Saturday, August 23, 2014

Law Enforcement is Grey. So is life

So like the rest of the world, I've been following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri over the past few weeks.  This event, which many people are saying is not just a singular event, is incredibly hard to dissect.  It's like pulling a string on the biggest sweater ever knit.  However, between the media I consume and enjoy usually (Gawker, Twitter, etc) stating that cops are abusive and corrupt and murderers, and my Facebook feed which alternates between condemnation of Sharpton and the looters, condemnation of a brutal police state,  and ice bucket challenge videos, I decided to get some thoughts down.

Where I'm From

I want to start at the beginning, because the reality is that I'm just one guy and I have one perspective.  I was raised in New York City as a white kid who was afforded all opportunities in the world.  As proof, I should tell you I attended sleepaway clown/computer camp in Avon, Connecticut for 2 weeks one summer.  My all-boys private elementary school was mostly populated with the offspring of incredibly wealthy WASPs from Park Avenue, and it had a conservative ethos where sports were just as important as grades.  As a theater kid, who never seemed to "reach his potential" according to my report cards, it wasn't a great fit.

Then I went to high school at a more liberal  co-ed institution, but still not that liberal.  Our Gay/Straight Alliance club seemed to consist of straight kids eager to ally with any gays who wanted to make themselves known.  We did have a lot more black students thanks to a terrific program called Prep for Prep.  It was here I got to talk with and hang out with students of color, which was sadly and belatedly formative for me.

Then I was lucky enough to get into Vassar College, and majored in Urban Studies and spent loads of time reading about poverty, gentrification and spending priorities that never seemed to prioritize people who needed help.  Also my personal ideology shifted more left as I recognized my own privilege surrounded by friends on financial aid.  In junior year, I applied to the New York City Police Department, which had been a lifelong dream just like many of my friends had wanted to be astronauts or cowboys when they were little.  My obsession just stuck.  I halfheartedly looked for jobs in government, but prepared myself for the police department.

I completed the NYPD Academy in 2000 and was assigned to the 28th Precinct, which is in Central Harlem.  If you took the east/west boundaries of Central Park and went straight for another 17 blocks that was my home.  It's the smallest precinct in the city.  .68 square miles.  Solidly African-American at that time.  I was warned that the black officers and the white officers didn't get along.  What I noticed was that there are more black officers than white officers there which was unusual given that white officers were still the majority.

Observations as a Cop

A few thoughts on race as a cop. I learned that the white cops and the black cops who actually did work got along fine.  The zips (NYPD vernacular for do nothings) were generally disliked by everyone.  We did have several leaders from 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement who worked in the 28, which could make things tense when they had press conferences outside the precinct condemning the department.  Some of them were good cops,  some of them were better at their positions in the organization than their jobs in the department.  But overall, we were cool.  My partner for 4 years was a handsome Dominican lad from Brooklyn.  He remains one of my best friends.  I was best man at his wedding.

White people would ask me sometimes if it was hard being a white cop in Harlem.  I came to realize quickly that it was harder being a black cop which seemed to surprise them.  But I didn't live in Harlem or grow up playing on those streets and I got to home to Queens when my shift was over.  And though I would hear the occasional but still humorous "cracker ass cracker" thrown my way, I heard black officers called "sellout" or "Uncle Tom" and worse.  And many of them still had friends and family there, and that had to hurt, and is wonderfully explained in this Root piece. 

Much has been made of officer-involved shootings and with snipers set up on armored vehicles, the issue bears discussion.  Many people say it's not a dangerous job.  And statistically this is true, as law enforcement doesn't even break the Top 10 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, coming behind fields like professional drivers, loggers, garbage collectors, roofers and others.  And to be honest, asides from the occasional foot chase, wrestling with a perp or standing in the August sun at a parade, it's not really a physically demanding job.  Many cops will tell you that roofing in the summer, construction, road work all work harder than they do, in terms of sweat produced.

But what you can't see, and what creates this deep rift in relations between cops and their loved ones, and anyone who's not a cop, is the mental toll the job takes.  Let's take the danger aspect.  We know the job isn't the most dangerous, and as of today, there have been 67 reported line of duty fatalities from local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement.  But the threat of danger is always there.  When you're logging, trees can fall the wrong way and chains can snap and kill you in an instant, but the trees don't become self-aware and try and kill you as you log.  The roof doesn't decide to become slippery and send you to your death.  These other occupations are dealing with inanimate objects while cops deal with people.  There are sadly more and more cases of officers being ambushed while they ate or sat in their cars or returned from calls. Now, does this happen every day?  No.  Not at all.  It's an isolated incident, even if it's sadly becoming more frequent.  The chance is small that I will be killed as I sit in my car.  But I have no way to mitigate that risk because it depends on another human being's state of mind. Hurricanes are incredibly rare in New England, but it doesn't mean that planners and meteorologists don't worry about them and plan for them.   So all I can do is be on guard and make sure I see people's hands, because regardless of the whole "Guns don't kill people...." trope, police officers know that hands are the only thing that kill people.  Until the bad guys develop shoe guns or something.  So cops treat most people as a possible threat, until they determine otherwise.

