Standing on a crowded Chelsea sidewalk, Sergeant Edgar Rodriguez is stopping passersby who look gay. He’s not there to hassle them, though. “Do you know anybody who wants to be a New York City police officer?” he asks, tailing one couple like a sidewalk evangelist. The men recoil. One asks the other, “Anybody you would trust to be a cop?” and they both laugh. Rodriguez delivers his pitch: “Find one friend and we can make the Police Department better.” They take the application.
“Yes, yes, yes,” says one buff young man in a muscle shirt. “I want to be a gay policeman in New York!”
“Do you have a green card?” Rodriguez asks, suspicious of the man’s accent. “Sorry, not everyone can be a cop.”
Nor does Rodriguez want just anyone. As president of the Gay Officers’ Action League, he wants people who are queer and who are out. In one of the most unusual recruitment drives in the force’s history, goal members have been working the streets in neighborhoods such as the West Village, Jackson Heights, and Park Slope, asking random gays, lesbians, and transsexuals to join the police force. If they’re not interested, they’re encouraged to get a friend to join instead. So far, goal has handed out 2,000 applications for the January 9 police exam (the filing deadline is October 16).
The officers conducting the drive say it’s not just a matter of visibility. They believe that increasing their numbers will improve their job performance by helping them serve the gay community – which has complained of harassment during Mayor Giuliani’s quality-of-life crackdown. In fact, the Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project estimates 67 percent of gay crimes went unreported to police last year. “There’s a distrust that cops will harass them further,” says Chris Goeken, police advocate for the Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.
“The only way a cop understands the problems of a gay person being sexually harassed, robbed on dates, beaten in a domestic dispute,” says goal recruiter Jason Bahrt, “is if he’s gay or knows someone who’s gay. Our goal is to basically change the face of the NYPD.”
That’s an ambitious departure from goal’s traditional mission. For sixteen years, the group (which has roughly 700 members locally) has focused on protecting gay cops from discrimination, pushing for fair promotions, and suing over harassment. The new street-corner effort is a bold first – born of necessity, members say, from the department’s inertia.
Under the Dinkins administration, minority groups were encouraged to recruit in uniform during specified work hours. But the policy has since grown more restrictive, forbidding such uniformed, on-the-job recruiting. Those groups must now go through the department’s official recruitment unit, which Rodriguez says isn’t doing enough to attract lesbians and gays. Deputy Police Commissioner Marilyn Mode bristles at the criticism, saying, “There is no effort under way to keep goal out of anything. I hope they bring in as many people as they can.”
While the department keeps no figures on sexual orientation, goal estimates 14 percent of city cops are queer. But many of them are still not out. “Especially in the higher ranks, it’s not safe,” says Rodriguez. “It can kill your career.”
The biggest recruiting obstacle for goal may be the same bias that hinders the NYPD effort overall: a robust economy. “People join the force when the economy slows,” says Rodriguez, after a few uninterested pedestrians stream by. As if to underscore that point, a blond man in a linen suit strolls up, looks at the placard Rodriguez has placed against a coffee shop, and laughs at the $29,500 starting salary.
“I’m making three times that,” the man says. “You got to be kidding.”
“What are you going to do when the market crashes?” asks Rodriguez. “Take the test. You never know where you’ll be in five years. You can still join then.”
“Unlimited sick leave?” the man asks, studying the handout more closely.
“Yeah,” says Rodriguez. “You don’t get that on Wall Street.”