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Tensions In Brooklyn Over Teen Shot By Police


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, after years of financial and other turmoil, Detroit now has an unelected financial manager. We've been following this story closely and we'll hear perspective from a local columnist in just a few minutes. But first we turn to a challenge facing many American cities which is tension between residents and police.

Today a lawsuit targeting the stop and frisk search policy of the New York Police Department opens in federal court. Authorities say the policy has helped stopped crime but civil rights and community activists say it unfairly targets people of color, especially young men of color. And they're pointing to a recent police shooting in Brooklyn as an example of what they consider overly aggressive police tactics.

On March 9th two plainclothes police officers shot and killed teenager Kimani Gray in the East Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn. The police say Gray pointed a gun at them, and a .38 caliber weapon was found at the scene. It was loaded. However, witnesses have given conflicting stories about whether Gray pointed the weapon at police or whether he was armed at all.

After his death, dozens of people were arrested over several nights of demonstrations, but while the unrest in the streets seems to have diminished, the anger over the incident remained. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called Brian Lehrer. He is the host of "The Brian Lehrer Show" on member station WNYC. He often focuses on issues like this of local concern. Also with us is Shanduke McPhatter. He is the executive director of a non-profit group that works with youth.

It's called Gangsters Making Astronomical Community Changes. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.


SHANDUKE MCPHATTER: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Brian, I'm going to start with you and then I'm going to let you go because you have your own program to do. You've been covering this story extensively. I wanted to ask what's the status of the protests and what's the status of the investigation, which the mayor says is going to be full and fair?

LEHRER: The protests have calmed down now. There's still a lot of strong feeling in the community, but there was some violence last week. I think that's pretty much gone away now. The investigation is just getting going. There are so many unanswered questions. Did, as you pose, the victim Kimani Gray point a loaded revolver at police? Were they justified in shooting? These were undercover officers. Did they identify themselves properly as police officers when they got out of their car?

None of these things have been answered yet and an investigation is just beginning.

MARTIN: Some of the activists, even within that community, are saying that some of the unrest is attributable to, quote/unquote, "outside agitators" and I wonder if you can speak to that.

LEHRER: I've never seen anything quite like this in New York, where people in an urban community are now pointing fingers at people from the Occupy Movement who've been coming in because Occupy has been generally active in the anti-stop and frisk movement. And they've been coming in and I know - and Shanduke will speak to this more directly than I can - but the perception among some is that Occupy has been coming in and winding up, whipping up people in the neighborhood into something that winds up in violence.

Because they get stirred up by these activists who might be more white, more middle class, have less to fear in terms of encounters with the police themselves and what that'll result in for their lives. And so there's this tension between community-based activists and Occupy that I've never seen before.

MARTIN: The tension between the police and many residents of New York has been going on for years, if not forever, between different groups. But there are often incidents that capture the attention of the city at large where people - the city at large who are not directly affected just feel either uncomfortable or disgusted and that kind of causes the political leadership to respond, at least in some way.

What reaction are people outside of the affected neighborhoods having to this?

LEHRER: You know, my sense of it is that there are actually two different tracks here. One has to do with this particular case, which honestly is more murky than some of the other police shootings that have really galvanized the community. I know you and I talked on the air on your show about Sean Bell a few years ago - unarmed guy coming out of his own bachelor party before his wedding. Amadou Diallo, years ago, completely unarmed, shot by police in the vestibule of his apartment.

These were poster victims, if I can put it that way. If Kimani Gray did have a gun, if he did have a gang background, as some reporting says he did, he's not that squeaky clean kind of a victim, potentially. And yet this does play into underlying, simmering tensions about the hundreds of thousands of stop and frisk encounters every year that so many people around the city consider excessive and even unconstitutional.

MARTIN: Brian Lehrer is host of the "Brian Lehrer Show" on WYNC. He often reports on issues that engage the community and he's with us now. And we're going to let him go now because he's going to do his own program. Brian, thanks so much for taking the time.

LEHRER: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: We turn now to community activist Shanduke McPhatter. Shanduke, thank you so much for joining us as well.

MCPHATTER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Pick up the thread here, if you would. What is it about this particular incident that you think is so enraging and upsetting to people in the community? And the reason I'm asking the question in this way is that the initial reports were that this young man did have a gun. It is reported that he pointed it at the officers. And I think people outside of New York might say, well, you know, of course they had the right to defend themselves.

