The NYPD Officers Who See Racial Bias in the NYPD

Defenders of the police department too often ignore credible evidence that its treatment of minorities leaves much room for improvement.

A dozen years ago, City Journal, the quarterly magazine of The Manhattan Institute, published "The Black Cops You Never Hear About" by Heather Mac Donald, one of the sharpest, most eloquent, and zealous defenders of New York City's police department. As the ACLU and various media outlets claimed racial bias in policing, "minority officers, who might be considered ideal commentators on these matters," are ignored, she wrote. "So I set out to talk to black cops and commanders from eight police departments across the country about why they became policemen and how they view today’s policing controversies. What I found was a bracing commitment to law and order, a resounding rejection of anti-cop propaganda, and a conviction that racial politics are a tragic drag on black progress."

All these years later, it's clear that the conclusions she took from her 2002 reporting don't fully capture the beliefs of many black and Hispanic NYPD officers, as evidenced by many more recent assessments from "ideal commentators."

"Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of whom are still serving," the news organization  reported in a recent article. "All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime," the small survey found. "Officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping." These weren't one-off events. "The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them."

A third of those officers say that they complained to supervisors. "All but one said their supervisors either dismissed the complaints or retaliated against them by denying them overtime, choice assignments, or promotions," the story notes. "The remaining officers who made no complaints said they refrained either because they feared retribution or because they saw racial profiling as part of the system."

In any other context, conservative commentators would jump on a credible report from 24 public employees within a single bureaucracy, all alleging serious, systemic misconduct by rank-and-file workers (enabled or encouraged by lax supervisors). But the Reuters report was all but ignored by right-leaning sites that generally side with the police in the culture wars, as if support for Broken Windows policing and disdain for Al Sharpton somehow requires one to ignore or dismiss allegations of racial bias and a culture of retaliating against whistleblowers. It is myopic to do so given how closely the allegations dovetail with past critiques.

Before Officer Pedro Serrano joined the NYPD he says he was unfairly targeted by its officers. "As a Hispanic walking in the Bronx, I've been stopped many times, and it's not a good feeling," he told CNN last year. "As an officer, I said I would respect everyone to the best of my abilities. I just want to do the right thing." After 9 years in uniform, he cited his youthful experience as a motivating factor in his decision to report a superior for ordering him to target "male blacks 14 to 21" for stop-and-frisks. "So what am I supposed to do: Stop every black and Hispanic?" Serrano said in a conversation that he simultaneously recorded on a hidden audio tape. “I have no problem telling you this,” his superior replied. “Male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem to tell you this, male blacks 14 to 21."

It's on tape.

In 2012, when Detective Debra Lawson brought a lawsuit in Brooklyn Federal Court alleging that minorities in her NYPD unit were passed over for promotion, her colleague, Detective Al Hawkins, testified that a superior regularly used the n-word, saying on one occasion, "If you have to shoot a nigger, do what you gotta do.” Another colleague, Detective Gregory Jean-Baptiste, said he was called "a black bastard."

The testimony also included an anonymous retired detective who alleged that a superior officer said of minority suspects, "They are fucking animals. You make sure if you have to shoot, you shoot them in the head. That way there’s one story," and that on raids in black neighborhoods, his superiors “didn’t care if it was kids in there, they didn’t care if it was women in there, naked women... They treated them as if they had no rights whatsoever. It was disgusting." One can either credit these allegations, or believe that three NYPD officers conspired to lie under oath.

Either way it doesn't look good for the NYPD!

When Douglas Zeigler was 60, he was one of the highest ranking commanders in the NYPD. Though he was approached while in an NYPD SUV with a police ID around his neck, the black man declared that he was harassed without reason and treated discourteously by white police officers, one of whom was ultimately disciplined. (Again, there's no outcome in which at least one NYPD officer wasn't lying.)

The Village Voice did its own 2012 article on the experiences of black and Hispanic police officers.

Some excerpts:

  • Eric Josey, an 18-year veteran, "had been driving his car on 130th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard when three plainclothes officers pulled him over, asked him to step out of the vehicle, discovered a legally owned gun on him, shoved him to the ground, and handcuffed him." He is black.
  • Anthony Miranda was a retired sergeant in the NYPD "who spent more than two decades on the job. The 51-year-old estimates that when he was an officer, he would sometimes face as many as 10 stops of some kind a year."
  • Noel Leader, a black NYPD officer, "says he has been stopped more than a dozen times over the past decade and guesses that a majority of black and Latino male cops face some kind of police stop during their careers." He said, "It's very frustrating and humiliating. You'd be surprised how many of us get stopped by cops ... When officers are wasting time stopping me, they are not fighting crime."
  • "One black NYPD officer, who grew up in Brooklyn and has been on the job for eight years, tells the Voice that when he was in his late twenties, two plainclothes cops stopped and harassed him in a Bronx subway station on his way to class. This cop, who now lives in upper Manhattan, supports legal stop-and-frisks and conducts them when he has reasonable suspicion. But he says that when higher-ups pressure officers to log a certain number of stops—sometimes with the threat of punishments like unfavorable assignments—it's inevitable that they'll illegally profile men of color, even fellow officers."