In addition to the ever present threat of danger, there's another more insidious threat to the mental health of a police officer, and that's the community they serve.  So, when I worked in the 28, I'd say 93-95% of people in that community woke up, fed and clothed their kids, went to work, came home from work, read their kids bedtime stories, watched a Knicks game (they lost) and went to sleep.  And that majority of the population we rarely saw.  We did see, interact, and help the 5-7% of people that for reasons larger than ours to fix, required police intervention.  A few of my favorites:

  • Amanda M., 65 years old, who called the police every day drunk because her live in roommate, 40 years old wouldn't have sex with her.  
  • Guy at the fish market who believe he was ripped off and his Jumbo shrimp were not jumbo enough. 
  • Couple who have three kids together and fight all the time but stay together even though there's a restraining order in place, so he gets locked up while she yells at us not to.  
  • Guy on PCP who bit my neck while fighting me in the middle of 116th St, which is how I still remember my last tetanus shot was in 2003.  
  • Sisters who couldn't decide whether to watch Ricki Lake or Maury Povich and called 911 to have an officer settle the dispute.  
These calls are every day, 5 days a week, for 8.5 hours a day.  The screaming in your face, the parents with babies outside at 3AM in November with no coat, the shooting victims who never see who shot them, like ever.  People lie to your face all the time, and they're terrible at it, or maybe you're just good at reading it because you're lied to for a living.  It gets old and you begin to withdraw and think of people as less than who they are because they refuse to act with any respect for you or their fellow man/woman.  I should say that the only time you normally get to interact with the 95% is for burglary calls, and it does help to remind you that there are hard working people who care and invite you to watch the Knicks lose on TV while your partner takes the report.  

Everyone loves firefighters.  They have a dog.  They have calendars.  They always seem so nice.  Why can't cops be like them?  Well, for one, they get to see everyone.  Sadly, everyone's Aunt Milly can have trouble breathing at Thanksgiving or anyone can get into a bike accident, so they get to handle the public at large, instead of the smaller subset like cops do, which improves their overall demeanor.  Also, the amazing thing about firefighters is that people love them even if they don't succeed.  As a volunteer firefighter in the Hudson Valley for two years in college, I literally watched a fire on a back deck spread due to poor tactics and consume the house.  You can have a firefighter bust out all your windows, saw your couch in half and you'll still bring them cookies to thank them.  This is no knock on fire guys.  They are brave and have a demanding job and I think being burned would be 100% worse than being shot.  The same public that asks "Why didn't you shoot the knife out of the guy's hand" will never ask "How come you didn't vent the roof or stretch another Inch and a Half line around through the bedroom." That's just the way it is.  

Where To Go From Here

I want to be clear that there are other non-environmental issues that create indifferent or troubled officers.  A Lieutenant gave us this speech on the first day of the Academy that has always stuck with me. 
      10 percent of you were meant to be police officers.  You have it in your blood and bones and you will excel in this profession.  For 80 percent of you, this is a job.  Its a job you will do well and honorably for your career with the NYPD.  10 percent of you should never made it this far.  You are too dumb, too damaged or too criminal to be police officers and you very well will be hurt, killed or arrested in the years to come.

Indeed, I have met terrible officers.  Sexist, racist and generally awful people.  The smartest person and the dumbest person I've met in my entire life have had NYPD personnel tax numbers. If every department has a few bad apples, then the size of the NYPD guarantees it an orchard of assholes and misfits.  But they are, on balance, the exception and not the rule.  I have amazing friends and incredibly hard working and caring individuals that many people will never get to know behind the exterior of the blue uniform and the badge.  I was once driving with a friend and got pulled over and my friend couldn't believe how the officer's demeanor changed once he saw my badge.  My friend kept remarking how nice and interested the guy was compared to when he didn't know me from Adam. While some of this was probably because I was a cop, it was mostly because the cop knew I wasn't a threat and could let his guard down and be himself, which is a rare occurrence on the street. 

Also, I think given the small segments of the general population you serve that you end up resenting and often times stereotyping the communities you work in.  Regardless of whether that's an African-American population in Harlem or a liberal white population in Manhattan or Brooklyn.  It's why I think cops should rotate their precincts, so they get to work in different communities with different constituencies.  I realize the union will never let this happen, but even taking officers off the street and giving them an administrative assignment with decent days off every few years could help reset some of the issues.  People do wonderful research on the effect that poverty has on communities and the children that grow up in severe poverty.  You can't tell me that working in incredibly depressed communities for 40 hours a week for 20 years doesn't take a similar toll, regardless of where the officer calls home.  

I'm not sure anyone is still reading this (Hi Mom) and I recognize this is long and somewhat rambling. I'm happy to write more about the issues and difficulties surrounding putting officers on foot or making them live in the cities they patrol, or why perhaps more black kids get locked up for weed than white kids.  But I'll save that for another day.  I'm just one cop with an opinion and make no claim to have the answers for other cops or other departments.  In the past weeks watching social media explode with comments by people about police overreach and brutality, as well as those who seek to elevate us as heroes draped in the flag of the just and righteous, I just wanted to put together some of my thoughts.  I recognize that racism is alive and well and that black men do get stopped for driving nice cars all over this country or hanging out on the corner with their friends.  Just as I learned that I can't assume the community I serve is represented by those who call 911 over and over, I wanted to point out that you can't judge an entire profession or calling based on the actions of a few. 

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