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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – The guest of honor wasn’t at his own birthday party.
On Saturday, Eric Garner’s family and friends gathered at the spot where he last lay to honor what would have been his 44th birthday. They shared stories, ate and danced – celebrating and mourning a life cut short.
Cellphone videos showing Garner gasping for breath as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo grabbed him by the neck and back circulated widely and fueled protests across New York City. The city’s medical examiner ruled his July death a homicide caused by a chokehold and compression on his chest during his arrest. Enraged residents hold Garner up as one more name in a long list of victims of police brutality.
Two months later, as they await the results of the city's grand jury investigation into Garner’s death, residents here say they're left with little trust in the NYPD.
For Jose LaSalle, it was all too familiar.
Back in 2011, his 16-year-old stepson Alvin, who lived in Harlem, was stopped by NYPD officers and recorded audio of the interaction. Officers can be heard threatening to break Alvin's arm, punch him in the face and arrest him "for being a f***ing mutt." It was one of the first public documentations of stop-and-frisk in action. And after LaSalle gave the recording to to a filmmaker, it quickly went viral.
LaSalle said it was traumatizing for him and his wife to hear that audio. Not sure what to do, they went to the police station and filed a complaint with NYPD Internal Affairs, but say they got no relief. Weeks later, while he waited for an investigation, his wife died of a heart attack. Investigators eventually reached out about his complaint but Jose says he was only able to follow up after dealing with his wife’s death. By then, he says, it was too late to reopen his case.
"That kind of opened the windows and door of my mind to realize that I myself was a victim of police harassment … I said, 'Wow, I've been through all this all my life,' but I didn't see it as a problem," he said. "I'm Puerto Rican. I live in the hood. All Puerto Ricans get stopped, all blacks get stopped. I thought it was something that was normal."
That realization prompted LaSalle to form CopWatch in 2011 – a group of volunteers who patrol communities and document police encounters with civilians.
“When they approach a civilian … and we happen to be present, we pull out our … phones or video-recording devices and we record the encounter,” he said.
By day, LaSalle works for New York City’s Department of Parks & Recreation. But as the sun sets, he and his small team patrol the streets and spots where his fellow city employees often stop-and-frisk people. CopWatch has become known as a kind of inverted neighborhood watch – with eyes, ears and cameras pointed at the cops.
"We feel that through CopWatch, in our own way, community [members] and activists like ourselves could make police officers accountable for their actions, because we'll put them on social media and we'll blast it," he said.
A personal mission
LaSalle has spent much of his life tangling with law enforcement.
"Close to 15 years of my life have been spent in prison, in and out of jail," he said. "And it took a long time for me to find myself."
LaSalle was arrested multiple times on drug-dealing charges. After his last stint in prison, he met his wife Nancy, the woman he says saved him from the streets. But it was after the incident with Alvin that he decided to make his work "all about the community." Now, when he hears about a possible incident of police abuse, he said he feels the impulse to pull on his CopWatch uniform and rush out there.
"I just feel like I need to be a superhero or something," he explained.
CopWatch doesn't file direct complaints for people who allege police abuse, so LaSalle can’t be certain of the outcome of his work. But the group’s very presence has an impact, he said; when cops see volunteers out on the street with cameras, they sometimes change their behavior. And the case of Garner, he said, shows the difference a video can make.
In the month after Garner’s death, arrests in the Staten Island precinct where he was killed plummeted compared to the same period last year: gang and gun-related crime arrests both dropping about 70 percent and drug busts falling almost 40 percent. The data show a similar decrease in major crimes for the precinct, with robberies, assaults and burglaries all down.
Working in that precinct, LaSalle said he’s noticed a difference in the behavior of police.
"To be honest, it has changed a lot, to the point where police now are more afraid of the camera," he said. "They don't want to be the next Daniel Pantaleo, getting caught on camera, actually doing something like that."
Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly denied that the NYPD was given any order to back off. America Tonight reached out to the NYPD several times, but the department declined to comment.
The NYPD recently announced its own plans to equip some officers with wearable video cameras over the next several months. In justifying the pilot program, Commissioner William Bratton said police cameras "tend to de-escalate" confrontations with police and would also help reduce "bald-faced lies" about police actions. But the NYPD has yet to clarify some of the most contentious issues with officer body cams: when they will be turned on, how to store footage and who will have access to it.
Fighting the bureaucracy
The NYPD already has a mechanism for policing itself: the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB – an independent citizen group that investigates complaints of police misconduct.
"It's never been effective, to put it bluntly," said Richard Emery, a prominent civil rights lawyer. "…It has never gained much traction with the public in terms of confidence. And certainly the police have always viewed it as a kangaroo court.”
Emery, a founding partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff and Abady LLP, has a long history of antagonizing the police. In one of his most notable cases, Emery forced New York City to pay out $33 million for the illegal strip searches of low-level offenders at Rikers Island.
"I sue the police for a lot," he explained.
On the same July day when Garner died, de Blasio tapped Emery to be the CCRB’s new chairman.
Emery acknowledges he was brought in as part of a major overhaul of a beleaguered board. Public opinion of the CCRB was on full display in its public meeting last week, which Emery described as “raucous.”
"We sit there on this podium talking about CCRB processes … all of this kind of mumbo-jumbo government talk,” he said. “And then we have a public session and these people get up and they spill their guts out about the sadness of their situation when they have been confronted by police officers."
The biggest criticism of the CCRB is that it lacks the authority to discipline NYPD officers. After substantiating claims, it can only write recommendations, and the consequences usually range from re-training specific offenders to suspension. From there, it's up to Commissioner Bratton to ultimately decide the officer’s fate. Emery said about 25 to 40 percent of the board’s recommended consequences have been thrown out.
But if the CCRB doesn't have the direct authority to police the police, what's the point?
"It has the power to require police officers to justify themselves," Emery explained. "To bring them in, to face the complainants and to explain the circumstances that led to the allegations of misconduct … Process is power. It's not only outcome that's power."
Emery has already pledged an array of reforms from the promise of CCRB offices in each neighborhood to faster turnaround times for investigations. But he’s candid about the challenge he faces in his first stint on this side of the system.
"All I can do is figure out what I think is needed and see if I can get this bureaucracy to respond," he said. "…Do I think I can be successful? Who knows. Do I think I can improve it? Yes."
For LaSalle, it'll take more convincing that the NYPD is serious about reform. He was also there at the last public CCRB meeting, and when community members shared their grievances, he said the look on the faces of the board members was “priceless.”
"They had no choice but to take these punches,” he said. “…But these hits that they [were] taking was the reality of what's happening in these communities of color, with police officers when they go in there to patrol them."
Unwilling to wait for the system to reform itself, LaSalle will continue to dole out his own form of justice with CopWatch patrols.
“We’re just getting started. You know, we are the new and improved Black Panthers. We're the new and improved Young Lords. We are the new freedom fighters, and there's no stopping.”