his presentation, which was warmly greeted.