One white court officer in Brooklyn posted an illustration of President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck on social media. Another white officer referred to a Black court officer as “one of the good monkeys.”
A third white court officer commented to a white colleague that he would have done better on a firearms test if he had been given a “Sean Bell target,” a reference to an unarmed Black man killed by the police in 2006.
The incidents of overt racism were among several mentioned in a new report about racial bias in the New York State Court system commissioned by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore after national protests this summer against institutional racism in the criminal justice system.
Jeh C. Johnson, a former Homeland Security secretary under President Obama, led the team that did the review. His report, released with little fanfare last week, found pervasive racism in New York courts, both explicit and implicit, from judges, court officers and lawyers. The accounts of racial bias the team collected bore a striking similarity to testimony in another review from three decades ago, the report said.
The state’s court system, one of the busiest in the country, is overburdened and understaffed, the report said. In New York City, the system has had a “dehumanizing effect” and disparate effect on people of color moving through the housing, family, civil and criminal courts, it said.
“The sad picture that emerges is, in effect, a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “This is a moment that demands a strong and pronounced rededication to equal justice under law by the New York State Court system.”
The chief administrative judge, Lawrence K. Marks, said the court system would try to implement all of the report’s recommendations.
“The findings are troubling, but not surprising,” Judge Marks said. “Nothing could be more important at this moment in time than for the court system to take all necessary steps to combat bias and ensure racial equality.”
Racism among court officers highlighted
Mr. Johnson wrote that a Brooklyn court officer’s “vile, racist posting” in June about former President Obama had “peeled the lid off long-simmering racial tensions and intolerance within the court officer community.”
The officer, Sgt. Terri Napolitano of Brooklyn Criminal Court, was accused of uploading to Facebook an illustration of Mr. Obama with a noose around his neck and of Hillary Clinton being taken to a wooden apparatus to be hanged. Sergeant Napolitano did not respond to a request for comment.
She was suspended for 30 days, her was firearm taken away and she remains on paid leave with disciplinary charges pending, court officials said. After the posts appeared, three Black court officers sent a letter to Judge DiFiore saying the racist memes were “only the tip of the iceberg.”
The sergeant’s behavior had long been tolerated, the report said, which was evidence of a broader institutional acceptance of racist conduct. It recommended “more robust bias training for nonjudicial personnel, particularly the court officer community.”
Judge Marks said the administration will mandate, expand and improve bias training for court officers and work to ensure broader diversity in supervisory court officer positions.
Mr. Johnson’s team found that some court officers, in dealing with people of color who were defendants, lawyers or the public, were disrespectful, condescending, and at times, racist.
Court officers were heard using racial slurs and berating minority litigants about the clothes they wore. Black defendants were often handcuffed when appearing in court for minor infractions, while white defendants were not, the report found.
Some court officers told the report’s authors they did not report instances of bias out of fear of retaliation from powerful union leaders. They worried that doing so could jeopardize their career, according to the report.
The report also noted that one union leader had posted offensive messages on social media, calling protesters who sprayed graffiti on a court van “animals” and posting a profile picture with the Betsy Ross flag, which has been linked to white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Dennis Quirk, the longtime president of the New York State Court Officers Association, acknowledged in an interview that he was the leader mentioned in the report. He said his use of the term “animals” was unrelated to race.
“It don’t matter if you’re Hispanic, gay, female or whatever — you did something you shouldn’t be doing,” he said.
Mr. Quirk said he does not support white supremacy and did not know that the Betsy Ross flag was associated with racist groups. He called the report an attempt by the chief judge to discredit the union and diminish its power.
But Mr. Quirk acknowledged that racism was a problem among his union’s members. “We have white officers who come and tell us that Black and Hispanic officers are saying things that are not proper,” he said, adding that Black officers have complained about white officers making inappropriate remarks. “Racism exists in every walk of life no matter where you go.”
Pat Bonanno, a lawyer representing the union that Mr. Quirk leads, said in a letter sent to Mr. Johnson that the union “condemns in the harshest possible way any instance of insensitivity, racially animated or otherwise, on the part of any member of the association.” Mr. Bonanno denied the allegations raised against the union and its leaders, calling them “inaccurate and defamatory.”
Lawyers confront racism on two fronts
As part of the review, Mr. Johnson and his team interviewed nearly 300 people throughout the court system, including many Black and Hispanic lawyers who recounted incidents of bias.
These lawyers said that they were often mistaken for criminal defendants and were asked to show identification to enter the courthouse while most white lawyers were not questioned. They also said they were often asked to identify themselves when they sat in the front row of the courtroom, which is reserved for lawyers.
Black and Hispanic lawyers told the report’s authors that they are “believed less often” when making statements to judges, a problem that is magnified when their client is also a person of color.
One lawyer said she has been called “aggressive” while her white male counterparts have not when they have made similar arguments before the court, the report said.
Chrishana White, a Black woman who is the director of diversity and inclusion for Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender organization, said the kind of pervasive racism in courthouses that the report highlighted had led her to stop practicing law. She said when she walked into court she was often “assumed to be less than an attorney.”
“It’s dehumanizing,” Ms. White said in a phone interview. “It somewhat feels like the 1960s — the way you’re treated and judged and misjudged.”
She added, “Day in and day out my colleagues are fighting every day against these systems, fighting for the best for our clients, but also fighting against court officers and judges.”
Judiciary still lags in diversity
The report zeroed in on another problem: a lack of diversity among judges. Even in New York, a city where more than half of the residents are Black or Hispanic, only a quarter of criminal court judges are people of color.
Judges interviewed for the report said there were challenges to diversifying the judiciary. The appointment process, some judges said, required candidates to go through judicial screening committees that were predominately white.
One judge said the electoral process also tends to marginalize Black and Hispanic candidates. Like the appointive process, it depends on a candidate’s personal connections, and the nominating system, which is controlled by party loyalists, “causes candidates of color to be bypassed or discouraged by party leadership, particularly in upstate counties.”
Judges also said a persistent lack of resources devoted to some of the busiest courts, like the housing and family courts in New York City, has had a disparate effect on Black and Hispanic residents, who make up most of the people with cases before those judges.
One judge said the reluctance of state court officials to devote more resources to high-volume courts in New York City, which largely serve poor people of color, is “the very definition of institutional bias,” according to the report.
Noting many participants in the system are afraid of retribution if they criticize judges or court officers, the report recommended that the Office of Court Administration do more to encourage court employees to report incidents of bias to the system’s inspector general. That office currently investigates fewer than 10 complaints of racial bias each year.
The report also called for the expansion of bias training for judges and all other personnel, and for the strengthening of existing organizations focused on addressing racism, including the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
That office’s team, which works on improving diversity in the court system, was cut from eight people to two. Funding for programs addressing racial bias was denied in 2018, and “far too little” has been spent since then to develop such a program, the report said.
Judge Marks said the administration has already started to develop a mandatory bias training program.
“There’s zero tolerance in the court system for racial bias,” he said.