Judge Orders NYPD To Disclose Racial Breakdown Of Shootings
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, we hear more about the late Percy Sutton, a pioneer in black politics and minority broadcasting. President Obama called him a true hero. He died over the weekend. But first, news involving the New York City Police Department. A state Supreme Court judge last week ordered the NYPD to hand over data on the racial breakdown of all people shot at by New York City police officers between 1997 and 2006.
The judicial order is in response to a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union last year to obtain information not just about people who have been struck by police gunfire, but also those shot at by officers but not hit. The Civil Liberties Union requested the information after the much publicized police shooting of Sean Bell. He was an unarmed African-American man who was killed hours before he was to have been married in November of 2006. All three officers involved in that shooting were acquitted of all charges against them at a bench trial.
Joining us now to talk about both Percy Sutton and the police shooting story is the civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, who was very involved in public protests related to the Sean Bell shooting. Welcome, thank you for joining us. Happy holidays to you.
Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist): Thank you for having me. Glad to be with you.
MARTIN: Reverend Al, before we jump into what the release of this data might mean moving forward, I want to tell you and our listeners that we also reached out to the NYPD. We reached out to Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Brown. He declined to join our conversation, I believe due to scheduling, but he gave us a statement and here it is, I'll play it for you.
Mr. PAUL BROWN (Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, NYPD): The police department already - and my office, in particular, anytime there's a police involved shooting or any shooting for that matter, we put out information to the press. And in annual reports we compile, we also include the race of the people shot. Now, what this lawsuit said was that we have to also include the race of people that are fired at - upon, but not hit. Now, that's something we have in reports undoubtedly, but it hadn't been compiled. So, we were being told, it's basically to compile that. Our guess is - it's an educated guess, is that the race in terms of who we shoot at and miss as opposed to those who are shot will be roughly the same.
MARTIN: Do you think that's true?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I have no way of knowing, which is why I think that the New York Civil Liberties Union was correct in let's getting the raw data in and seeing if that is the case. One of the reasons I think this is important is those of us in the late '90s and the first part of this decade that fought to deal with racial profiling want to deal with the fact as to whether or not New York City police - and this could also carry over nationwide - were more inclined to shoot at and shoot people of color than others. And I think the data will speak for itself. The fact that they resisted giving the data in and of itself something that I don't think is healthy for the community.
MARTIN: What do you think we'll learn, though - I mean, obviously and I take your point that the data hasn't been compiled yet, so it's hard to know what we'll find out in it. But what do you think that the public will glean from knowing who was shot at as opposed to who was hit? Do you really think there will be that much difference?
Rev. SHARPTON: I think that there could be a difference and I think that the public would then understand the arguments that we raised around the country and in some states even got law on racial profiling particularly with law enforcement. Because if there is a disproportionate number of people of color that are shot at as opposed to others, and especially in a city where you are not the overwhelming majority, then one would have to say why is that the case?
MARTIN: And speaking of the question of race, two of the three officers who were indicted in connection with the Sean Bell shooting and later acquitted of all charges, which ranged from manslaughter to reckless endangerment - two of the three were of color.
Rev. SHARPTON: Correct.
MARTIN: ...as I understand. Does that mean something?
Rev. SHARPTON: Yes. Well, it means two things. One, it means that - it's been argued even by black and Latino police fraternities that sometimes even officers of color take liberties and take movements that they would not take against others because they feel they could not get away with it as easily. But I think it also changes those in the media that have tried to act as though when we would protest police misconduct, it was race based and we were racially being provocative, when no one wants to deal with the fact in your introduction, the protests that National Action Network work and I and other groups led were not anti-white, they were anti-police brutality. And I think what was lost in a lot of the Sean Bell protests is that we were protesting even at the court case, two-thirds of a black contingent of police.
MARTIN: So, what do you think this is about? You think that ongoing issues around police treatment of citizens of color, is it about training? Is it about what? What is it?
Rev. SHARPTON: I think it's about training. But I also...
MARTIN: Is it about cultural expectations? About who's dangerous?
Rev. SHARPTON: I think that there are different attitudes and actions taken in minority communities or communities of color, even when the police involved are of the same color, that they don't take in other areas. I do not think, for example, Sean Bell, who was shot at 50 times, killed, and two of the people with him, all three unarmed, all three leaving his bachelor party - I don't think they would have been treated the same had they been in a different community and a different race.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton about a court order that the NYPD - that was recently directed at the NYPD ordering them to detail the race of all people shot at by police officers in New York between 1997 and 2006, not just those who were hit by police.
And we want to move on to another topic. This Saturday, Percy Sutton died. He was an African-American political leader in New York. He was one of the so-called Gang of Four, influential African-American leaders of New York - leaders in New York, period. He served as a mentor to current Governor David Paterson. And I understand that you had a close personal relationship with him. Would you tell us about it?
