Photo by Anna Gianfrate

Q&A: Robert Gangi, of the Police Reform Organizing Project

Q&A: Robert Gangi, of the Police Reform Organizing Project

For most of his life, 70-year-old Robert Gangi has been fighting for police reform. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Gangi currently heads, as executive director, the Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP, a racial and social justice group created in 2011. Recently, the group’s army of volunteers and interns have been spotted in Bed-Stuy, collecting signatures for a petition that calls to upend the de Blasio and Bratton era of “broken windows” policing. With 17,000 in hand, Robert hopes to make some noise.

How did you get started in police reform?

I’ve worked all of my professional career in racial and social justice issues. I was director of an organization called the Correctional Association of New York for almost 30 years. The C.A. focused on prison reform. We would monitor conditions of confinement in the city’s court pens, where the city confines people just after they’re arrested and before they’re arraigned, facing a judge, and legally charged with committing a crime. We started doing that work in 1989, and the conditions were abominable. We would be able to, working with other organizations and responsive city officials, improve conditions dealing with crowding, bad sanitation, the sinks and the toilets didn’t work, mental services, and there was no phone.

The thing that never changed was the composition of who was locked up in these facilities. So if you go into the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan court pens on a Thursday, and 250 people have been arrested since the previous Tuesday, you’d see 248 people of color. We knew the racial composition of the facilities wasn’t an accident, too; it was a function of police policy. None of this took any brilliance. To a certain extent, there were other important criminal justice issues, like bad conditions, lack of health care, too many mentally ill people in prisons, mandatory sentencing, and all these drug laws. And we knew that those issues were not being addressed politically.

I left there in 2011 and didn’t want to retire; I wanted to continue working on issues I cared deeply about. Until then, the issue of systemically bad police practice was not a focus of the debate. Police practice would come to the foreground in the public mind’s eye when there was an egregious incident — the killing of Amadou Diallo, the shooting of Sean Bell, the sodomization of Abner Louima — but, again, the protests and the outcry did not focus on systemic problems. And I, along with other people, thought that was what was needed to fix bad police practice. Then the issue blew up because of all the attention around stop-and-frisk.

Our intention and main political goal when we started in 2011 was to do what we can to make bad police practice, including stop-and-frisk and the quota system, the focal point of the public debate of the mayoral campaign in 2013. It did become a central debate, and it was our assessment that it was what helped propel Bill de Blasio.

As of late, your organization has handed out petitions in Bed-Stuy, calling for an end to the “broken windows” policy of the de Blasio and Bratton era.

“Broken windows” is a theory that you can contest or accept, the theory being if you, one way or another, address these superficial, lower-level signs of disorder, you will help reduce the incidence of serious offenses. It’s mostly low-level infractions. In most cases, the people being arrested and held are not dangerous. Most of the offenses are victimless. Some of them are just innocuous: people arrested for jaywalking, walking between two subway cars, begging, walking through the park after dusk. The targets are always lower-income people of color who live on the margins of society, sex workers, homeless people, and mentally ill people. It’s an abominable practice, and it should be a serious civil rights and moral issue for our city and country.

There are a number of ways we get at exposing the problem — the racial bias of it, the waste of it, the almost institutionalized madness of it. The petitioning we were doing in Bed-Stuy and the Lower East Side is one of the ways we organize, help build a movement, and connect with people. We have over 17,000 signatures. When we get to 25,000 signatures, we’ll have a public event around it.

And that’s what we want to do: get them on the petition, hear their stories, and outreach. It gives the movement some credibility and heft that we have over 17,000 signatures and will get over 25,000. The other part is to get the stories. One of the things that is most bracing, in my experience, is talking to people that have these stories to tell, and how much some people just hate the cops, or are very dismissive and distrustful of cops.

These consequences are applied to only one group of people, and when you use the police department to monitor, regulate, and direct behavior in only certain communities, targeting only certain people, you, in effect, criminalize those communities, and afflict real harm and hardship for the people in those communities. And we consider this to be a terrible practice that happens every day in New York City. The Eric Garner incident is obviously extraordinary and egregious, but the way they harassed him is the way they harass people of color throughout the city.

