Yusef Salaam, the newly minted New York City councilmember representing Harlem, was driving his blue BMW on Friday evening when he was pulled over in a traffic stop. The side windows of the car, according to the officer’s report, were “nontransparent,” due to their heavy tinting. New York’s laws regarding visible-light transmission (VLT) are among the nation’s strictest: side windows, front and back, must allow 70 percent of light to filter through. Salaam’s car, registered in Georgia, doesn’t meet the state standard.

None of this would be worth noting, except that Salaam was one of the notorious “Central Park Five” teenagers convicted, based on their confessions, of participating in the brutal rape and near-murder of a jogger, as well as the beating and robbing of numerous other parkgoers on April 19, 1989. Salaam served seven years in prison and had his conviction thrown out in 2002, when DNA from the rape was connected to another individual, Matias Reyes, already serving a life sentence for rape and murder. Reyes took responsibility for the assault, and 82-year-old Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, facing a tough reelection race for his eighth term in office, supported vacating all charges for the Central Park Five, whom the city eventually gave $8 million each for their troubles. 

Everything about Salaam’s election has been framed in terms of his having overcome persecution by a racist justice system that sought to crucify him for the rape of a white woman. He routinely compares himself with Emmett Till. A tendentious 2019 documentary about the Central Park Five became a cultural phenomenon and primed the nation for the “mostly peaceful” riots that attended the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis the following year. Salaam’s appointment as the chair of the Committee on Public Safety—which exercises oversight of the NYPD—made clear that the leftist city council means to counterbalance the perceived pro-police bias of Mayor Eric Adams.

Salaam released a statement on Friday’s incident saying that the officer refused to explain the reason for the traffic stop after the councilman identified himself and instead brusquely replied, “We’re done here,” before walking away. Salaam said that the interaction was “triggering” and left him feeling “vulnerable and powerless.” He explained that, “in light of this encounter,” he would not attend a scheduled ride-along with Mayor Adams and the NYPD.

The NYPD released officer bodycam video from the brief incident. The footage shows the officer approaching the car—which has Georgia plates—and asking the driver to roll down the back window, which indeed appears totally opaque. He introduces himself, and then Salaam identifies himself as a councilmember. Without even asking for identification, the officer says, “A councilmember? Oh, okay, have a good one,” and begins to walk away. He stops, inquires whether Salaam is “working,” and then says, “Alright, take care, sir.”

It’s hard to imagine an interaction with police that could be more deferential, or even obsequious, but the response from Salaam’s political allies has been predictably alarmist. Socialist state senator Julia Salazar mourned the “indignity” that Salaam suffered; councilmember Selvena Brooks-Powers said that the incident gave us a “glimpse of what every day Black and Brown New Yorkers encounter.” Councilmember Alexa Aviles, also a socialist, expressed thanks that Salaam and his family “are all safe. We know that not all stops play out or end this way.”

The context to this story is Mayor Adams’s recent veto of the council’s How Many Stops Act, which the council will likely override at its meeting on Tuesday, January 30. The How Many Stops Act would mandate that NYPD officers record data regarding virtually every low-level interaction they have with the public. Its backers, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, insist that the legislation is just a good-government transparency measure and necessary because of the racial disparities that supposedly still define police stops in New York City—a decade after the city threw in the towel on a civil rights lawsuit regarding its “Stop, Question, and Frisk” policies. Speaker Adams released an infographic claiming that “97% of people stopped by the mayor’s new NYPD unit were Black or Latino,” referring to the mayor’s reconstitution of the proactive Anti-Crime Unit.

That sounds disproportionate in a city that is only 52 percent black or Latino. But, as the NYPD reported for 2022, “the race/ethnicity of known Shooting suspects is most frequently Black (71.2%). Hispanic suspects accounted for an additional (26.3%) of all suspects.” Black and Hispanic New Yorkers thus account for 97.5 percent of those suspected of gun violence. Given the Anti-Crime Unit’s focus on getting guns off the street, it is no great surprise that their efforts would be directed toward the same population committing the crimes.

The point of the How Many Stops Act, as with many other policing “reform” measures enacted over the last 15 years, is to interfere with street-level police work, bog down officers with data collection, and neuter policing by discouraging cops from bothering to fight or investigate crime. Salaam and his radical colleagues are manipulating a banal, legitimate, and inconsequential traffic stop to shore up support for their effort to override the mayor’s veto. Salaam, a cause célèbre for the abolitionist Left, is playing up his martyr status for political ends. As such, he is trying to enflame racial divisions and exploit fear and resentment against cops at a moment when New York desperately needs them to keep the city from collapsing.

Photo: Mindaugas Dulinskas/iStock


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