The death of Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, is both mythic and mysterious. The myth is Queen Cleopatra died because she took a poisonous snake to her breast and it bit her. The mystery is, why the heck did she do it, snuggle a dangerous reptile so close it could kill her?
This ancient tale, leaders of the New York Police Department seem to think, carries a modern message: let outsiders into your business and they’ll turn cobra and bite you.
And this is not a concept limited to the NYPD. This is why police police departments call their agencies of accountability, “internal affairs.” To examine the performance issues that lie closest to the heart of a police department, (1) you have to be yourself an insider and (2) you should consider every case under examination an internal matter.
Let outsiders — as in the case of the New York Police Department, the Inspector General’s Office or the Citizens Complaint Review Board — review officers’ actions and according to Joe Esposito, who was the NYPD’s chief of department from 2000 to 2013, what happens is, “People who don’t do this for a living are trying to make rules for people that do it every day.”
What Chief Esposito doesn’t say is in New York City, not just the Inspector General and the Review Board try to change the rules of policing, so do the City Council and the State Legislature. And sometimes they do change the rules on paper, but the new rules are not obeyed, or, if they are undeniably disobeyed, the officers involved are rarely punished, and almost never lose their jobs.
Take using a chokehold. That’s been forbidden by the NYPD’s patrol code for almost 30 years, since 1993. But the chokehold was still in frequent use when Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” said while Garner was being pinned in an NYPD officer’s chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk, were echoed in protests across the country. And a series of rulebook changes since Garner’s death in 2014 have been written and passed and signed into law, and still the practice persists.
Topher Sanders covers race, inequality and the justice system for ProPublica. In 2019, he was part of a team that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Public Service and won the Peabody and George Polk awards for their coverage of President Trump’s family separation policy. In 2018, he and reporter Ben Conarck received the Paul Tobenkin award for race coverage and the Al Nakkula award for police reporting for their multi-part investigation “Walking While Black,” which explored how jaywalking citations are disproportionately given to black pedestrians. His reporting has won a number of other national awards including a NABJ Award, an Online Journalism Award, the John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim award for excellence in criminal justice reporting and he is a two-time winner of the Paul Tobenkin award for coverage of racial intolerance and discrimination.
In 2016 Sanders co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit working to increase the number of investigative reporters and editors of color. He is a graduate of Tuskegee University and started his journalism career at The Montgomery Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama.