Last week was quite a chaotic time to be an intern with the NYPD’s Legal Bureau for a few reasons. The first being that the mother and daughter of Eric Garner as well as several leading members of the Black Lives Matter movement declared that they would have eleven days of protest following the Justice Department’s decision to not prosecute Officer Pantaleo for violating Eric Garner’s civil rights. My office, the Police Action Litigation, handles most protests as it is common for protestors to be arrested and then sue the NYPD when district attorneys decline to prosecute. As you might imagine the promise of eleven consecutive days of protesting put the attorneys in my office on high alert each day. The other reason for the turbulent week was the social media frenzy that occurred involving NYPD officers being doused in water by pedestrians. This was a trend us interns were told to monitor throughout the summer as it had been happening before this past week, however this past heat wave’s incidents really brought an enormous amount of attention to it.
This summer I have spoken to many employees of the legal bureau, and one of the reoccurring topics they bring up with me is how I view the sentiment towards police officers amongst my generation. These employees, many of whom are attorneys not officers, believe there is dangerous anti-police rhetoric being perpetuated further by news agencies and social media. They curiously pick my brain on the topic to see my opinion as if I somehow am the representative voice of my generation. Yet the more time I spend in the office and partake in casual conversations the more I realize it is not mere curiosity but rather a gauge of my own alliance to the NYPD.
The attorneys that I work with are employees of the NYPD, however there is a vast difference in their work to that of the officers on patrol. Yet I have now realized these attorneys see themselves as equal parts to the success of the NYPD. Further, these attorneys take a seemingly equal offense to the perceived anti-police rhetoric and action seen on social media in recent years and specifically recent weeks. I am constantly being spoken to in a way that explains if not rationalizes the actions of officers that might be perceived malicious in a short video clip. I am shown extended cuts of body cam footage or am told the events that led up to a situation to see the full picture. I hear the anger in their voices as they call out across the office that another officer was just covered in water. This anger so palpable it is as if they themselves were just hit with a bucket.
This organizational culture lends itself to buying into an infallible NYPD force that is at worst simply misunderstood by the general population. For every well-reasoned critique of the NYPD that is raised, an all-out defense is manned in unison from all attorneys in earshot. When considering the case of Eric Garner it is immediately turned to the letter of the law which has insulated Officer Pantaleo from trouble. For every clip on social media seen of an officer using a questionable amount of force on an individual being put under arrest, the answer is “well why were they resisting arrest?” or the prior crimes they have committed in their life. This is not meant to be a scathing review of the NYPD. This summer I have gained a great appreciation for all the NYPD does to maintain New York as the safest big city in the country as well a deep respect for the wonderful work of the Legal Bureau. I know that the overwhelming majority of officers are just like anyone of us doing their job the best they can. However, the culture within the organization is not flawless by any means. At times I hold my tongue when discussing cases for I know that I will be bombarded with defenses of the actions I believe to be unjustified. The culture is what makes the legal bureau so effective in defending the cases brought against the NYPD, but I do wonder if this culture is what is holding back the relationship between the police and those they took an oath to protect and serve.