On my first day of police academy at Queens College in 1999, I, along with 1,400 other young men and women in ill-fitting suits, heard a lieutenant deliver this speech:
Ten 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% of you, this is a job. It’s a job you will do well and honorably for your career with the NYPD. Ten percent of you should never have 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.
I’ve been thinking about that speech a lot lately, watching the news of police brutality and murder in Ferguson, Baltimore, and my hometown, New York City. I know the “bad apple” trope is an insufficient response to the deaths of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner. But it’s also true. When I became a police officer, I quickly learned that there are misfits, criminals, and assholes — but they’re the minority of the force. I also learned that your background and education have nothing to do with where you fall in the lieutenant’s measurement. Guys who barely scraped together two years of online college are police officers I could only hope to be, the men and women I would want tracking my murderer. I always thought it ironic when people would say I was “too smart” to be a police officer. Just how dumb do they want the officers guarding their lives to be?
I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I went to private schools, attended Vassar College, and majored in urban studies. I am well-versed in critical race theory and the plague of poverty affecting our nation’s cities. And I still became a cop like any other. I still find myself defending other officers who were second-guessed by friends and family. I’m writing this because, in the aftermath of tragedies like Freddie Gray’s death, the 80% of cops for whom this is "just a job" don't have a voice.
There are two official voices for cops: their departments and their unions. The department — which is liable for any alleged bad apples — can say only that there’s an ongoing investigation when something goes wrong. And the union will tell you that the alleged bad apple walks on water and shits rainbows. That’s their job. No matter what profession, if you’re in a union, there’s some lawyer now defending some person who has shown up drunk again at work, or who took a dump in their office.
Here’s my best guess as to what that 80% is thinking right now, based on my experience, and conversations and Facebook exchanges with other officers: Police brutality is complicated, no matter what CNN or Rev. Al or the union president will tell you. People think the uniform is some sort of shield, and with the militarization of police, that there is some cold-hearted police machine behind the badge. But they’re usually young men and women in Kevlar and non-breathable fabric. They hate when people shove cameras in their face or scream at them when they’re talking, just like you would if that happened at your office. They are subject to the same stresses and prejudices that all people are, and they face constant threats of violence, some real. Starting in the academy, they’ve watched footage of officers on vehicle stops getting shot or attacked. The recent spate of ambushes in cars and restaurants also are at the front of their mind.
And yes, they know that these murders are rare. And yes, they know that being a cop is less dangerous than being a logger or a construction worker. But the difference is that loggers and construction workers have accidents. That guy that I’m stopping for the brake light who thinks I’m stopping him for the robbery might not want to go back to jail. I can’t control that. That tension can gnaw on you like you wouldn’t believe — and it gets refracted through the community you serve.
When I got to Harlem, where I was assigned, I understood intellectually that the vast majority of the people who lived in my precinct were hardworking people who raised their kids and watched the Mets game at home and went to work and paid taxes. I never saw those people, unless they were burglarized or in a car accident. All of my time was spent on the other 5% of people in my precinct: criminals, the mentally ill, drug addicts, and people who have no common sense. These are the people police handle calls from eight hours a day, five days a week, until we get transferred or promoted.
When acquaintances would find out I was a cop, they would ask what the worst thing I ever saw was. When I was still a rookie, I’d tell them. And they would often turn pale and walk away. Because they wanted to hear about a double shooting and I was talking about a 14-year-old girl who didn’t know she was pregnant and birthed a fetus at four months and was trying to breathe air into its lungs with her asthma nebulizer. I told this story while eating nachos.
I later realized that that girl’s tax dollars paid for me to endure her story, not share it. That’s what a cop’s job is: to swallow the sorrows of humanity — from the banal to the truly tragic — and to return to work the next day and do it all over again. You have to dehumanize people. Your brain does it automatically, to protect yourself. Otherwise, you would need to get drunk all the time or you’d never be able to do the job, period. I believe all good cops still have the spark to do real police work when the time comes. But when the 5% — wrongly — comes to represent the community as a whole, you’re liable to hate whatever group you serve.
There have been many studies on the effects of poverty on communities, and rightfully so — the toll on their safety and health is vast and consequential. Less examined is what happens to officers who work 40 hours a week in abject poverty. I’m not saying it’s the same. We officers have homes to go to in places that look much different. But you can’t tell me that there’s not some effect on us. We’re not robots. And every time I’m working — dealing with the terrible things happening to unfortunate people — and someone yells “Hands up, don’t shoot,” it hardens me a little more. I back into my corner with my brothers and sisters in blue, people who understand me.
One possible solution might be to rotate officers working in rough neighborhoods to different areas. (Until recently, New York Police Department rookies were assigned to high-crime areas as a matter of policy.) But I doubt many departments would be able to get senior officers to take on tough precincts in order to share the mental health burden — the idea is that you bust your ass and stay out of trouble so you can look at video monitors at a property warehouse Monday to Friday. And that is systemic: It’s often the most disadvantaged people, living in the roughest precincts, who are protected by the department’s worst and youngest officers.
I left the NYPD in 2004. There was a girl involved, but I was also burned out and bitter. My friends told me I was changing. These days, I’m a reserve officer in Washington, D.C. one or two days a week, and a consultant specializing in crisis management and disaster preparedness. I love it because I get six days to decompress. Recently, I gave a talk for my local college alumni group about being a cop having graduated from Vassar. Someone asked, “How come no one ever hears this perspective?” It’s because there’s no room for this — candor, ambiguity, culpability — in our 24/7 news cycle. Our Facebook News Feeds aren’t much better. Given my history, my feed is quite schizophrenic, with no common political ground between my police friends and my college classmates. It’s easier to get Malik Shabazz and some Fraternal Order of Police guy on Wolf Blitzer to yell past each other. Never mind that if I were still an NYPD officer, I’d be fired the second this thing hit the internet — there’s still no incentive to renounce your fellow officers, or to admit you understand them.
Especially when a wrongful death at the hands of the police is followed by the death of one of our own. Like Brian Moore, who was the same age as Freddie Gray when he was shot last weekend. He was in plainclothes, part of the anti-crime unit in the 105th Precinct. He saw a guy walking oddly and playing with his waistband, a sign that he might have a gun, and tried to question him. The guy turned and fired, striking Brian in the head. He died yesterday, surrounded by his parents and other officers. That’s what half of my News Feed is talking about now. The other half doesn’t even seem to know.