In a piece you wrote for the The Huffington Post last November, you said the challenge of police reform would be one of the toughest for then newly elected Mayor de Blasio. A year later, how do you think he’s done?

There has been a scaling back of stop-and-frisk, and that started under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. Another positive was the way the cops responded to the International Climate March and Flood Wall Street. A group of protesters took over the streets around Wall Street, and the reports I heard from people we work with, who were very critical of the way political protest was handled under Bloomberg and Kelly, said it was constructive, positive, and reasonable. It’s our view that came directly from de Blasio and Bratton that they really want to handle political protests differently, and they made sure the police on duty that day did.

But I don’t think there is a mainstream politician that has spoken forcefully critical about “broken windows.” At a certain point, you could begin to be very encouraged about the possibility that stop-and-frisk was going to be dealt a serious blow when you saw mainstream politicians were speaking out against it: first with Brooklyn Councilmen Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander and then with de Blasio. Every mayoral candidate ultimately became critical of stop-and-frisk last year, and it’s certainly our judgment that they were surveying the political landscape. Even with de Blasio, he’s not going to make a political choice to criticize stop-and-frisk unless he thinks it’s politically safe. That has not happened yet with “broken windows,” at least from what we’ve seen.

So our concern was, and we said this all along, that the problem with having a tunnel vision on ending stop-and-frisk is that it was a symptom of the problem. The dark heart of the beast is the quota system, which is the system that the NYPD uses to assess police performances. The quota system only gives cops credit for punitive interactions with the public: stops, arrests, and summonses. Another problem with the quota system is, cops get credit for the arrest and the ticket even if it’s dismissed. So it doesn’t have to be a legitimate arrest or valid ticket. There was an aggressively applied pressure on cops — and there still is — to prove their “productivity” by arresting and ticketing people.

In terms of what our concern is — which is the day-to-day policing of New York City and the effect that this policing has, particularly on lower-income neighborhoods of color — we haven’t seen a difference. When we go into the arraignment courts, we see what one lawyer referred to as “the same old crap.”

A Times article from a few weeks ago noted the lingering effects of stop-and-frisk, where residents of Brownsville and East New York are still terrified and suspicious of the police. What might Brooklyn look like in the future, should police reform be enacted?

What we want to see in Brooklyn and beyond is abolishing the quota system and replacing it with a way of managing and assessing police performance that encourages constructive interactions. So cops should get credit if they break up a fight, settle a dispute, deliver a baby, or meet with community leaders — none of which they get credit for now. There should be much less of a police presence in the community, and much more of the use of social services to address the problems we now use our police department to address. Police should be working much more collaboratively with community leaders and social service organizations. Instead of arresting a mentally ill homeless person sleeping under a stairwell in a housing project, don’t arrest the person for trespassing, which is what the cops do. Bring them to a mental health organization or someone that could help them, and get credit for that.

One of the things we’re trying to assess is, what does it cost the city to engage in these low-level arrests? We’re looking to come up with a dollar figure, but it’s hundreds of millions of dollars here, if not in the billions. With “broken windows,” a serious problem that results is the breakdown of trust and the buildup of antagonism between the police and a lot of people. The conversations I’ve had with most of my friends, who are white professionals my age, they’d say the cops were doing a great job. “I see a cop on every corner, and I feel safe.” That’s not what most people of color say. They’d say, “I see a cop on the corner, so I’ll cross the street.” People of color tell me that they raise their children to be distrustful of the police, particularly the young men, and they school them on how to interact with the police when they stop you.

My wife and I raised two boys on the west side of Manhattan, and I worried about them, but I never thought of bad interactions with the police. Black and brown parents, that’s a regular anxiety, and I’ve heard these parents say, “When it comes to what might happen with my child, I don’t worry about the criminals. I worry about the police.”

John Surico is Bklynr’s interviews editor. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice. He lives in Queens.

Anna Gianfrate is a freelance photographer. Originally from Italy, she now lives in Williamsburg.

Also in this issue

Fifty Years Later, Looking for Last Exit

Chasing Hubert Selby’s ghost through the neighborhood he captured in his controversial classic. By Henry Stewart. Photos by Eric E. Anderson

The Ad Men

A peek inside a company that’s been hand-painting larger-than-life advertisements around New York for a decade. Photos by Angela Datre.