The Death of Dontay Ivy and “Walking While Black”

March 1, 2016

I’ve been reading District Attorney David Soares’ letter to Mayor Sheehan on the death of Donald (Dontay) Ivy while in police custody. I’d like to discuss some of what came out of the D.A.’s investigation.

Donald Ivy went out to an ATM, to collect disability benefits, intending to come home. David Soares describes Dontay’s first encounter with the police that night. Two officers [quote] “approached … [Dontay Ivy] sitting on the steps of a property in the South End. The officers approached … in an attempt to learn if he was trespassing.” [close quote] Satisfied that he was’t, they left. Have you ever rested on the steps of a building? Did you think you were trespassing? You weren’t and he wasn’t unless the owner or tenant conveyed an objection or he had gone through a lock, door, fence or barricade. For the police, the mere fact that an African-American man was sitting on some steps was enough to check on him.

A little later that evening, Dontay was walking on Lark Street. Soares noted that it was 26 degrees according to “historical weather data.” But the officers’ became concerned because he was wearing a winter coat, what they called “a ‘puffer’ coat,” [close quote] was [quote] “walking heavily on his left arm” [close quote] and [quote] “appeared to be bunching up his left hand into his sleeve.” [close quote] I’ve done that, sometimes to shelter something from the weather, sometimes because one hand was colder, because of the way I’d been using my hands or had somehow restricted circulation in one hand.

According to District Attorney Soares, one officer said [quote] “the way he was walking didn’t seem right.” [close quote] I don’t know why – a crick, a cramp, or a little arthritis. I can imagine someone coming up to me and asking if I was OK. But the officers asked to see Dontay’s hands and wanted to know where he was going. I can’t relate to that from my experience. Can you?

Apparently because Dontay had on a loose fitting winter coat, whatever he was able to afford on his disability check, one of the officers [quote] “was under the impression that Mr. Ivy might have had a weapon, or possibly drugs.” [close quote] That inference was’t backed up by anything found on Mr. Ivy. It’s an inference that could easily be drawn about most of us sometimes, but I suspect few of us have had police make that kind of inference about us – certainly not if we have white skin and decent clothes.

The report continues that one officer [quote] “noticed what appeared to be a tied-off plastic baggy of the sort used to package drugs on the ground, about ten to twelve feet away from Mr. Ivy, near where he had been walking.” [close quote] If I had to explain every plastic bag found near me when I’m out for a walk, neither the police nor I would have time for anything else. And plastic bag stories are so common in cases where police are trying to justify a search that everyone in the criminal process has become enormously skeptical. It later turned out that the bag was empty.

After they questioned him further, they decided to pat Dontay down. According to the police, he consented, but reacted to being touched by pulling his hands down. Soares’ letter says, “From interviews with members of the Ivy family, we are led to believe that, as part of his mental illness, Mr. Ivy did not like to be touched.” [close quote] Mr. Ivy was under medication for his illness. Let me add that I have learned, from experience and from some direct remarks, that many African-Americans do not like to be touched even in ways that are completely unexceptional in the U.S., including a tap on the shoulder which got me a withering look from a speaker at an event of an organization of which I was a board member.

Obviously things kept getting worse until, as David Soares summarized the findings of the medical examiner, [quote] “Mr. Ivy suffered from an underlying condition that made him particularly susceptible to a heart attack brought on by the stress of the incident with the police.” [close quote] By the time of his death, that stress included the officers attempt to handcuff him, Ivy’s attempt to flee, a chase, subduing Ivy with handcuffs, leg restraints, a police baton and several taser strikes.

Clearly before the stress killed him, the stress led Ivy to do some things that were unwise, that I as an attorney would have advised against had I been able to reach him. But people doing stupid things under stress is a fact of being human. Interestingly, at one point, one of the officers told Dontay they were going to detain him because he couldn’t follow the officer’s instructions to keep his hands up, adding [quote] “You’re making me a bit nervous.” [close quote]

It’s striking how ordinary all this is – Dontay’s behavior before the police stopped him; his obvious fear of the police and what they were doing is also ordinary, especially in the Black community; the officers’ fear that Ivy had a gun, even though based on a string of inferences from very ordinary behavior, and fear about a possession which, under recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, would arguably have been within his rights.

But from all those very ordinary facts, a man is dead and the D.A., the grand jury, the police chief and the Mayor all apparently find no one blameworthy. What it means is that for [quote] “walking while Black,” [close quote] a man needs the savvy of a criminal defense lawyer and the courage to deal with stressful situations by focusing on how scared the police are because of the color of his skin.

— A shorter version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 1, 2016.

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NYPD – What Now?

January 29, 2015

Two weeks ago I described my concerns about the New York City Police Department. It’s actually a much bigger problem – police all over the country have been using their power and their guns instead of their heads. Many people in our communities have been paying the price for years. Big problem, all over the place, persistent, rooted in the system, so are we stuck with it?

So let me offer some suggestions.

First, police brass can act. They can look at the records to see which policemen frequently charge people with the kind of minor crimes police use to cover up their own abusive behavior – charges like resisting arrest.[1] The brass could demand that police make good relations with people on the street a priority. Unfortunately, however, that won’t work without buy-in by a large portion of the department. Otherwise it will disappear – resisted, pushed out, forgotten.

By comparison, Vietnam taught the generals the importance of race relations – you can’t have a multi-racial military with an internal race war. Soldiers who’d be happier if the next guy in the foxhole took it for Old Glory are not “with the program.” That’s an internal problem rather than community relations but it’s instructive. The military didn’t get all ideological about how to do it and they didn’t run up the old race pride. They just asked what works.

