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I CAN recall it as if it were yesterday: looking into the toilet and seeing blood instead of urine. That was the aftermath of my first police encounter.
As a 15-year-old, living in South Jamaica, Queens, I was arrested on a criminal trespass charge after unlawfully entering and remaining in the home of an acquaintance. Officers took me to the 103rd Precinct — the same precinct where an unarmed Sean Bell was later shot and killed by the police — and brought me into a room in the basement. They kicked me in the groin repeatedly. Out of every part of my body, that’s what they targeted. Then I spent the night in Spofford juvenile detention center.
For seven days after that, I stared into the toilet bowl in my house at the blood I was urinating. I kept telling myself that if it didn’t clear up by the next day, I would share this shame and embarrassment with my mother, although I could never bring myself to start that conversation. When clear urine returned, I thought I was leaving that moment behind me. I never told anyone this, not even my mother, until I was an adult.
As I attempted to put that shame and attack on my manhood away, new horror stories kept compelling me to relive those memories: the nightmare experiences of Randolph Evans, Patrick Dorismond, Abner Louima and countless other young men have reminded me of my own secret. Think of all the secrets that young men of color are hiding. How many are concealing some dark truth of the abuse they endured, and what is that darkness doing to them?
In order to finally bring this darkness into the light of day, our nation must address the foundation of this crisis. That starts with acknowledging that the training taught in police academies across the country is not being applied in communities of color. After six months in the police academy, that instruction is effectively wiped out by six days of being taught by veteran cops on the streets.
I learned this myself firsthand. I didn’t want any more children to go through what I endured, so I sought to make change from the inside by joining the police department.
Hours after coming out of the police academy, I was told something as a new rookie officer: You’d rather be tried by 12 jurors than carried by six pallbearers. In my impressionable first days, I saw officers leave the precinct every day touching the lockers of their fallen brothers. They started their shift on the defensive, thinking about protecting themselves, as opposed to the communities they served, regardless of the complexion of those communities. One of my white fellow officers once told me that if he saw a white individual with a gun, he took extra care for himself and the individual. When he saw a black individual with a gun, he took care only for himself.
These are the lessons to which I was exposed, and the reality of what policing communities of color has been, not just in New York City but across America. There is a legacy of inequity that did not just appear overnight, but was carved into the culture of law enforcement over decades.
There is reluctance on the part of police leadership, which has long believed in the nightstick and quick-trigger-finger justice, to effectively deal with officers who have documented and substantiated records of abuse. These individuals need to be removed from the force. That is an essential component of the larger response we must have to address this history of abuse.
We cannot continue to approach policing in an antiquated fashion, and that certainly includes technology. Technology has been used as a crime-fighting tactic, but not as a tool to determine what happens during a police action. New York City has taken the right step in putting body cameras on police officers, but what about cameras on guns themselves? While I was a state senator, I introduced a proposal to allow such devices, which would not interfere with the function of the weapon; this proposal deserves to be revisited. In fact, we can go further, with cameras on police vehicles as well. Not only will technology shine a light on the darkness of these police encounters, it will be significant in advancing community trust that accountability does in fact apply.
Equally important, especially in the wake of what has taken place after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, is reform to our grand jury system. Grand juries were established in England in the 12th and 13th centuries, a vestige of a time when people needed to be protected from unfair prosecution from the king and others. There was a necessary element of secrecy — one that need not apply in cases involving police misconduct.
Open, preliminary hearings in court can and should determine if a case should be stepped up to a trial. Additionally, the handling of police shootings should be wholly separated from local grand juries. These bodies cannot handle cases involving local police officers on whom they rely every day.
Special grand juries should be convened for police-related incidents, and independent agencies must gather evidence even before they convene, at the time of police encounters where a death has occurred; the evidence gathered at that moment is the evidence that will shape whether there is an indictment, as well as whether there will be a fair trial based on the facts.
All of these ideas need to be moved forward under the leadership of our president, our governors, the mayors of our major cities and our law enforcement leadership. If we fail to take advantage of this moment that history has laid on our doorstep, we are doomed to more abuse, more division and more chaos.
When my son was 15, he was stopped by the police in a movie theater for no apparent reason. He showed his ID and explained that his father was a retired police captain and a state senator. The response was “So what?” It doesn’t and shouldn’t matter who he is. He shouldn’t have had that experience at all. And until that changes, for all men of color, real reform will never come.
Eric L. Adams is the Brooklyn borough president, a retired New York Police Department captain and the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.