During his time in office, New York City Mayor John Lindsay drafted an initiative to form a civilian review board of the NYPD in light of several reported incidents of police brutality against minorities in the mid 1960’s.
During club hours on Thursday, the History Department hosted its annual Robert A. Friedman symposium led by recent recipient of the Presidential Excellence Award for Distinguished Scholarship, Professor Clarence Taylor.
He was joined by Jay Kriegel, the Chief of Staff to the former Mayor, and Professor Joseph Viteritti, Chair of the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College.
Lindsay’s proposal has been the focus of renewed attention since the Occupy movement put police action in the spotlight and NYPD monitoring practices concerning college MSA groups were uncovered – an initiative Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has vehemently defended. Kelly believes the NYPD is being watched sufficiently enough. “I think there’s plenty of oversight […] I don’t know what more you would want,” Kelly said.
Another hot cop topic is the “stop and frisk” policy which targets minorities disproportionately compared to whites. “685,274 people were stopped […] 88 percent were innocent, 53 percent were black and 34 percent were Latino. In total, 87 percent of those who were frisked were people of color,” he said.
The professor also mentioned a lesser-known initiative called the “Clean Hall” policy, allowing police officers to conduct hall sweeps of privately owned apartment buildings. Many civil rights advocacy groups see this as infringement on privacy and other rights of the tenants of such properties.
“In these vertical patrol sweeps, officers have arrested people without identification,” said Taylor, quoting one tenant who was arrested during one of the sweeps, “I’ll have to carry my ID to do my laundry!”
The panel presented a vivid picture of the civil rights era when Lindsay, a Republican, was campaigning to become the mayor of a predominantly liberal city. Professor Viteritti explained just how heated the year of 1965 was from all the social revolutions occurring at the same time including the civil rights movement, black power movement and Vietnam protests combined with mass minority migration into the cities and whites were leaving cities for suburbs in droves.
“Cities were becoming more black, more Hispanic and poorer,” said Viteritti, “and there were vivid demands from these members of the community who were underrepresented.”
Lindsay was ready to meet those demands. Even as a self-identified WASP, according to Kriegel, Lindsay was a WWII veteran who learned many lessons on the battlefield and gained insight as to what he felt was important; “Civil Rights wasn’t a political issue, but an issue of profound personal belief” for Lindsay, said Kriegel.
Lindsay won the 1966 mayoral race by a slim margin, with much of his support coming from minorities who, undoubtedly, appreciated his fervor in pushing the issue of police brutality right from the start. With the influx of minorities into the cities, the historically all-white police force found themselves on the receiving end of many complaints and allegations of excessive force and abuse of power against minorities. Lindsay took it upon himself to declare, as Kriegel said, like no one else had done before that, “the mayor is in charge of the police department.”
While drastic changes in attitude and actions came out of his tenure, the former mayor’s initiative for a civilian complaint review board eventually failed. The board would have consisted of ordinary civilians providing oversight of the NYPD, but the department’s union fought back that the board was “handcuffing them,” essentially preventing them from doing their job. The union was able to put the issue up for a referendum and through vigorous and unlawful campaigning, was able to get the public to vote in their favor. “63 percent voted against the board,” said Kriegel.
“The fight in 1966 revealed that the police did not want to be accountable to civilians and have an oversight board,” Taylor said in an email interview with The Ticker, “I believe that this is the case today. Usually people with power do not want to be accountable to others. They want to push their agenda without interruption. The NYPD […] sees its larger objective as more important than civil rights.”
While there is a civilian complaint review board in place today, it does not have much power. As Kriegel pointed out, they can only mediate issues between parties and make recommendations to the police commissioner who in the end really has the power to make any sort of decision.
Narciso Carrera, a marketing major at Baruch feels the system is absurd.
“From what I know, those commissions, like the civilian review board, are headed by police commissioners as well […] the police policing themselves. It’s like, who watches the watchmen?”
Many students in attendance, including freshman Mike Sivers, came to the event because they felt that this issue is something on the forefront of our current cultural climate.
“I’m here because it’s really relevant right now – policing New York City – and everything that’s been going on with Bloomberg and Ray Kelly […] it’s important,” said Sivers.
The History department’s faculty was also in attendance, including Professor Ervand Abrahamian, “I thought the panel was brilliant,” he said.
“Having lived through the period in the city, it was useful for me to get analytical perspectives both from historians and policy makers,” said Abrahamian. “I am sure students would have been struck by how the city has changed in some respects but remains the same in others.”
Ultimately, what Taylor hopes students learned from the symposium is the other side of the controversial former mayor’s story.
“Students receive another version of what was going on in New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s. They [have been] told by their professors, the corporate media, and political conservatives that Lindsay is the one blamed for the financial crisis that hit New York in the mid 1970s. He is also blamed for the growing racial tension in the city,” said Taylor.
He concluded, “The students learned that Lindsay attempted to do the right thing and address police abuse of citizens. He did not do it for political gains but because he believed that people who had little political power should be protected by the law and should also have a voice in government.”