The testimony of these "ideal commentators" is consistent with other accounts of how the NYPD operates. Take the secret tapes made by Adrian Schoolcraft to document how one of the city's blackest neighborhoods was policed. "Supervisors told officers to make an arrest and 'articulate' a charge later, or haul someone in with the intent of voiding the arrest at the end of a shift, or detain people for hours on minor charges like disorderly conduct—all for the purpose of getting citizens off the street," the Village Voice reported in its summary of the recordings. "People were arrested for not showing identification, even if they were just a few feet from their homes. Mental health worker Rhonda Scott suffered two broken wrists during a 2008 arrest for not having her ID card while standing on her own stoop." (The NYPD then tried to have that whistleblower committed to a mental institution and later accused him of using the n-word. If Schoolcraft really did say that around colleagues, note that the slur was only treated as discrediting by superiors after he publicly complained about the NYPD.)

Around the same time, Adil Palonco, born in the Dominican Republic, was secretly recording his superior officers in the Bronx to document that "supervisors constantly harangued cops to hit quotas for arrests, summonses, and stop-and-frisks, even when it meant harassing innocent civilians who were doing nothing wrong." A policy of harassing innocents in a disproportionately minority neighborhood inevitably led to a disproportionate impact on innocent blacks. (It should be said that harassing innocents would be wrong even if done equally to all races.) Stop-and-Frisk* also produced an ugly recording of an NYPD cop calling a mixed-race teen who committed no crime "a fucking mutt" and threatening to break his arm:

Then there's Michael Daragjati, the former NYPD police officer who said of black New Yorkers, "These people should hate me, and rightfully so. I would hate me too, because I’ve seen the news. I don’t blame these people for hating cops." He wasn't a black cop who experienced mistreatment by colleagues. He was a white cop who mistreated blacks. "On April 15, 2011, Daragjati falsely busted Kenrick Gray, 32, on a charge of resisting arrest after they exchanged angry words on the street while the officer was on plainclothes patrol," the New York Post reported. "After Gray’s arrest, FBI agents caught Daragjati on a recorded phone call bragging that he 'fried another nigger.' Gray spent two days in jail. He is now suing Daragjati, who was sentenced yesterday to nine months in prison for violating Gray’s civil rights."

Muslim Americans have been treated unfairly by NYPD policing too. Two years ago, I wrote about how the NYPD's ethnic profiling and undercover surveillance of innocents in that community violated their civil liberties and did serious harm to their well-being. Was the effort nevertheless necessary to thwart terrorist attacks? Hardly. "In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques," the Associated Press reported, "the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation." In fact, New York City attorneys later acknowledged, in court testimony, that the program generated zero leads. NYPD apologists can't explain this away as policing where the crime was.

The examples I've cited all occurred in the years since Mac Donald offered her rosy portrait of what black officers think of the NYPD. Yet her latest assessment of the NYPD, published last month, neither acknowledges nor grapples with the new information. "Hatred of the police among blacks stems in part from police brutality during this country’s shameful era of Jim Crow-laws and widespread discrimination," she writes. "But it is naïve not to recognize that criminal members of the black underclass despise the police because law enforcement interferes with their way of life. The elites are oblivious both to the extent of lawlessness in the black inner city and to its effect on attitudes toward the cops. Any expression of contempt for the police, in their view, must be a sincere expression of a wrong."

In this telling, recent NYPD misconduct is not even a factor! Mac Donald is right that the NYPD is less racist than it once was, that there are plenty of non-racist NYPD cops, that there are black criminals (along with criminals of other races) whose hatred of the NYPD is driven by a lawless subculture, and that there is irresponsible commentary that exaggerates NYPD racism and understates NYPD progress.

