Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Officer Corruption?

The last few days, the NY Times Metro section has started to read like a rap sheet for New York City police officers. First came the story of the police commander who pepper-sprayed protestors during the opening days of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Then, we learned about the police officer who was charged with violating the civil rights of an African American man whom he falsely accused of resisting arrest. And finally, today's section featured the story of a police officer convicted of plotting to burglarize an individual's apartment because the officer believed that the apartment was used as a safe house to stash a drug dealer's wad of cash.

Besides the concern that instances of New York city policy officers exceeding the bounds of their authority are proliferating, each of the arrests/convictions that have made the news this week shed some insight into the hierarchy of violations that police officers can unfortunately commit in the course of their duties. At the bottom of the ladder are violations that result in internal discipline but are generally not considered to break the law. It's unclear whether pepper-spraying a group of women who were already penned in arises to a violation of state criminal laws (e.g., assault) since the Manhattan district attorney is still investigating the incident, but the police force has already determined that the pepper-spraying commander's actions violated internal police policy and docked the officer 10 days of vacation. In other words, thus far, the police officer's actions exceeded the bounds of his authority set forth in the police department's officer manuals but did not violate any state or federal laws.

By contrast, the police officer who came up with a convoluted plan to break into someone's home, incapacitate him with a stun gun and then steal $900,000 in cash that he believed was hidden under the floor boards, not only wins more points for stupidity but also broke the law. Whereas the pepper-spraying commander only crossed the bounds of police department policies, the actions of the officer looking to get rich quick clearly rose to the level of breaking New York State criminal laws (in addition to internal police department policy).

Finally, we come to the case of the white police officer who allegedly falsely accused an African American individual of resisting arrest. In the hierarchy of abuse of a police officer's authority, this incident claims the top rung. Not only did the officer take away someone's liberty by arresting him and having him detained for 36 hours without probable cause, he did so with clear animus and bias towards the individual's racial and ethnic background. If the allegations are proven true, then this police officer has violated the police department's internal policies, state criminal law (extortion, making a death threat) and federal law for violating an individual's civil rights while acting under the color of state law. Acting under the color of state law means that the officer violated the individual's civil rights by arresting him under false pretenses while serving as an official representative of New York State.

What makes this last incident so egregious is that the police officer took full advantage of his position of authority to prey on his victim and to detain him without cause based on his racial classification. It also is particularly worrisome because a violation of civil rights - as opposed to a hair-brained scheme to burglarize someone's apartment - is often emblematic of a decaying culture within a department, one that gives police officers a prejudiced outlook on the society they are asked to oversee and that is supported by official department policies. The pepper-spraying incident was resolved through an internal discipline process that will help to deter similar violations from occurring again. Since department policy is often at the root of a civil rights violation however, internal discipline and existing department policies are generally insufficient to remedy the issue and prevent recurrences. Several New York State legislators have indeed requested a federal investigation into the New York City police department's stop, question and frisk policy for precisely this reason. It appears that such an investigation may now be worth undertaking.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


On Sunday, October, 2nd, two days after we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, together as a family, my beloved grandmother, "Omi," passed away. Here is the eulogy I read at her funeral:


You told us many many times how special we were to you, but today we are here to tell you how special you are to us. One of the things that I loved so much about you was that you were an incredibly good phone talker and conversationalist. Not everyone has this gift but you did, and it meant that we could talk for just five minutes or for an hour – about anything from family life, to meals to prepare, to stocks to invest in, to local sports games or even just to the weather - and nearly every time our conversation left me feeling happy and fulfilled. And it also always felt like it was too short – like you would have been happy just schmoozing on the phone with me all day if you could. The last few years, you ended almost every conversation by telling me and David and Tami how happy you were for us. Usually you told us how happy you were that we had each met someone we loved or that we’ve found jobs that we’re succeeding at or just how much you loved us and how much you appreciated our phone call or us coming to visit and how much it meant to you.

It was almost as if you wanted to make sure to tell us how proud you are of the people we have each become and that the lives that we will go on to live will be rich with love and joy and happiness and less of the suffering and hardship that you endured in your lifetime, just in case the day came when you weren’t there to tell us that anymore. Well, I just want you to know how much I’m going to miss our conversations and the way you made me feel when I heard you tell me that. And how much I’m going to miss that feeling that I could just pick up the phone and know that you would be on the other end.

