Alicka Ampry-Samuel works out of a two-story office building overlooking an expanse of vacant land, in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. She grew up a few blocks away, in one of the area’s nearly two dozen public-housing complexes. When she was fifteen, her closest friend, a girl she’d known since early childhood, got into an argument with a boy from another housing development. “And he pulled out a gun,” Ampry-Samuel said. The funeral was held at the St. Paul Community Baptist Church, a local institution. Teen-agers filled the pews. In the eulogy, a pastor told Ampry-Samuel and others to honor their friend’s life by “going to school and serving God.”
Ampry-Samuel joined the church that day. She went on to earn a degree from the City University of New York School of Law and spent three years working at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana, where she focussed on human rights and humanitarian aid. In 2017, she won a seat on the New York City Council, representing a district that includes Brownsville. That year, fourteen people were killed in the neighborhood, which has long had one of the highest homicide rates in the city.
At the time, a Black commander led the local police precinct, the Seventy-third, or “Seven-Three.” Residents had been encouraging him to convert part of the police station into a community space, where cops could provide people with information about job opportunities and social services. He asked Ampry-Samuel to come up with the funds. “I told him, ‘It’s the first thing I’m going to do,’ ” she recalled recently, sitting in her office. She wore a chunky pair of black-framed glasses, and her locs were coiled in a crown atop her head. “We were working toward that as a collective,” she said, “and we were excited.”
“As a Black woman, growing up where I did, I had to deal with a lot,” Alicka Ampry-Samuel said, of Brownsville, an area she now represents on the City Council.
In January, 2019, the Seventy-third Precinct’s commander moved on to another role, and Craig Edelman, a white captain, took over. Not yet forty, Edelman had close-cropped hair, a trim build, and bright-blue eyes. Like many of the city’s cops, he lived on Long Island, but he had a history in Brownsville. He had patrolled the Seven-Three years earlier, as a lieutenant; most recently, he had commanded one of Brooklyn’s anti-gang units, overseeing dozens of investigations in the neighborhood. To New York City Police Department leadership, he seemed highly qualified to lead the Seven-Three, which had seen a recent rise in gun violence. “It was tough,” Edelman told me. “There was pretty much a gang war going on.”
Ampry-Samuel hoped that Edelman would coöperate with Brownsville’s leaders as they tried to connect young people to jobs, counselling, and other resources. “You have gang members and people who carry guns who feel like things could be different,” she said. “They want to change their lives.” Within weeks, however, she was receiving what she described as a startling number of complaints about police harassment. Constituents sent her videos of police telling young men to move off corners and photos of drivers getting pulled out of their cars. Ampry-Samuel encouraged Edelman to address the issue. She sent him texts about their “partnership,” and briefed him on her plans for the community center. “It felt like I had to convince him that it was important,” she said. (Edelman told me that low-level arrests and summonses had fallen on his watch—as they had citywide.)
Ampry-Samuel eventually reached out to Edelman’s boss, Jeffrey Maddrey, the commanding officer of Patrol Borough Brooklyn North, which oversees the Seven-Three and several other “busy” precincts. Maddrey was one of the department’s highest-ranking Black officials. A barrel-chested man with a deep, reassuring voice, he mediated several conversations between Edelman and Ampry-Samuel. “Everyone said, ‘Maddrey will fix it,’ ” she recalled. “But it didn’t help.” (The N.Y.P.D. did not respond on behalf of Maddrey.)
Brownsville is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. When the coronavirus pandemic began, the unemployment rate there was five times higher than the city average. Many residents had jobs that exposed them to infection. Dozens of public-housing tenants died in their apartments. As the weather warmed, people throughout the city began gathering in crowds and drinking outdoors. Ampry-Samuel urged Edelman to give Brownsville residents some space. “So many people lost their mothers and fathers and sisters,” she told me. “This was not the time to be enforcing low-level offenses.” She recalled urging Edelman, “Just ignore the Hennessy bottle.”
