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A Prosecutor’s Look at the Justice System from the Other Side of the Bars

Posted  August 21, 2014

By Jason Enzler

A former prosecutor was arrested in New York City in 2012 for spray-painting “NYPD Get Your Hands Off Me” on the entrance to city hall. That fact alone makes for a rather odd story. But in the case of Bobby Constantino, the “vandal” in question, there is much more to the story. And unfortunately, it is as relevant today — with the ongoing strife in Ferguson, MO over allegations of police brutality and abuse of power – as it was when his story first ran in The Atlantic.

Mr. Constantino is a whistleblower, of sorts, though he does not use that term in his article. His arrest was intentional. According to Mr. Constantino, he began his work as a district attorney “eager to incarcerate everything in sight” and prosecuting “people of color” for “riding dirt bikes in the street” or “cutting through a neighbor’s yard” — in other words, doing his job when presented with cases by the police. However, he also wondered why he was seeing so many arrests for activities that he and other “white kids did with impunity growing up in the suburbs.” In 2012, he set out to learn what the system looked like from the other side, and as you might guess, it was not pretty.

Mr. Constantino describes walking around the streets of New York City dressed in a suit and holding two cans of spray paint and a giant graffiti stencil in front of hundreds of police officers. Nothing happened. In fact, in one incident a “black man” yelled at Mr. Constantino in a subway station. Three officers “came running,” actually read his graffiti stencil (regarding the NYPD no less), but then ran off chasing the black man. As he writes, “though I was the one clearly breaking a law, they went after him.” Perhaps even more shocking was the fact that Mr. Constantino was able to march right up to the entrance to city hall, under the watchful gaze of police officers and video cameras, and spray paint not once, but twice, “NYPD Get Your Hands Off Me.” Again, nothing.

It was not that his case was so trivial as to be ignored. In fact, Fox News reported on the vandalism the next day. Yet despite this, Mr. Constantino went to the police officers stationed at city hall five times to turn himself in, but each time, the police turned away the white professional dressed in the suit. Mr. Constantino ultimately succeeded in turning himself in, and his article describes some of the nasty conditions he met with in the holding cell. In a strange twist, he also describes how the system threw the book at him for committing a simple misdemeanor, something he attributes to “how much the case bothered” the judge.

So why resurrect this story now? In a time witnessing the growing prominence of the national discussion on the criminal justice system and race relations, Mr. Constantino’s voice is one more that should be added to the mix.