MCPHATTER: The anger that comes from the community is just not this situation. Just as Brian has said, it's prior situations that has caused people to be very angry. It doesn't boil down to the fact that he had the weapon or didn't have the weapon. It's really about the fact that they shot a 16 year old boy down in the streets, which is something that's become accustomed to our communities.

MARTIN: You know, you were telling us earlier that, yes, it's true that there are people who should not have them, but the people that shouldn't have them also includes the police who don't know how to use them. Talking about guns here. What were you talking about here? What do you mean by that?

MCPHATTER: I was reading a quote that was stated by Mayor Bloomberg. Mayor Bloomberg said that a tragedy like this cannot be undone and, you know, he sent his sympathy to the family. You know, not verbatim. Those weren't his words verbatim, but based around that, after he stated that what we have to do is get the guns out of the hand of these children and people that shouldn't have them.

So to state that we have to get the guns out of the hands of these children and the people that shouldn't have them, the people that shouldn't have them just don't include the children; it includes police officers that unjustly shoot down people. You know, if you are a police officer you should be able to make the right decision to determine if you should, in fact, fire a weapon.

And if you fire a weapon do you necessarily have to kill that person? Kimani's mother stated, you know, one shot was enough. You know, you didn't have to shoot 11 times.

MARTIN: Well, I think you're referring to the fact that the autopsy is already concluded that the officers fired 11 times and he was, Kimani Gray, was hit seven times in the front and the back of his body. And there's also conflicting information about whether the officers identified themselves and gave him an opportunity to put the weapon down, if indeed he did have a weapon.

Is that something that's very much a part of people's thoughts about this incident, or is it really more just the fact that he died and he's so young and that people feel very much besieged by the police in general?

MCPHATTER: Everything is included into the pot. You know, you just can't take one avenue and just say it's just about that because people are out there for different reasons. The youth are out there because they're afraid that they could be the next one shot down by, you know, our police department. Organizations like myself are out there because we want to make sure these youth have a voice and that they're not out there being directed to be violent.

Because they're the ones who are going to, at the end of the day, have the biggest issues with the police department.

MARTIN: You were telling us that part of the reason you got involved in community work is that you were, yourself, in the streets when you were a kid, when you were a teenager, when you were 16. You've been incarcerated twice yourself and that you decided at a certain point you wanted to change your life around and then, you know, work with other youth. You're only, what, 34 now, right?

MCPHATTER: Yes. (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: You're in your mid-30s now? Do you have encounters with the police when you're just going about your day or are you - have you aged out of that experience?

MCPHATTER: I mean (unintelligible). You know, I drive. I drive, you know, throughout the city of New York and, you know, you can get pulled over any day. You know, driving while black is definitely something that we continue to deal with. But based on my experiences and what I've been through, dealing with the police, I understand that they have a job to do, some may be, you know, good, some may be bad. It's not about all police being, you know, the worst.

But for me, I've learned to deal with that. I've been able to control my emotions and understand that - deal with them based on what their actions are at that point. You know, if it's to pull over for a reason, to ask what the reason was and I move forward. You know, I don't hang out on the corners anymore so I don't be stereotyped as that type of person. So you know, that's one of our goals, to be able to teach these youth, and even some adults need the guidance on how to interact with these police so that you're not put in the situation like Kimani Gray.

MARTIN: What are you hoping for now as the situation unfolds?

MCPHATTER: You know, you search my history. As you stated, I've been incarcerated before, and to be correct, it's definitely been more than two times. I've actually done two state bids and I've done those state bids because of crimes that I was charged with and, you know - you know, I've actually pled guilty to these so that, you know, I could handle my situation, just like these police officers. You know, if the facts are that they were unjust in what they did, then we want them to go to court and be tried for the charges, just like anybody else should be held accountable for criminal charges. That's basically what the community wants.

When you look at the situation and you say these officers were previously sued for their actions, it leads us to question who's making the decision in our police department. You know, is it Ray Kelly that made these decisions that says, OK, you officers were sued with high figure settlements on numerous occasions and what we're going to do is we're - instead of you being, you know, charged with criminal charges, what we're going to do is we're going to reward you with being plain clothes officers so that we're hiding you under, you know, the cloth of a detective. You know, is that a fair decision?

MARTIN: That's Shanduke McPhatter. He is the founder of a community group. It's called Gangsters Making Astronomical Community Changes, Inc. He was kind enough to join us from WNYC. That's a member station in New York. Also with us previously, Brian Lehrer. He's the host of "The Brian Lehrer Show" on WNYC.

Thank you for joining us.

MCPHATTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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