A Bad Arrest, on Video

If this incident hadn't been captured on tape, Jaleel Fields might be another black male convicted for no good reason

This police video isn't action-packed. It's not a dramatic institutional killing captured by a bystander, as in the Eric Garner or Walter Scott cases.

But if you want to understand where the pent-up anger toward police in inner-city neighborhoods comes from, scenes like this – showing the lead-up to the arrest of an 18-year-old from East New York named Jaleel Fields – are a big part of the equation.

This video shows "the everyday harassment kids who grow up like Jaleel go through," says Martha Grieco, Fields' attorney. "The cops treat them like garbage from the jump and then lie about it with zero consequences."

The criminal case that resulted from this action is now sealed, so the NYPD is not commenting on it, as noted in Why Baltimore Blew Up, where this incident is mentioned as an example of the reasons behind the widespread discontent toward police. That feature is also being released on RollingStone.com today.

The following account comes from the elevator video and allegations in a civil lawsuit Fields filed in federal court in Brooklyn against the city and the two officers (which resulted in a $50,000 settlement), along with interviews with Fields and Martha Grieco about the case. 

In the lawsuit, Fields accused the city and the two officers of violating his civil rights by falsely arresting and maliciously prosecuting him and using excessive force. A spokesman for the New York City Law Department, which represented the officers in the civil suit, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying only, "After reviewing all the evidence, we determined that a settlement was in the best interest of the city." 

The absurdity began when Fields, who lives not far from where 28-year-old Akai Gurley was killed in an East New York project stairwell by a police bullet last November, decided on February 22nd, 2013, to go to the grocery store.

But when he got downstairs, he ran into a female friend who stopped him. She suggested he go back inside, because there were a bunch of police officers in the building and it was better to steer clear of whatever was going on.

"She said, ‘You shouldn't go this way, because there's a whole bunch of cops," says Fields, now 20. "So she grabbed my arm. You know how like people get married and walking down the aisle? She grabbed my arm like that, and I started walking back with her."  

You can see the two of them, she in a pink jacket, he in a fuzzy ski hat, early in this video. At 0:04, they arrive next to the project elevator arm-in-arm.

After waiting a few moments for the elevator doors to open, they split up, and – believe it or not, this is an important detail, so please take note – you can clearly see Fields stand in between the two elevator doors at 0:18-0:23 in order to let people out.

After that, Fields and the girl get on the elevator. They're followed by several other residents, including a pair of Fields' friends, one in a white hood, another in a gray hat.

Finally the whole group is joined by two officers, one skinny, one heavyset.

Police are regular visitors to these project towers. A common reason is a "vertical patrol," in which police, sometimes in pairs, will go up to the top of a building and then work their way down, with each officer tackling a different stairwell. Fields' neighbor Akai Gurley was killed during one of those patrols, which have been the subject of a number of lawsuits against the city.

In this case, though, Fields saw right away the officers were not doing the usual patrol. "They didn't press no floor," says Fields. "Usually a cop will press 16."

In any case, what happens after everyone's inside the elevator boils down to a few seconds of frenzied stupidity.

At 0:50 or so, the skinny cop starts arguing with Fields' friend in the white hood. This is even before the elevator doors close. Among other things, he seems to push Field's friend (0:59) with his right hand. Shortly after that, the boy with the gray hat leans over toward him, and he pushes the boy's head away. (1:09).

Fields at about that same time starts laughing at the whole scene, which apparently attracts the attention of the other officer (1:14). Fields says something to the boy in the gray hat – essentially he tells him he doesn't have to talk to the police, according to Grieco. 

The heavier cop and Fields appear to argue, and when Fields himself tries to leave the elevator (1:21), the cop pushes the skinny young man back inside.

"He was like, ‘Oh, you think you could bump a cop and get away with it?'" Fields says. "I looked at him like, what? I ain't touch no cop." 

More words are exchanged. After a few moments, the cops push Fields outside (1:37 or so) where, off-camera, he was ultimately arrested.

What were the charges, you might ask? Police would later claim Fields committed two offenses in the scenes shown in the video.

First: disorderly conduct. Police claimed he obstructed "pedestrian traffic" by blocking the elevator doors, which is interesting because the only thing this audio-free New York City Housing Authority video shows absolutely for sure is that Jaleel Fields went out of his way to let people off the elevator.

The second offense? According to Grieco, the police cited Jaleel for telling one of his friends that he didn't have to talk to the police. They called this "obstructing governmental administration."

The "OGA" charge elicits eye rolls both on New York streets and in the offices of defense lawyers. It's a charge you'll sometimes see in court, piled on amongst a series of others. Sometimes a person who's, say, complaining about or filming someone else getting arrested will end up hit with an "OGA." An A misdemeanor, the statute basically governs anyone who:

"[I]ntentionally obstructs, impairs or perverts the administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from performing an official function, by means of intimidation, physical force or interference, or by means of any independently unlawful act…"

So "OGA" here presumably would be 5'7", 130-pound Jaleel Fields intimidating the two brawny officers out of performing the "official function" of messing with two other kids in the elevator of their own building.

On the basis of these two "offenses," police arrested Fields. They further claimed he struggled and elbowed one of them outside the elevator, which led to additional charges of attempted assault in the third degree and resisting arrest.

According to the lawsuit, one officer punched Fields in the face during the arrest, and he still has a small scar from the incident.

According to Grieco, after the video was shown to the DA, all Jaleel's charges were dismissed. His initial court-appointed attorney had an investigator who somehow got the New York City Housing Authority to turn over the tape early in the process.

"Normally, the NYCHA doesn't give out its videos," says Grieco, who called getting the tape "very lucky."

In other words, absent a stroke of fortune that most poor arrestees don't get, Fields would actually have gone to court and might very well have been convicted for blocking an elevator door and perhaps even attempting to assault a police officer.

Incidents like this don't make CNN. But this is the kind of pointless day-to-day harassment that's behind a lot of the anger Middle America usually only gets to see on TV in places like Ferguson or Baltimore.

Modern policing strategies create these situations by forcing police to fan out in large numbers not just into neighborhoods, but in some cases into the very buildings where people live. There, they conduct searches, question people, and use stop-and-frisk tactics, even if it's not called that anymore. The dynamic is inherently hostile and quickly creates high-octane animosity on both sides.

Do the same thing in upscale neighborhoods and you could easily create just as many silly misdemeanor arrests and just as much hostility. Imagine if police went down to Wall Street and tried to arrest every self-obsessed suit who blocked a subway entrance while blabbering into a cell phone. The city jail would be full in about ten minutes.

Imagine further that police went on regular rides up and down the elevators of the luxury residential towers on the Upper West and Upper East sides, in Tribeca, and so on. Imagine that they pushed around the prep-school teens in those buildings and slapped any that talked back with "OGA" charges. You'd see white people marching in numbers that would make Black Friday look like a library sale.

Obviously there's real crime in places like East New York, and police are there, in big numbers, for a reason. 

But there's a difference between fighting crime and just creating offenses and criminal records to clog up the courts.