When I was in my early 20s, my days were spent listening to New Yorkers tell me stories of how officers from the New York City Police Department had beaten them up. On most days, the person sitting across from me was a young, African-American man. (There were women, too, but they were fewer.) He would have an official complaint, either during his arrest or after, which then filtered through the city bureaucracy to land on my desk at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, an independent agency that investigates complaints against the NYPD.
It was my first job after graduating from college in 2002, and many of my colleagues were also 22- or 23-year-olds fresh off some elite, verdant, northeastern campus, filling out a resume while contemplating law school. The cops dismissed us as kids who didn't know anything about the job, and in some ways, they were right. I didn't know anything about New York City, the job of an officer or the lives of the young men who sat across from me. That would change.
Before I could begin an investigation, I had to interview the complainant. If he couldn't get to my offices in lower Manhattan, I had to find him at home. Home was usually Brownsville, East New York, East Elmhurst or Tremont — New York City neighborhoods far removed from the brunch spots where Sex and the City fans fought for outside seating, or where the trucker-hat crowd ironically carried their bodega 40s in brown paper bags. I came to learn that New York City was a place dramatically divided by race and class, and the line that marked the border between the two cities was blue.