So they made race relations a part of the responsibility of every officer. You want a promotion? You’re going to have to see to it that all the soldiers in your unit work together, that all the talent gets recognized, and promoted, regardless of color. And they got buy-in because people throughout the military understood the need.

Often when I run into people in the service I ask them about it. Blacks tell me life is much more civilized in military than in civilian life. They know that their accomplishments will be respected, that it’s worth their effort and cooperation.

For the police, responsibility would have to include relations with the communities served, and all the people in them. Imagine police having to think about community relations when they decide to stop and frisk someone because he’s Black or isn’t dressed nice, or before they pull a gun on or kill someone who is unarmed.

Unfortunately, I’m not confident we could get buy-in for such a good top to bottom renovation of the Force. Let me offer a wake-up call. New York City created community school boards, decentralizing the school system, a few years back. They put the communities in charge of the schools. That had problems but it had one big advantage – it broke up pre-existing power centers. It meant that people had to pay attention to the community. Imagine if the police had to make nice to the communities they serve. That’s an interesting suggestion, isn’t it? And the responses would highlight the problems. First the prejudices would show – “they,” meaning minority communities of course, can’t handle that. Some officers would have to bury those attitudes. That alone might do a lot of good. And police would respond that their perks are at stake. Well that is the problem – one of their perks has been the ability to abuse people without consequences.

Whatever you do in your community, apologies don’t solve the problem – get police attention with a significant proposal that puts the community in charge and let the police try to fight that with guns ablaze!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 27, 2015.

[1] See “NYPD Disciplinary Problems Linked To A ‘Failure Of Accountability’” with Robert Lewis and guests Darvel Elliot, Samuel Walker, Candace McCoy, Richard Emery and William Bratton, on Morning Edition, January 16, 2015, 10:00 AM EST (National Public Radio).


Police Accountability

January 6, 2015

I’ve been reading a case decided in the European Court of Human Rights. It involved opposing libel suits arising out of claims of police brutality in Bergen, Norway.[1] The opinion of four judges, whose names I will not try to pronounce, struck me. The judges pointed out that the purpose of the libel suits brought by the police officers “was to suppress the debate on this issue….” But they pointed out that the government has “a monopoly over force” and that monopoly “also entails the danger of force being abused to the detriment of the very values it is meant to uphold.” Therefore “abuse of force by officials is not just one of many issues of broad general interest.” Instead, “it is … a matter of primary concern in any society.” Keeping authorities in check is particularly important for a democracy. And the ability to hold the states’ use of force in check requires protecting those who raise the alarm.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law observed that “In numerous states … [there is a] general ban on the creation of para‑military formations.”[2] That’s because they are armed and dangerous.

So the judges in the Bergen case emphasized the “vital need for every society to exercise strict supervision over all use of force in the name of society.” Critics of official abuse need to be protected. The 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment specifically protects the right to complain.

But not about the New York City police.

It’s time we learn that there are wonderful police, and there are terrible police. But the culture of silence by which they protect each other against any and all criticism makes the wonderful police into allies of the terrible police. They’re unaccountable to each other and they’re unaccountable to the rest of us.

You and I can’t go walk down the street saying that guy down there could be armed, so if he puts his hands in his pocket I’m going to kill him. That’s not self-defense; that’s murder. But the police, who have sworn to defend us, insist they have that right to kill on the mere possibility that someone could be armed with evil intent. They insist they do not even have to account for it or defend themselves – it is disloyalty even to criticize or call for an investigation as Mayor de Blasio has done.

What the police are doing is showing that they are a special interest, not public servants. Everyone else is accountable, from the President down to the janitor, everyone is subject to investigation and criticism, everyone’s methods are open for revision. Heads of government departments and heads of corporations are accountability to us, to the public. But not the guys that claim the right to kill us. That has a clear meaning for me – I don’t trust them. They have a code of silence and self-protection and they just dare us even to question them. That means they should not be trusted. Just one more special interest trying to bilk the public. New York City’s Police have LOST my respect.

Soldiers in the military, regardless of politics, do not turn their backs on the Commander-in-Chief. That’s unacceptable. But it’s typical of the NYPD – they’re spoiled, dangerous and out of control.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 6, 2015.

[1] Opinion of Judges Kūris, Türmen, Strážnická and Greve, dissenting in Nilsen and Johnsen v. Norway, [1999] ECHR 23118/93[GC] (25 NOVEMBER 1999).

[2] Explanatory Report, incorporated as part III of Guidelines On Prohibition And Dissolution Of Political Parties, note 361 above, at ¶11, available at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2000/CDL-INF(2000)001-e.pdf.


War on What – Crime or the Poor?

November 18, 2014

Many of us realize that sending troops abroad can be counter-productive. Our boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan led many to take up arms against us. To them, we were the invaders.

See if this analogy fits. We don’t have data everywhere but what we have is telling. The Rutherford Institute, which bills itself as “A non-profit conservative legal organization dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights,” told the U.S. Supreme Court recently, that “the most common justification cited by New York City police for stopping individuals was presence in a ‘high crime area’” and “an additional 32% of stops were based on the time of day, and 23% of police stops were for an unspecified reason.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »


War on What – Crime or the Poor?

October 14, 2014

Many of us have realized that sending troops into some areas can be counter-productive. No matter how many the Israelis kill, more Palestinians prepare to fight them. Our boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan led many to take up arms against us. To them, we were the invaders.

Let me pose an analogy and see if it fits. We don’t have survey data from everywhere but what we have is telling. The Rutherford Institute, which has billed itself as “A non-profit conservative legal organization dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights,” told the U.S. Supreme Court recently, that “the most common justification cited by New York City police for stopping individuals was presence in a ‘high crime area’” and “an additional 32% of stops were based on the time of day, and 23% of police stops were for an unspecified reason.”[i] Read the rest of this entry »


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