Since I have come of age politically, police violence has often been in the forefront of the media, from the Ferguson protests to Colin Kaepernick. Even this in presidential election season, Mayor Buttigieg and Mayor de Blasio have each been at the receiving end of harsh criticism for the use of excessive force by their cities’ police. What the media often fails to address, however, is the ways with which already marginalized individuals are further disadvantaged by being on the receiving end of police targeting. A police interaction does not need to end in violence for it to be harmful. In my social work classes at Skidmore, we discuss alternative programs to punishing individuals and the root causes of crime, which are often poverty and social exclusion. This summer, I wanted to observe this phenomenon up close, and do something meaningful about it. I have been fortunate enough to intern at the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) in New York City, a grass-roots organization that works to expose the biased and abusive policing policies of the NYPD. PROP is primarily concerned with studying the rates of non-violent arrests and crimes that make up “Broken Windows” policing, such as petty theft, jay-walking, and biking on the side-walk. I am responsible for attending the lowest level arraignment courts in each borrow to take down demographic data about arrests, researching school safety policies and non-punitive alternatives, creating fact sheets to be released to the public, and petitioning for mental health reform and an increase in funding for community social workers and counselors.
What I have seen through my research and court visits directly support everything that I have learned in my classes at Skidmore. The people who are arrested for petty theft are more often than not homeless and taking food. Any given day, 90%-100% of those we see arrested are people of color. One case that moved me was with an 18 year old black boy who was charged for assault of the 3rd degree. He had gotten into a yelling match with his sister and mom, and a neighbor called the police. The police arrested him and held him in custody for 20 hours. When he saw the judge, the lawyer informed she had spoken to his mother her who did not want an order of protection against him, she just wanted him to come home. The judge issued one anyways, and sent him out of the court guilty for disorderly conduct. At first glance, that may look like a success. He does not have jail-time on his record, and was sent out pretty quickly with relatively little consequences. But what an order of protection really means for this boy is that he is now no longer able to contact either his mother or his sister. He cannot see them, talk to them, pass messages through other family members, and most significantly, he is no longer able to live at home. By the time his 10 minutes in front of the judge was over, he was homeless. His mother, who was sitting behind our court monitoring group, began to cry as this happened. An officer approached her and said “Excuse me Ma’am, are you his mother?” When she responded with yes, he said that he’s sorry but she must leave. By being in the court room she was putting him at risk for being re-arrested and sent to jail. What I saw in this instance was not justice served but a punitive system that is out of touch with the needs of the people its serves. Another case that showed me that policing is not just overbearing but also biased was when 4 older black men were arrested and tried for having “possession of a gambling device.” Their crime? Having dice in their pockets. Personally, I don’t believe that anyone, even the officers, were concerned about people having dice.
While it can be disheartening to see a revolving door of people who are picked up from the street, given fines and charges just to be sent right back out, PROP is empowering me to do something about it. Because the organization is well known among other groups and local politicians, though also underfunded, interns are a driving force of the organization. I am able to propose what directions we take our projects and make decisions about the research I produce. This summer, I have learned as much about the policies of the NYPD as I have about working for non-profits. My boss has gone out of his way to schedule meetings and presentations with other organizations who are interested in similar work. Through these meetings, he has allowed for us to understand the different strategies for creating change. PROP prides itself on not having a seat at the “table” where decisions are made. They do this so they are able to report what they see without worrying about losing the support of relevant politicians. Other groups we have met with prefer to work as an agent on the inside. I see value in both. I would also emphasize, to all Skidmore students who may apply for internships in the future, the importance of analyzing the approach any organization takes. Pay attention to their approaches and try to gauge how interested an organization will be in your development. Non-profit work is exhausting, and it helps to be working with people who share your philosophies. I have been fortunate enough to have a supervisor who cares enough to schedule events solely for my professional development. Also, PROP is always looking for new interns!