From Ferguson to Cleveland to Arizona, the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of white police officers have pushed the problems of race in American law enforcement back to the center of national debate. With protests continuing around the country over a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer in the choke-hold death of a black man, Eric Garner, the fraught place of black officers on the force has also come into renewed focus.
The police sergeant supervising the officers who tried to arrest Garner on Staten Island was herself a black woman. She was among roughly 16 percent of the 34,705 NYPD officers who are African-American; at higher levels (those ranked as deputy inspectors or above), the force is less than 7 percent black.
With New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio calling for a more honest discussion of race and policing and the white head of New York’s police union complaining officers have been “thrown under the bus” by his administration, The Marshall Project sought out some black officers at different levels of the department to ask them about the increasingly difficult and important role they play. Most of them would speak candidly only on the condition that their names not be used.
A precinct commander
On the lack of diversity in the NYPD’s upper ranks: You don’t see people who look like you at the top. They don’t put us to command precincts in areas that are majority white. There is a running joke in the department that being a black chief is equivalent to being a white captain -- meaning you are not taken seriously. Chief [Douglas] Zeigler was pulled over by white officers who didn’t believe that he was a chief. If one of the highest-ranking black men in the police department had a problem, what does it say for the rest of us?
On NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton: Bratton has been a disappointment. We were all waiting for this big change that has never happened. I am very disappointed. Bratton had the power to take us to the next level and he failed us.
On New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: The mayor takes the community’s side. People hated Giuliani, but he always publicly backed police officers. C’mon, we put our lives on the line every day. If anything goes wrong, they try to prosecute you. You are going to start seeing people not doing proactive police work. There are good police officers out there and they should be recognized before we lose the police department. Morale is already dead.
On poor training: You are putting cops out there who are scared. The shooting in the Pink Houses [, a public housing complex in Brooklyn, of a young black man, Akai Gurley, by a rookie policeman, Peter Liang,] the officer made a mistake, and he should pay for it with his job. If there is no indictment, there is going to be a major problem in the city of New York.
On the killing of Eric Garner: For the police office to use the tactic (a chokehold) like that comes into question. Putting his face like that on the ground shouldn’t have happened. It all goes back to training. It is painful to hear someone say, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ That sergeant on the scene should have taken control of that situation. It was negligence all around. Supervisors want to fit in. But you have to be a boss. You have to make the tough decisions.
On the protests: There are people getting shot on a daily basis, and we are out there trying to protect them. When a cop shoots one guy, 10,000 people show up to protest. When a regular person shoots another regular person, no one is out there to complain.
A rookie patrolman in Harlem
On why he joined the force: I just wanted to help people, help the community.
On being a black police officer: We all get treated the same by the public. It’s bad because people don’t like to be told what to do, and basically that’s what we have to do. What you didn’t learn in your household you have to learn as an adult. And sometimes it’s not easy for an adult to hear, ‘What you are doing is wrong.’ Sometimes it means you have to get arrested. I think people don’t see color, they just see the uniform.
On the current public anger: It’s a tough job. There is bad morale because of what is going on. The public sees one case and then there is stereotyping against the NYPD. There are a lot of cops out there who try to do the right thing, help the community and put people away who deserve it.
On how the situation has affected his outlook: It makes a difference, but you still have to do your job.
A veteran officer on Staten Island
On race: People think [they] get better customer service from people who look like them. What is customer service? You respond to the community’s needs. I don’t talk down to people; I explain what they did wrong. The NYPD needs to implement quality customer service.
On police-involved deaths: These confrontations definitely make our job much tougher. If one cop messes up, then we all look guilty. People demonize us because of one incident.
On Eric Garner: He had 30 arrests. You have a 400-pound individual saying, “Not today.” Imagine encountering someone who is twice your size, who is refusing to cooperate. It becomes a different situation.
On the demonstrations: People are using these incidents for their own personal soap box. It is the wrong people out there protesting. It is not the people being abused by the police in the communities. There is a lot of young white kids out there.
Looking ahead: They are going full-court press on retraining. I think there will be a change. You won't have 100 percent compliance from every single cop, but going forward we are going to see better days.
A retired Inspector, Corey Pegues, who ran the Brooklyn precinct where Akai Gurley was shot
On why he joined the force: I grew up in the 80s. Back then it was very corrupt. It was the crack era. I know that cops were on the take. I saw what cops were doing in my community. They never really were around, and when they were around, I’ve seen what they would do: beat up people in the street... really heavy-handed. The only way to affect change is you have to be part of it. You can’t affect change screaming, ‘No justice, no peace.’ You have to be in there.
On white officers in black communities: They don’t understand the culture, they don’t want any part. Young people [in black communities] use the phrase ‘son.’ If you don’t know the culture, that little word is, ‘Who do you think you’re talking to? I’m not your son.’ But this is how we talk to each other. It’s a term of endearment.
On Eric Garner: [Staten Island Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo] violated a clear department rule and regulation and he should have been suspended for 30 days, not put on desk duty. I do think there was enough probable cause that it should have gone to a jury. The Garner family is not even going to get the chance for a fair trial.
On accountability: I really do not think training is going to help at all. Let’s deal with that small segment, because they give everyone else a black eye...Use Broken Windows to discipline the cops. If they curse at someone, you hammer them.
On Mayor DeBlasio: At the end of the day, he is the father of a black child. He has these conversations with his kids, just like I have conversations with my teenage son. [White people] don’t have to send your kids to the store and worry that they have an interaction with a cop. [They] are not going to understand.
On police union head Pat Lynch: You can’t find one video of him ever saying that a cop was wrong -- even when a cop went to jail. When we have leaders say it’s not a chokehold, that drives a stake between minority and police. They just do not want to acknowledge that there is a problem with police in minority communities.