In May, 2020, a struggle ensued outside a Brownsville apartment complex in which officers wrestled Jerry Akbar to the ground and repeatedly shocked him with a Taser.
According to Ampry-Samuel, Edelman replied that public alcohol consumption was against the law, and that if it went unenforced the drinking could lead to shooting. “He could not let anything lie,” Ampry-Samuel said. By early May, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office reported that forty people had been arrested in Brooklyn for social-distancing violations; thirty-five of them were Black, and nearly half the arrests took place in the Seven-Three. Eric Gonzalez, the District Attorney, released a statement warning that the arrests would undermine “trust in our criminal justice system.”
That month, Ampry-Samuel stopped by a housing complex to hand out masks and talk to residents about how to stay safe. Just as she was getting ready to leave, a police car pulled up. Edelman stepped out onto the street. “You could feel the tension as soon as he got out of the car,” Ampry-Samuel told me. A couple of weeks earlier, at the same apartment complex, officers had confronted a group of residents drinking outside. After one of the residents, Jerry Akbar, began arguing with the police, they tried to arrest him. In the ensuing struggle, which was captured partly on video, a lieutenant exchanged punches with Akbar. The officers wrestled him to the ground and repeatedly shocked him with a Taser. Akbar said that he lost consciousness. A friend jumped in, and the cops tackled him, too, slamming his head into a mailbox. (The N.Y.P.D. disputes this.) Akbar and his friend were charged with multiple offenses, including assault.
Now, as Ampry-Samuel spoke with Edelman on the street, Edelman’s driver, a twenty-eight-year-old officer named Vincent D’Andraia, spotted a young man walking up to the building with what Edelman later described as an unlit joint. D’Andraia got out of the car and grabbed the young man by the arm. “You mean to tell me,” Ampry-Samuel said to Edelman, “your police officer is harassing somebody right now, and searching somebody, and we’re all standing right here?” New York had decriminalized marijuana, but in Ampry-Samuel’s account, which was first reported by the local news outlet The City, Edelman said that people had to learn to respect the authorities. (Edelman told me that he never said this, and that possession of marijuana was still illegal.)
With Edelman still standing beside her, Ampry-Samuel texted Mayor Bill de Blasio. For weeks, she had been telling him that she and other community leaders wanted Edelman out of the precinct. Edelman’s conduct, she now wrote, had been disrespectful and “one-hundred-percent unnecessary.” De Blasio texted her back. “You have every reason to be frustrated,” he assured her. The next day, he called to say that he had relayed her concerns to the police commissioner. “It was all a fucking joke,” Ampry-Samuel told me. “They knew they weren’t going to do anything. And they were just smiling in our faces.”
A day after Ampry-Samuel’s phone call with de Blasio, Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Protests erupted around the country. On the night of May 29th, in downtown Brooklyn, police and protesters converged near the Barclays Center. Cops were trailing a crowd of people when a young woman, walking backward, held a phone in an officer’s face. The cop called her a “stupid fucking bitch,” smacked the phone out of her hand, and shoved her to the ground, causing one of her shoes to fly off and her head to slam against the pavement. Then he kept walking. In a written statement, the protester, Dounya Zayer, testified that she’d suffered a seizure, a concussion, and migraines. “I feel like a broken human being,” she wrote. A video of the incident went viral. Watching the clip, Ampry-Samuel recognized the officer. It was Vincent D’Andraia. Walking right behind him, without intervening, was Edelman.
On the night that de Blasio was elected to his first term as Mayor, in 2013, he promised to promote “a real partnership between the best police force in the world and the communities they protect.” Seven years later, as cops and protesters collided in the streets during the George Floyd demonstrations, he insisted that this effort had been “overwhelmingly successful.” Yet the N.Y.P.D., in fundamental ways, looked much the same as it had on the eve of his inauguration.
