a good question to be thinking about as a teacher whose focus is teaching how to frame argument.
here’s the opening to a piece that explores a young lawyer’s role in civilian review of police. it reads like the opening of a procedural novel. what is civilian review of police about? By Alex DeSantis.
It was three in the afternoon on a sunny summer day when Ms. Linda Brillant walked into 40 Rector Street to file a complaint. I grabbed my interview materials and went out to the waiting area. Ms. Brillant was an older black female, approximately sixty years old, wearing a tattered summer dress and flip-flops. She had with her a wire pushcart, full of plastic bags, crumpled papers and old cans. After I introduced myself, we talked informally for a moment, and before the interview began I knew it was going to be a long afternoon.
Ms. Brillant was extremely difficult to understand, mumbling and whispering as she told me her story. She began sometime in the mid 80s, recounting her relationship with her landlord and daughter. There was no real continuity to her ramblings, and I couldn’t keep her on track. She told me about how she saw Osama Bin Laden at the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and how Mayor Bloomberg forced her to watch pornographic videos on occasion at her apartment in Brooklyn. Ms. Brillant also told me about her time in a refugee camp, where she was forced to eat cookies against her will. Occasionally, Ms. Brillant would pull out an old scrap of paper from her cart or her pocket, showing me a telephone number of some important witness or the name of a lawyer that helped her obtain an order of protection against her ex-boyfriend. For at least the first hour of our conversation, I wasn’t sure if she even had a complaint against the NYPD. (Civilians often came in with complaints about something other than the police, a likely occurrence when you work at the Civilian Complaint Review Board.) Sure enough, Ms. Brillant eventually started to talk about how several police officers entered her apartment on a number of different occasions and pushed her to the floor. Of course, she had no dates or times, couldn’t describe any of the potential subject officers, and had no information about witnesses who might be able to shed some light on these incidents. Ms. Brillant was certain that following these interactions, the NYPD began watching her constantly, bugging her apartment and listening to all of her conversations.
I was a fairly senior investigator at the CCRB when I met Ms. Brillant that day. I had handled hundreds of complaints, both large and small in scale. On my investigative team, I was considered adept at civilian interviews, especially those involving “walk-in” complainants like Ms. Brillant. We often got people like Ms. Brillant at the agency, people who might have had emotional or psychological conditions, homeless people, and others who relayed fantastic incidents like her. Most of the investigators there hated talking to the Ms. Brillants of New York City; they saw it as a waste of time when they could be working on other more important investigations that might actually “go somewhere.” But I enjoyed talking to Ms. Brillant, and everyone else that came in to file complaints. I found it extremely interesting to speak with people from all over New York, people so unlike myself. I kept Ms. Brillant talking to me for hours, as we went over and over her interaction with the NYPD, trying to get any piece of information I could possibly obtain. I listened to her, and I thought that alone was a valuable service.
Looking back on Ms. Brillant and her complaint, I feel sad. As I walked back to my desk and began to process all of the information she had just provided, only two things were clear: Ms. Brillant needed my help, and I couldn’t help her.