I wanted to spend a couple of minutes talking about this past weekend because it seems as if you orchestrated your departure from us by making sure that we’d have one last chance to celebrate and to spend time all together, that you could convey your messages and lessons to us one more time and that we’d all be with you at the hospital yesterday. At your insistence, you and Opi came over for dinner on Wednesday night to celebrate the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, even though you weren’t feeling well and we told you that we could wait to see each other at one of the many other meals that we were going to have during the weekend. You instilled in us the value that family gatherings are a way to enjoy each other’s company and this was your way of telling us that once more. On Thursday, Opi came by himself to join us for lunch. Usually either you both came or if one of you wasn’t feeling well then you both stayed home. But on Thursday you let Opi come by himself – perhaps a message to us and to him that we must continue to live life and to enjoy each other’s company even once you aren’t with us anymore. And on Friday night, you and Opi joined us at our dear family friends the Feinbergs for Shabbat dinner. Since moving to the area nearly twenty years ago our family friends have adopted you as their family friends and even treated you as their Omi. Your joining us for Friday night reminded us how important our community is and how much we should value their friendship in the weeks and years to come.

I know that you're not much of a shul goer given how much you lost in the Holocaust, but on Thursday and Friday in shul we read as part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy the Netaneh Tokef. Every year when we read that I think back on the lives that have been lost and I feel grateful that another year has arrived and that you and Opi are still here. And I always wonder, what will next year bring? Who of my grandparents will be with us the next time we gather to say this prayer? Please I always pray, let them be inscribed in the book of life for just one more year so that next year we’ll all be together again and so that I can still count myself as one of the luckiest of my peers to enjoy the love and companionship that comes with having all five of my grandparents still alive.

This year I thought that you would be with us this upcoming weekend when at Yom Kippur we’ll read the Netaneh Tokef again, and even that you would be there next year with us because you had so much to look forward to. In fact, that was how you persevered through your osteoporosis. Your determination set the example and taught me that if and when I ever endure a hardship or loss in my life, the reason to go on living is because of the reward and fulfillment I get from those around me and from celebrating important milestones. This year you have so much to look forward to: David & Elana’s wedding in two months, and the upcoming birth of your first great grandchild. Aliza and I were so excited to tell you a couple of months ago that she was pregnant. Since then, I couldn’t wait for the day when we would come over to Leisure World for a visit and you would be sitting in your reclining chair in the living room and we would put our baby in your arms to hold for a few minutes and the baby would look up at you and you’d both smile at each other and we would know that our baby was touched by my vey special Omi. Aliza and I will be sure to tell our baby and all of our children how very special you are but I’m sad that they will only get to experience your love through our memories and not through their own experiences with you.

Finally, on Saturday night, we went to see Bethoven’s 9th Symphony with you and Opi. I can picture in my mind the glint in your eyes and the smile you made when you wanted something that you knew you shouldn’t have or when you made a joke with some bite to it as if you didn’t know what you were saying even though you were fully aware that you could get away with it because who would think that the adorable woman who claimed that she never got older than 29, spoke with a lovable accent and always was friendly and engaging might not be as innocent as she came across? That’s how I picture you on Saturday night, as you arranged a full choir and orchestra while wearing some of your finest jewelry, including the beautiful engagement ring that Opi gave you 60 years ago but that you rarely ever wore anymore, and while also surrounded by your family to deliver the sendoff that the matriarch of our family so richly deserves, without actually telling us that the time has come for us to say our goodbyes. In the last 24 hours, each of us has looked over the words to Ode to Joy again and have thought how fitting it was to hear the choir echo the message of optimism and hope for a better tomorrow that will be one of your lasting gifts to us.

Oh friends, not these sounds!
Rather, let us raise our voices in more pleasing
And more joyful sounds!

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly, your sanctuary.
Your magic reunites
Those whom social custom has parted
All men become brothers,
Where your gentle wing rests.

One of my fondest memories I have of you is our summers at Virginia beach where you and Opi would rent the same rooms at the Dunes hotel on the boardwalk on the 6th floor with terraces overlooking the ocean for our family. And I remember how you’d wake up every morning before everyone else and just sit on the terrace waiting for us to wake up. I always loved coming out and sitting with you as we looked out on the ocean watching for dolphins and just enjoying the scenery and quiet as the boardwalk woke up. I wonder now what it was that you thought about while it was just you on the terrace, alone with your thoughts, with the hardship of your past, and the mix of physical pain with love and fulfillment that you had in the present. I can imagine that sitting there then was one moment where you felt completely at peace with yourself and with the world. That’s how I envision you now Omi, just sitting on the terrace as the sun begins to rise looking out over the ocean with us behind you and a smile on your face. I miss you.