Voices Unheard: Reflections on Important Police Brutality Cases
Contributor(s): Joseph Lanni
George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor – three innocent black American citizens murdered by white police officers or vigilantes in recent months. They are only the most recent innocent black Americans to be killed under similar circumstances.
Their names are added to the list of many other unarmed black victims needlessly killed in the same way in recent years:
The list goes on over the years, decades, and centuries (Amadou Diallo, Emmett Till) and includes hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, and probably more. Many Americans have had enough of it. Today’s protests over systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system are justifiably widespread, raucous, demanding and persistent because the voices of protest against these injustices have gone unheard in America for far too long.
Truth be told, the senseless and unjustifiable murders of innocent black citizens in Minneapolis, Louisville, and Georgia should not surprise us. These killings are the byproduct of “the stain of America’s original sin” – slavery – and the de facto slavery of systemic racism that has continued to persist in America for more than 175 years since the “emancipation” of slaves. Similarly, we should not be surprised by the reaction to these killings – widespread protests that persisted for days on the streets of every major city across the nation. Today’s protests are an eruption of frustration over America’s systemic racism because the demands for justice and equal protection of the laws have been unaddressed by any meaningful change.
“America can no longer credibly deny that systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system exists or that the utter failure to acknowledge and effectively address the problem merely causes and contributes to more deaths in the black community at the hands of the police. Systemic racism exists in ways that go beyond the actual killings of black people.”
The willful refusal of too many white Americans to recognize, understand, acknowledge, and speak the truth about these problems makes them acquiescent and complicit in allowing the carnage against our fellow black citizens to continue. Don’t we have a duty to live up to our ideals that require equal protection of the laws? Aren’t we charged with the responsibility to make “a more perfect union” that is inclusive and respectful of every black citizen’s rights and lives? The obvious answer is “yes” to both questions, but we have miserably failed to meet that duty and responsibility.
The systemic racism that pervades our law enforcement and criminal justice system produces example after example of unjustifiable deaths at the hands of the police among our fellow black citizens on a scale that would be unfathomable in the white majority community. The militarization of law enforcement seems to enhance the willingness and ability to direct aggression toward the most aggrieved of our minority communities. What results is a vicious cycle. The cycle continues doomed to be repeated by the tacit acquiescence and complicity of white silence and recalcitrant white denial. This vicious cycle has no hope of ending until America collectively acknowledges its racism and commits to meaningful change.
I immediately understood the widescale nature of the protests to be the inevitable reaction to governments’ utter failure to meaningfully address America’s most enduring flaw. I saw up close the overwhelmingly pervasive nature of the systemic racism endemic to law enforcement and the criminal justice system more than twenty-five years ago as a practicing lawyer.NYC Civil Right Lawyer Joseph Lanni
I was awakened to the truth of it out of my own white privileged complacency when, by mere chance of circumstances, I became involved as a lawyer in representing innocent young black men from Harlem and Washington Heights in federal court who had been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned under 20 year to life sentences through the perjury and falsified evidence of corrupt officers in the NYPD “Dirty Thirty” scandal.
NYPD’s “Dirty Thirty” were a group of 34 cops, including one sergeant, in NYPD’s 30th Precinct who built their careers off corruption, fabricated evidence, and wrongful arrests. This group of officers, who called themselves “Nannery’s Raiders,” falsified 911 calls to cover up illegal search and seizures of money and drugs which they would then resell for a profit. They used a tactic called “booming doors” to enter apartments without a warrant and arrest whoever was inside – whether or not they were actually drug dealers. In two of my cases, my clients were minding their own business in their homes when NYPD knocked down their door and demanded to see their stash of drugs. Neither client had any idea what they were talking about but that wasn’t going to stop these officers. They needed to justify their actions – thus, for every door that was a dead end, they decided to fabricate a cover story. In the case of my clients, they said, “if you don’t tell us where your stash is, this belongs to you.” They were referring to unregistered guns, called “throwaways”, and bricks of cocaine that the officers passed off as belonging to my clients. These innocent young men were taken into custody and charged with possession of drugs and illegal weapons. They were both given sentences of 20 years to life after the police officers perjured themselves in front of a grand jury and at trial by creating a story about my clients and the contraband. The “Dirty Thirty” police officers weren’t arrested until 1994 and eventually confessed that they falsely put away 77 innocent black and Hispanic residents of Harlem and Washington Heights, including my clients.
The “Dirty Thirty” scandal made clear to me that the same police officers who were assigned to protect and defend the public had essentially used their shield to turn adversarial, become criminals, and make “war” on the citizens in the black communities of Harlem and Washington Heights. Scores of innocent young black men were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison with lengthy sentences due to the perjury and falsified evidence provided by these corrupt officers. The police officers violated the victims’ constitutional and human rights with impunity. In essence, the many corrupt police officers in the NYPD’s 30th Precinct concluded that the black lives in the communities they were assigned to protect and serve did not matter.
As a lawyer involved in the “Dirty Thirty” scandal cases, I was lead counsel in the cases of two wrongfully imprisoned young black Dominican men. I fought for them to get justice and eventually they received substantial compensation in the millions for their ordeals. The lives of my clients from Harlem and Washington Heights mattered greatly to me. In the end, I compelled the City of New York and NYPD to acknowledge how much my clients’ lives mattered by paying damages. The cases are among the most personally fulfilling matters of my lengthy career as a lawyer.
