Some Thoughts on the James Blake Incident

James Blake was a joy to watch play tennis. His heart was in every stroke. He fought for every point. He played—and I mean this in the best of ways—madly beyond his talent. He had the massive forehand, sure, but the rest of it was pure will. And pure will is fun to watch. So if twenty years from now, all people remember is that he was a guy who got stopped by the cops, that itself would be its own disrespect. That being said, I think that the arrest last week—and the spin afterwards by the NYPD—is worth dissecting.

I spent nearly a decade of my life investigating police misconduct in New York, crafting policy recommendations based on our investigations, and pitching stories to the press about problematic police officers and problematic police policies. I left the job in 2008, so most of the work that I did was before anyone seemed to much care about it. But I know a fair amount about the NYPD, the regulations governing police conduct, and search and seizure law.

Here is what we know about the James Blake incident. Plainclothes officers assigned to a task force investigating credit card fraud (not Anti-Crime or SNEU guys doing stop-and-frisks) arrested someone involved in a scheme to steal credit card numbers. That person identified Mr. Blake, standing nearby, as involved in the scheme. A lot has been said about an Instagram photo of someone else who was also totally innocent, but whether that guy looked like Blake or not is beside the point--a witness on the scene pointed out Blake to the cops.

Witness misidentification happens more than you would guess. If you want to make it about race, you’re probably right. I investigated plenty of cases where a black man was identified by a white witness who “mistook” him for someone else. The police officer who stopped Skip Gates was responding to a call from a neighbor (who herself only called because someone else told her to). When the on-site witness tells a police officer, “that’s the guy,” it’s very hard for them to get introspective and question the inherent racial bias of the witness.

The police officer moved in and tackled Blake immediately. The Daily News called the tackle “brutal.” I know a fair number of Daily News police reporters, and can tell you that they have all seen takedowns that are far more brutal that were never on the front page of the paper. I have watched the video. It isn’t any fun to be taken down like that. But I'm willing to bet that if you live in New York, you have seen someone arrested in exactly that manner. Maybe for selling weed in the park. Maybe for jumping a turnstile. Look at the passers-by in the video. They don't look very surprised at what they are seeing.

This is what a felony arrest looks like. It’s true that credit card fraud is not an inherently violent crime. But it is a felony, and credit card fraud rings are sometimes backed by gangs. This was not a stop-and-frisk encounter where an officer must escalate through the De Bour steps before effecting an arrest. This was a takedown, and this kind of takedown happens every day in this city.

I’m not saying that it was right or fair or just for the officer to tackle Mr. Blake. I’m saying it was not unusual. When City Council members act appalled at the violence of the takedown, I have to think they haven’t seen many arrests. On police officer message boards, you will read officers who are astonished that anyone thinks the move was violent at all. It was just like they teach you at the academy. Get the arms out of the way. Take the body to the ground. Cuff him quickly. For your safety and for his.

As soon as the story hit the press, the NYPD told the New York Times that the officer had four prior CCRB complaints, and allowed reporters to contact the complainants. During the nine years that I spent at the CCRB--as an investigator, policy officer, and press officer--we consistently tried to get the NYPD to discipline officers whom we found had conducted unauthorized searches, had beaten up kids, or who had used racial slurs. The NYPD's usual strategy when an officer has, say, thirteen complaints in a year, is to promote the guy to the Academy to train others. When the Times feigns surprise that the officer in the Blake incident wasn't fired after getting four CCRB complaints for punching people, I have to laugh a little. For years we reported publicly that the NYPD had stopped punishing officers in CCRB cases. When we found that an officer tried to get someone to cough up a glassine envelope by beating him over the back with a nightstick long enough to rupture his spleen, the department agreed with our findings just enough to dock the officer ten whole vacation days. 

As the press officer, I was constantly reminded that there is a special provision in state law, Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, that prohibits revealing any information about police officer discipline investigations in the press.  It's a terrible law, as I've said publicly.  But the new and supposedly more civilian-friendly CCRB has not only relied on this law to conceal incidents when it found that officers lied under oath at a CCRB interview (a firing offense for which no officer has ever been fired) it fired its Executive Director for providing officer histories to criminal defendants and then boasted about it (even though criminal defendants have a constitutional right to know when the officers who testify against them have lied under oath before).

The NYPD has done a very good and deeply cynical job of convincing everyone that the problem is an out-of-control officer. Because if the department admitted that the detective was doing exactly what it had trained him to do, then we would have to have a conversation about police tactics, police training, and police policy. And the NYPD very much does not want to have that conversation. Better to throw one guy under the bus, and crush the morale of your line officers (many of whom now understand that the captain who atta-boy's you today will clip your badge for doing the same thing tomorrow if it's convenient) than to look at what you are doing honestly and why.

But wait, you note. The detective failed to void the arrest. He didn't identify himself when asked. He hid what he has done. That is true as well. And the NYPD couldn’t be happier. This way they will be able to fire or reassign the detective for a procedural violation without ever having to address the arrest and the takedown itself.  The department is not about to say that officers can no longer tackle felony suspects. But whatever the reason they ditch the detective, the tabloids will report that he is gone and no one will be the wiser. Blake will applaud the Commissioner, and the department will go on throwing kids up against the wall, each officer hoping that he isn’t the one to accidentally tag somebody famous.