first person

‘There’s a High Probability I Would Have Marched’: On Being Black and NYPD

New York Police Department officers gather during a rally on May 31, 2020 in New York City. Photo: Justin Heiman/Getty Images

Police officers are human beings, right? Though I work in a very aggressive job, the reality is that most people are fearful of being hurt. During this week’s protests, officers have been stabbed in the neck, bricks have been hurled, water bottles have been thrown. Fear is something that definitely seeps in.

Then you have the added stress from lack of sleep, being overworked — all of these things play a factor in me and everyone out there. I’m working 12-hour shifts at the minimum — sometimes going to 18 hours. I don’t know how legal that is with the Department of Labor. No days off. I don’t know how legal that is either. They’ll give you a 12-hour shift, hold you over, and then tell you you have to come back within a few hours to begin another 12-hour shift.

Initially [at the demonstrations], it was pure pandemonium. Once the sun goes down, things change. [Protesters] tried to take over the 88th Precinct. A lot of burning vehicles, a lot of destruction and mayhem. A lot of confrontation. A lot of [the NYPD] sending people of color to the front lines to try to present a more appealing face.

If you really want to know how people of color are being treated in the community, just look at how they’re being treated within the police department. You’ll see many people being used as a token or barely heard. They’re visible, but it’s mostly to present the appearance of progress, which may or may not be happening. I do know that there’s definitely a strong push to put members of the black and brown community on the front lines in order to make sure that the public can see how diverse the department is. Hopefully that will help to quell some of the conflict. I think, to a certain extent, it should work. But once the unrest has subsided, what are we looking at? A situation where those people of color disappear in the wind as they all get divvied up and sent to wherever they get sent.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the NYPD have a similar problem. Sometimes a group of people gets inappropriately characterized due to the actions of a subset of that group. Within the Black Lives Matter movement, you have a small group who are looting, and then you have other people who are legitimately protesting peacefully. Same thing with the department. Obviously, you have a set of people who don’t do things as well as they should, but the vast majority of officers are trying to do their best at their job. The actions of a few begin to frame our perspective on the collective, but it isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of the whole. It’s a little ironic because the conflict is kind of about the same fundamental concept, but it’s from two varying perspectives.

Obviously, [excessive force] is deeply offensive. But more so it makes you wonder why, or when, at what point, the idea arose that it was law enforcement against the general public. I can understand there being some sort of aggression [from activists]. When you have a random woman walking in the middle of the street, talking to someone, whether what she’s saying is appropriate or offensive, it doesn’t warrant her getting her head shoved into the concrete. Images like that don’t necessarily help.

I don’t think everybody in BLM is on the same page and I don’t think everyone within the department is on the same page. But I believe the difference is that everyone in the department understands an organizational structure and is capable of following orders. If they utilize the full scope of their ability and focus, the protesters could actually change the law, or the legislative body, to bring about the changes that they demand.

I’m worried about things becoming even worse before they get better — whether it be a general sense of neglect or apathy from the NYPD, or a more aggressive approach. If we seek out those individuals who did the looting, that could be an incredibly daunting and painful task. Based on the videos that you see online, it appears that many of the looters are underage — kids taking advantage of being at home all the time, or just being reckless juveniles. I don’t think there would be enough evidence to really support an investigation, because of how damaged all the crime scenes are. You might be able to grab a handful [of suspects] or start looking at some black-market movements — it’s not impossible.

Being a black police officer does change the dynamic in my community. To be on both sides is difficult. You never realize how disenfranchised you are until you put on the uniform. Because then you see all the things that you’re not really getting — very minute, subtle stuff. But if every officer in a certain demographic feels it, then you all kind of collectively know and realize what’s happening. It becomes a kind of communal knowledge. Your concerns in and out of uniform, the way you’re treated in society in and out of uniform. It makes it more clear to you how disenfranchised people of color truly are within society, because now that you have a uniform on, all of a sudden you are a member of society and you’re treated differently — you’re acknowledged whereas before you were socially ignored.

There’s also a fear of being inappropriately categorized, or shamed for actions that you have nothing to do with. I do believe that the vast majority of members of service are good, genuinely hardworking, moral, upstanding officers. There may be a few bad apples, but the department tries to weed them out regularly. But there’s a high probability that I would have marched.

Because here’s the grim but very strong reality. At any point in time someone can take a job and become a member of law enforcement. But at no point in time will you cease to be a member of the black community. You can stop being one, you cannot stop being another. After law enforcement is done, you’re going to go back to that community because that’s who you are.

‘I Probably Would Have Marched’: On Being Black and NYPD