Rev. SHARPTON: I knew Percy Sutton since I was 12 years old, when I was a boy preacher. And a couple of years later when I joined the civil rights movement after Dr. King's death, I was 13. I became youth director of the New York chapter of his organization. Percy Sutton was one of those that helped to mentor me. He paid for me to go to the National Black Political Convention in 1972. I was just 17 years old. And all of my life he's been there. He stood by us. He went to jail with me protesting police brutality, when police killed Amadou Diallo.
And ironically, last Wednesday, the 23rd of December, Governor Paterson - and he and I kind of grew up together - called me and said that he felt that from his father who was one of the Gang of Four you talked to, that the three others had gone to see Mr. Sutton. They felt his health was failing and he felt the next generation should go. So, the governor and I went and visited Mr. Sutton together 72 hours before his death.
He was a great man. He never stopped being a political progressive. He helped to shape the political empowerment movement in the African-American communities that led to black mayors like Dave Dinkins. He also helped to shape black media; black talk show radio really came into form at WLIB, which he bought and owned and shaped and molded, as well as the commercial side, WBLS. So, from his media empire to his buying and refurbishing the Apollo Theater in �81 that had been closed and dilapidated, this man did more in one lifetime than anyone I could think of. He was the quintessential African-American of the 20th century.
MARTIN: Reverend Al, could I ask you to stand by for a minute? I want to bring in another voice to talk more about the role of Percy Sutton in shaping the broadcasting world. I want to bring in Richard Prince. He writes an online column about diversity issues in the news called "Journal-isms." He is with us on the line also. Richard Prince, welcome to you.
Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (Writer, Journal-isms): Great to be back.
MARTIN: Tell us, as - would you pick up on the point that Reverend Sharpton was just making about the role that Percy Sutton played in the media?
Mr. PRINCE: Well, Percy Sutton, first at WLIB, was the second news talk radio station in the country. And his whole inner-city broadcasting served as a model for Radio One, which is the largest black-owned radio network now, according to Alfred Liggins, who is the CEO of that company and, of course, the other black broadcasters. And one thing that Percy Sutton said stands out to me and that is that he got into the business because when you - once you own media, you can help define your own people and your own self and not depend on somebody else to do that.
And that's really why, you know, we have organizations of black journalists and people as black media entrepreneurs, black publishers, black radio owners. It's all about trying to define yourself and setting a standard that people can aspire to.
MARTIN: He, at one point, owned the number one radio station in New York, which was WBLS, which is no small thing. But Reverend Sharpton, what difference did it make to have someone like Percy Sutton owning these stations as opposed to another entity? Did it create vehicles for people to get on the air who otherwise would not have been able to do so? What difference do you think it made?
Rev. SHARPTON: It made a huge difference. I don't think Dave Dinkins would have been mayor without WLIB having the capacity to mobilize voter registration and voter mobilization. I don't think we would have had the activism from Howard Beach, through Bensonhurst, through all of the activism you talked about here, Sean Bell and others, if we didn't have that vehicle. There was no talk radio station that would give an outlet to activism, an outlet to mobilizing like WLIB.
And I think when Mr. Sutton felt that he lost the mayor's race of 1977 because he couldn't get his message out, he went - as I agree with Richard - he went totally into saying, we've got to be able to get our message out, our story out, unfiltered. And he dedicated his life and, in my judgment, perfected black talk radio and for that matter, black entertainment with WBLS, with his star Frankie Crocker as the leading deejay that made it not only number one in New York, but for a while number one in the country.
MARTIN: He also was a part-owner of the Amsterdam News, which was a leading African-American paper, but he was also - Richard Prince, this is the final question. He was also - owned some of these media outlets at a time he was also a politician, an active politician, Manhattan borough president. Do you think a situation like that could occur today?
Mr. PRINCE: Well, that's a big issue now, as a matter of fact, because the level of minority radio and television ownership has leveled off. Well, the level of minority television ownership has always been very small. But, you know, there's a movement now to get the FCC to do something about this because of the Supreme Court decisions about affirmative action, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 let all these big companies swoop up all these radio stations around the country and squeeze out a lot of small business people, such as our minority entrepreneurs. And yes, it is important that minority broadcasters get back in the game and that the federal government, you know, sort of ease the way for them to do that.
MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. That was Richard Prince. He writes an online column about diversity issues in the news business called "Journal-isms." He joined us from his home office. We were also joined by the Reverend Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist based in New York. He joined us from his office in New York. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much and happy holidays to you.
Rev. SHARPTON: Thank you.
Mr. PRINCE: Thanks, Michel.