After the “Dirty Thirty” cases came another case in federal court involving two middle aged black male bus drivers wrongfully arrested by the Nassau County police as “suspected robbers”. Their only “crime” was to be walking the aisles of a pharmacy in a white majority town looking for toothache medicine, paper napkins and laundry detergent. In the “Bus Drivers” case, the two men were placed in custody on “suspicion of attempted robbery” even though they were unarmed and had done nothing other than approach the cash register with things to buy. They were taken to the local precinct house, handcuffed to pipes on the wall, and made to sit for hours while they were harshly interrogated about robberies in Nassau County. Though held in custody and interrogated for hours, the two men were never formally charged with a crime.
At trial, the Nassau County police officers attempted to justify the arrest of the two men by claiming that they were “acting suspiciously” and resembled two men who had robbed several fast food restaurants late at night; however, it became self-evident that “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” were entirely lacking for the arrests. My clients’ only “suspicious activity” was walking around the store looking for the things they wanted to buy. The only resemblance that my clients had to the robbery suspects was that of race, otherwise they were no match for the age, height, weight, hair style or facial characteristics of the suspects.
During summations, I argued to the jury that my clients’ were arrested only because the police had engaged in “racial profiling”. The police had improperly relied on race to arrest my clients but entirely ignored all the other factors that clearly showed that my clients were innocent of any crimes. In the end, the jury found that my clients were wrongfully arrested without “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion”, their constitutional rights were violated, and they were awarded monetary damages. The “Bus Drivers” case was one of the first successful “racial profiling” wrongful arrest cases in New York.
After the “Bus Drivers” case came another case of a young black teenage girl, “T” in the Bronx who was forcibly accosted in her bed while sleeping and wrongfully arrested by the Westchester County Probation Department’s warrant squad executing a “no-knock” warrant in her home at 5:00 a.m. The five white plainclothes officers entered T’s darkened bedroom and forcibly pulled her out of bed. Awakened from a deep sleep, the girl struggled with the officers who struck her several times, hit her head against the wall, and pushed her down on the floor. The teenager was handcuffed, shackled, and dragged out of the bedroom. The raiding cops brandished guns and a fugitive warrant that bore a different woman’s name when alarmed family members awakened to confront the intruders in the home. She was dragged off in pajamas despite her own startled parents’ vehement insistence that the police had the wrong person. Despite the fact that T repeatedly told the officers that they had the wrong person, they refused to believe her. T was eventually released when her fingerprints didn’t match the subject of the warrant. T’s case was settled before trial in federal court.
The “Dirty Thirty”, “Bus Drivers” and “T” cases all bear the same trademark of wrongful arrests or imprisonments of innocent black citizens under circumstances that would have been unthinkable in the white majority communities where I grew up and now reside. What I saw and learned back then shook me free of the uninformed beliefs and assumptions of my white privilege. I was shocked, astonished and dismayed by what I saw and learned about the systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system that so clearly devalued the lives, liberties, freedom and rights of our black citizens.
I was also astonished by the blasé reaction to the racism by some prosecutors, lawyers, and judges involved in these cases. I recall one white lawyer defending the City and NYPD in the “Dirty Thirty” cases telling me, “Your client may have been innocent of this crime, but I know he is a bad guy and I’ll bet he did a lot of other bad things”. There was no evidence suggesting any nefarious activity by my client. I gathered from this white lawyer’s racist comment that my client’s real “crime” was being young, black, Spanish speaking, and living in Harlem. When I told the jury during summation that “racial profiling” and the “poison seed of bigotry” explained the unlawful arrests of my clients in the “Bus Drivers” case, an opposing white lawyer claimed in summation that I was “playing the race card”. The white lawyer seemed to entirely miss the point that it was the police officers who “played the race card” when they arrested the two bus drivers for merely being the only black patrons browsing for purchases at a store in a white majority town. The white lawyer’s ignorant “race card” comment implied that race should somehow be a topic that was off-limits or was a bogus issue at a trial when holding police departments to account for racially based civil rights violations. Thankfully the jury didn’t buy the “race card” argument.
When I would talk about my experiences and observations involving systemic racism at the time in the mid-nineties to white people, I felt it mostly “fell on deaf ears”. When I said things like “we have a racist criminal justice system”, “racist practices” or “racial profiling” is “inherent in our policing”, and “we are running a racist American gulag in our prison system” at white dinner parties 25 years ago, it was met with scoffing, derisiveness, anger and heated resistance that was reflexively defensive of the status quo. I fought the fight for justice against the systemic racism in law enforcement twenty-five years ago and my clients received justice in the “Dirty Thirty”, “Bus Drivers” and “T” cases; however, America didn’t change and terrible injustices continued to be suffered by our fellow black citizens time and time again over the ensuing years despite many cases being brought by lawyers for civil rights violations. White America remained tone deaf to the wider message of those cases about our society’s most enduring flaw.
Today, many Americans can no longer tolerate the systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. When I see Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and other racist politicians on TV mouthing the same tired old canards about “law and order”, I have to ask myself, how can they be so oblivious, so willfully ignorant, so dismissive of objective reality about the real issue? The answer to these questions is that the agenda underlying such outrageously phony rhetoric is to enforce the status quo because they benefit immensely by the racism of our society.
The protests that convulsed our nation over the last few weeks were a watershed event. Thousands of Americans across the country raised their voices to demand change after witnessing the outrageous police violence that claimed the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Every American’s hope should be that these horrendously racist murders will be the catalyst for meaningful change. The necessary first step in addressing our deepest problem is for America to collectively acknowledge the systemic racism that pervades law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The time for action is now – it is long overdue.
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