In a question-and-answer session on civil rights and engaging with police officers, attorney Michael Sussman painted a picture that was not exactly hopeful, but left the door open to a future with fewer dangerous police encounters if a wider dialog on police rights and responsibilities occurs.
Sussman was invited to speak at the event (along with King Downing, who had to cancel at the last minute) by organizers, who included members of the International Socialist Organization, Black Student Union and Concerned Parents of New Paltz. As laid out by Black Student Union representative Imani Burnett, the purpose was to provide education about rights during a police encounter, how to exercise them and how to recognize issues of excessive force used by law enforcement personnel.
Explaining how the Concerned Parents of New Paltz got involved, Tanya Marquette recounted that racism has always been the group’s focus throughout its 30-year-plus history. Much of that work is done in the public schools, but members became interested in the Paul Echols case, wherein a 23-year-old African-American man accused local police of brutality in the course of an arrest in New Paltz last September. Police were cleared of wrongdoing by the New Paltz Police Commission, a result Marquette said was “not surprising, but extremely annoying.” The case against Echols, 23 of Ellenville, for charges arising from that encounter, will be in New Paltz court on March 4. (Sussman is Echols’ attorney.)
One impact of the Echols case is that a system put into place to keep citizens involved in complaints against officers failed completely, and was consequently replaced. When the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which was created in 2016 to advise on disciplinary matters, were asked to comment on the Echols case, members were not clear as to their actual charge, or how to obtain the information they felt necessary to proceed. It was the first matter considered using this process, and it was the first time town attorney Joe Moriello got a look at how the group was structured. Finding some legal issues, he recommended scrapping the advisory committee in favor of an advisory board; town council members did just that on February 7. Membership on that board has yet to be determined, but actual discipline will rest with the police chief and lieutenant unless that authority is transferred during contract negotiations this year.
Sussman recounted details from his cases that involved police use of force. To his mind, while racism plays a role in many of them, that speaks to racial tensions in society, rather than suggests that police officers are more racist than members of the public at large. Once an attorney at the NAACP, Sussman finds that present leadership of that organization have been “muted” in their response to inflammatory rhetoric and race-related events. Added to that is what’s becoming a typical pattern of reaction from members of the general public: they “get riled up and concerned,” but overall are becoming “numbed” by the frequency such events are reported.
What makes racism problematic in a police officer is that court precedent and law give that officer a certain amount of protection from prosecution. “There should be a criminal prosecution” when arrest becomes abuse, Sussman believes, and such officers “should never be near a badge again.” The legal environment provides certain doctrines of immunity, however, and often an officer is actually defended through the state attorney general’s office, a practice Sussman would like to see ended.
The culture, too, contributes to the assumption that police officers are in the right. District attorneys and medical examiners have close relationships with police officers, and investigating them could prove politically difficult. Sussman spoke of a case in which a suspect initially ran from police, then stopped and surrendered. When he was lying face-down on the ground, an officer broke the suspect’s ankle by stepping on it, and then his wrist. “If you run, it’s hard to later sue,” Sussman said, because members of juries won’t be focusing on the subsequent surrender.
Held in the student union building on campus, the event drew members of the campus and wider New Paltz communities. Sussman told an audience mixed in age and ethnic background not to “fight back in the moment” of an police encounter, as that only gives an “opportunity to brutalize you.” Instead he recommends “living another day to fight against the misconduct.” While he finds that cases of misconduct against young men of color to be common and “heartbreaking,” he warned that “it could happen to anyone” due to racial stereotypes and divisive rhetoric on the national stage.
Perhaps to demonstrate that societal divisions are more across racial than class lines, Sussman spoke of D.J. Henry, a Pace University student fatally shot by police in 2010. A football player from an affluent family, Henry was shot while driving away from police at a slow rate of speed. An investigation revealed that police reports about Henry’s behavior were inconsistent with the facts. His parents eventually received settlements of several wrongful-death suits, but the officer was never charged with any crime. Sussman says that this tendency is the result of “devaluation” of the life of the victim compared to those of other people.
While there is little one can do during a police encounter, Sussman hinted that more could be done on a wider level, if there was but the will. “We haven’t tried” to do more, he said, and that emboldens potential wrongdoers. The attorney would like to turn the concept of “broken-windows policing” on its head, and focus that level of scrutiny on law enforcement officers. “If we let them get away with small things,” he believes, it can lead to these more serious cases. As with policing for broken windows, when the smallest issue is prosecuted to ensure bigger problems never happen, Sussman would have police officers under a societal microscope to ensure they are indeed protecting and serving.
Sussman told audience members that a body camera captured officers yelling about Echols spitting blood on them, which is part of the narrative in reports filed about the incident. However, according to what the attorney saw in that body camera footage, there is “not a speck of blood on any of them” even as they are claiming to have blood covering them. This is officers “trying to justify” what had occurred after the fact, Sussman posited. All victims of police “have done something terrible.”
The timing of this event may heighten attendance at Echols’ March 4 court date, but as Sussman noted, organizing around a single incident is not likely to change things. That’s going to take long-term, sustained action on many fronts. Whether that will occur in New Paltz or the state remains to be seen.