But the 90 percent of black voters who say that police brutality is a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem, the 59 percent of black New Yorkers who disapprove of the way the NYPD is doing its job, and the 81 percent of black New Yorkers who believe the NYPD is tougher on blacks than whites cannot be explained away by gesturing at a criminal mindset. Millions of law abiding people share these critiques. Is all contempt for police a sincere expression of a wrong? Of course not. There are, however, lots of credible accounts of wrongdoing. It takes a selective eye indeed to set forth an account of black sentiment toward the NYPD that does not acknowledge any examples found in this article.

And despite the evidence of racial bias in New York City policing, the majority of people who disapprove of how the NYPD is doing its job don't actually "hate" or "despise" the NYPD. They just desperately want it to be reformed so that bad policing is documented and punished rather than being ignored or covered up. Conservatives could argue that race isn't actually the core of the problem, that the culture of unpunished misbehavior in the NYPD is driven by, say, the tribal mindset documented by Frank Serpico much more than any deliberate desire to disadvantage blacks. But too many NYPD defenders refuse to acknowledge widespread misbehavior of any kind. (If they saw Anthony Balonga pepper-spray innocent women for no reason you'd never know.) Even as police engage in blatant insubordination at the behest of a powerful public employee union that frequently misrepresents the truth, City Journal's Matthew Hennessey writes as if the urgent issue is hypocrisy by NYPD critics. It is unthinkable that the publication would portray a similar controversy involving any other public employee union in this way. Its tribal affiliations in the culture war are clouding its judgment.

That is nowhere more evident than in Mac Donald's "The Big Lie of the Anti-Cop Left Turns Lethal," published after the disgusting murder of two NYPD officers. The distinction between criticizing and despising public employees is clear to Mac Donald and City Journal in reporting on every other kind of government worker, even though, if one highlights the most intemperate critics of teacher's unions or DMV workers or IRS processors, it is easy to find extremely harsh  rhetoric. City Journal and its writers are appropriately scornful of the rhetorical move whereby any criticism of, say, teachers is twisted into an "attack on our educators" narrative. If a teacher's union staged a public school walkout or a work slowdown because they felt disrespected by the rhetoric of a politician like Michelle Rhee, conservatives would be apoplectic that they shirked their duties to play politics.

Yet in the course of defending the NYPD, the right is now lending credibility to the notion that harsh but totally nonviolent criticism of public employees makes one partly responsible if they are attacked by a lunatic–as well as the idea that public employees who feel disrespected by elected officials ought to be appeased with an apology. As City Journal takes well-desserved shots at Sharpton, condemns the rare protestors who disgustingly chant for dead cops, and publishes plausible defenses of Broken Windows policing, it would do well to start regarding misbehaving police with as much concern as it routinely marshals for misbehaving teachers, rather than proceeding as if cops are the one category of public employees who can do no wrong, despite ample evidence to the contrary and even as police unions openly intervene to keep the worst cops from being terminated.

A publication with a proud history of urging necessary reforms in New York City ought to be on the front lines of improving its scandal-prone police department and protecting the Fourth Amendment rights of innocents, rather than overlooking all manner of misdeeds so long as crime rates are low. At the very least, it should stop acting as if those who do criticize misbehaving police officers are any more responsible for the extremely rare instances in which they're murdered than City Journal would be responsible for an assault on a representative from the California Teacher's Association. For good reason, City Journal authors bristle at the propagandistic notion that they are "attacking all teachers." Neither are police reform advocates attacking all officers, not any more than black and brown men with badges who say racial bias exists in New York City. NYPD defenders believe that further crime reductions can only occur if police are afforded a larger degree of respect. They ought to dedicate some time and energy to reforming the police department so that it is more respectable.

*Consider the fact that the overwhelming majority of Stop-and-Frisk encounters involve people who've committed no crime and are sent on their way without arrest or citation. NYPD defenders are fond of arguing that every statistic about racial disparities in arrests and stops are explained by the fact that blacks tend to live in more dangerous neighborhoods and commit crimes at higher rates. What of the large majority of blacks who are following the law when police mass in their neighborhood? Their liberties seem to be regarded as collateral damage.

In fact, police who mass in the same neighborhood day after day have a heightened responsibility to make sure that their attempt to catch criminals and increase order doesn't continually violate the rights of innocent residents–the NYPD is, after all, obliged to abide by the Fourth Amendment. They make a mockery of "reasonable suspicion" when the people they purportedly suspect are doing no wrong 8 or 9 times out of ten. How many times would you need to be stopped and frisked while doing no wrong to develop resentment of the officers detaining you? NYPD defenders never assign any responsibility for the rift that results to police, even though any community of any race subject to Stop and Frisk would resent it. Imagine how Wall Street bankers would react if subjected to it for a single week.