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SNAPSHOT: History of Police Brutality

A new book, Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City, looks at efforts from the 1940s on to curb the power of police and hold them accountable.

“Many people think that police brutality is a recent phenomenon thanks to cellphones, thanks to video recorders,” said author Clarence Taylor on a podcast aired by the Gotham Center for New York City History and New Books Network, but the issue has a “long history.” Taylor is a professor emeritus at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and Baruch College.

His book documents the way in which the black press made it their mission to counter official narratives depicting anyone beaten or killed by police as criminal. Instead, newspapers like The People’s Voice interviewed witnesses, advocated for victims, and even organized protests against what they saw as an institutional problem of abuse of power by the NYPD.

Yellow tape reading

The book also looks at relations between mayors and the NYPD, including political battles over the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The CCRB was originally composed entirely of police department representatives. Critics said that made independent investigations impossible. Today it is an all-civilian board.

The number of individuals killed by police has dropped dramatically over the years despite the publicity these incidents now receive. “There’s clearly progress,” Taylor said, citing court decisions and federal monitoring of police activity. But “police brutality is larger than just killings.” There are still “too many” unjustified “arrests of black and brown people.”