In its lower ranks, the force of thirty-five thousand has begun to resemble the majority-nonwhite city that it serves, but white cops still account for three-quarters of the roughly four hundred executives at the ranks of inspector and chief. Many of them belong to an informal fraternity, which cops on the outside routinely call “the club,” or even the “Irish mafia,” a term that has been around for decades. These leaders preside over what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission once described as a “wholly subjective and secret” promotional system. Officers who rise to the top, regardless of their race, tend to be aligned by philosophy. “The people who traditionally get promoted are those who have defended the department even when it’s most wrong,” Anthony Miranda, a retired N.Y.P.D. supervisor and the chairman of the National Latino Officers Association, told me. “They got there by playing along.”
De Blasio was elected on a promise to end stop-and-frisk, a practice introduced into the department decades earlier. Raymond Kelly, the police commissioner under de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, had led a force that recorded millions of stops and searches in the city, most of them involving Black and Latino residents. The department justified the stops as a necessary tool for deterring violent crime, which declined in the course of Bloomberg’s three terms. But only one out of nearly six hundred stops resulted in the seizure of a gun during that time, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union analysis of police data. In 2013, the last year of Bloomberg’s tenure, The Atlantic described Brownsville as “stop-and-frisk central.” One young resident told the magazine that he had been stopped as often as four or five times a week. “It’s like having a fly constantly buzzing your ear, whispering that you are a bad person,” he said. “At some point, you just want to smack that fly.”
That summer, a federal judge ruled these tactics unconstitutional, and the city appealed. De Blasio promised to drop the appeal, and his campaign released a popular ad that featured his son, who is Black, talking about how the policy “unfairly targets people of color.” Many of de Blasio’s supporters hoped that he would replace Kelly with a Black police commissioner. Philip Banks III had assumed the post of chief of department earlier that year, becoming the highest-ranking uniformed member of the force; only one other Black cop had ever filled that role. Within months, the number of citywide stops fell from about five thousand per week to fewer than a thousand. “A phone call went out from my office to every commander,” Banks told me. “I let them know that, if they couldn’t run their command without making unnecessary stops, I would find commanders who could.”
After winning the election, de Blasio arranged to interview Banks for the commissioner position. According to Banks, the Mayor-elect walked into their meeting holding a copy of that morning’s New York Post. A lead story decried the fact that the department had been stopping fewer people and seizing fewer guns. In Banks’s account, de Blasio asked if the police were trying to embarrass him, and seemed to suggest that cops were refusing to work in protest of his election. “This has nothing to do with you,” Banks told de Blasio. The meeting lasted less than five minutes, Banks said. “He just wanted to be able to say that he’d met with me, in case anyone asked.” (A spokesperson from the Mayor’s office did not deny this account, but added that the Mayor considered “a diverse and exhaustive group of candidates.”)
On December 5, 2013, de Blasio announced that William Bratton would be taking over the N.Y.P.D. Two decades earlier, Bratton, as the police commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, had laid the groundwork for stop-and-frisk, promoting the “broken windows” theory, which asserts that violent crimes increase when offenses such as littering and drinking in public go unpunished. He also adopted a management system, CompStat, which uses crime data to hold cops accountable for addressing these “quality of life” conditions; at weekly meetings, chiefs excoriated commanders whose officers were not making enough stops and arrests. In the early nineties, the city’s violent-crime rate had begun to decline. After Bratton became commissioner, in 1994, it continued to fall. Bratton became the most famous cop in the country, appearing on the cover of Time. But arrests for petty crimes rose sharply on his watch, as did complaints of police misconduct in Black and Latino communities.
As one former city official told me, de Blasio’s decision to reinstate Bratton was “a sort of deal.” If crime went up, the official explained, Bratton’s reputation would shield de Blasio from attacks by the real-estate lobby and other business groups, allowing the Mayor to concentrate on progressive goals, such as raising the minimum wage. Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of “The End of Policing,” told me that Bratton’s appointment had far-reaching repercussions. “I think it directly led to the intensity of the protests we saw this past year,” he said. “Despite years of talk of police reform, the N.Y.P.D. remains essentially unaccountable, out of control, and oversized.”
White cops still account for three-quarters of the N.Y.P.D.’s roughly four hundred executives at the ranks of inspector and chief.