This past week, while all eyes were on Serena Williams’s historic (albeit unsuccessful) run in the US Open, another incident not too far from the arena has reignited the national conversation about police abuse and misbehavior. And as New York City officials rushed to get ahead of yet another embarrassing story, it’s important to remember that this type of incident is a common part of everyday policing.
On the afternoon of Sep. 9, retired professional tennis player James Blake, once ranked fourth in the world, was standing outside of his Midtown hotel when he saw a man rapidly approaching him. Thinking he might be an old friend or a fan, Blake smiled. In response, the man tackled Blake, throwing him to the ground, pushing his knee into Blake’s back and handcuffing him. It is a frightening ordeal to watch, and one that left Blake, physically bruised and, in his words, without dignity.
With protests against police brutality a constant drumbeat reverberating across the national landscape, the city responded swiftly to reports of a white officer’s seemingly unprovoked attack a black athlete. The mayor quickly released a statement apologizing and NYPD police commissioner Bill Bratton, for his part, conceded that Blake’s takedown appeared inappropriate. The officer involved, James Frascatore, was immediately assigned to desk duty.
But at the same time, city officials offered up contradictory versions of event that the press nonetheless continued to report as fact, especially since the officers involved had not filed any report on Blake’s arrest. In some versions of the police explanation of events the officers were investigating a theft of shoes and credit card fraud, while in others Blake had been pointed out by an unidentified GoButler courier as someone who illegally purchased a phone. (The concierge service GoButler later refuted any link to Blake’s misidentification.) Police soon released an Instagram picture of a person who looked remarkably like Blake, arguing he was the suspect they were looking for, only subsequently admitting that the unnamed black man in the photo was also innocent of any crime. No photos of the two men actually charged for the crime have yet been released.
Despite these inconsistencies in both the alleged crime or why an apparently nonviolent offense warranted such a violent arrest, the police—and far too many members of the media—have continued to frame Blake’s arrest as the unfortunate byproduct of a legitimate investigation. Blake resembled a suspect in a case. He was simply someone who “found himself on the wrong side of the law,” according to NBC Nightly News. This was all just a mistake.
The word “mistake” implies that this incident was a departure from normal police conduct in New York City. This is simply not true. The word “mistake” implies that this incident was an aberration, a departure from normal police conduct in New York City. But we know that this is simply not true. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), at the peak of stop-and-frisk street interrogations in 2011, 87% of people stopped by police were black or Latino. And yet 88% of people detained were totally innocent of any crime and released without charges. Moreover, between 2006 and 2014, claims of police misconduct have risen 150%. Even the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal pointed out that the New York Police Department had stopped more black men then actually lived in New York City. That’s a lot of “mistakes.”
Put another way, Blake’s arrest seems far more indicative of the attitude of the NYPD toward black and brown men over the past decade than it does of any supposed aberration. Indeed, after only four years on the force, the police officer who attacked Blake has been sued four times and been the target of five filed complaints for using excessive force in arrests involving black men. But despite this troubling work history, Frascatore was still on the job.
Not surprisingly, top cop Bratton has continued to maintain that race played no role in this or similar interactions. “Let’s put that nonsense to rest right now, race had nothing to do with this,” he told a group of reporters last week. This is certainly not the first time Bratton has refused to admit that his officers discriminate based on race. In an April interview with CNN, Bratton argued that the disproportionate number of Black and Latino stops was merely a natural reflection of the population in high-crime areas where the most police work occurs. Yet, James Blake’s takedown occurred outside a swanky hotel in an upscale neighborhood.
Just as a reminder, in America, an unarmed black person is seven times more likely to be killed by police than a white counterpart. Just as a reminder, in America, an unarmed black person is seven times more likely to be killed by police than a white counterpart. And based on how black an arrested person appears, they’re more likely to get a tougher sentence for the same crime. While it may make Bratton and others feel better to ignore the role race plays in criminal justice, it also means ignoring the very real impact police behavior has on the lives of black and brown citizens.
Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Amadou Diallo and the numerous other unarmed black people killed by New York police officers did not survive to tell their side of the story. Unlike Blake, they did not have a Harvard education, a celebrity profile or a direct line to the national press. James Blake dresses well. He rose to dazzling success in his professional field, believes that police are largely good, and has no criminal record. And, still, he was singled out and attacked. When it comes to reporting on these altercations in the press, it’s important to keep research, data, and information about racial disparities in policing front and center in any conversation.
Looking beyond the racial implications for a second, James Blake’s arrest is a frightening example of what policing looks like today. A man, smiling at a stranger, is suddenly thrown facedown onto the concrete. He is held, without questioning, for an extended period of time and then released without apology. This incident does not simply show the way that racial bias affects interactions with police—it shows a police force out of control and badly in need of a policy and cultural overhaul.
Ultimately, what happened to James Blake was not a mistake or an isolated incident, but rather another data point in a long pattern of discriminatory behavior on the part of the NYPD. This case is particularly striking, however, especially for those who believe that good behavior and a pleasant attitude will help you avoid frightening confrontations with police. Racial bias in policing and criminal justice is a deep part of what maintains American inequality. The media, and the public at large, must always keep these larger structural problems in mind—the stories we tell matter, but so does the way we tell them.