The execution of New York police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, came at a politically expeditious time. This will bring no comfort to their families, even if it gives PBA boss Pat Lynch an excuse to blame Mayor Bill de Blasio, protesters, for the war about to come.
But another story, a tale of an internal rift between black police officers and their lighter skinned brothers, suggests that having a shield isn’t enough to protect them. So if there’s a war, which side are they on?
Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of whom are still serving. 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 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. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them.
There is a perpetual curiosity. In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, one of the significant issues raised was the racial composition of the community as compared with that of the police force. Hint: one was whiter than the other. Implicit in this distinction is that if the police better reflected the racial makeup of the people it served, it would be more sensitive. Or to put it another way, it would be less violent and oppressive.
Says who? We have a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States in which a black man sits in black robes. How’s that worked out for you? What makes us think that race, gender, religion, or your immutable characteristic of choice, means that someone else is on the same team as everyone else who shares that characteristic?
It’s not as if the black officers in New York didn’t get what was happening to them when they weren’t in uniform. They got it.
The black officers interviewed said they had been racially profiled by white officers exclusively, and about one third said they made some form of complaint to a supervisor.
All but one said their supervisors either dismissed the complaints or retaliated against them by denying them overtime, choice assignments, or promotions. The remaining officers who made no complaints said they refrained from doing so either because they feared retribution or because they saw racial profiling as part of the system.
Worse still, sometimes, they don’t get the opportunity to complain about their treatment, because they die from a cop’s bullet just like anyone else.
John Jay professor Delores Jones-Brown cited a 2010 New York State Task Force report on police-on-police shootings – the first such inquiry of its kind – that found that in the previous 15 years, officers of color had suffered the highest fatalities in encounters with police officers who mistook them for criminals.
Does this mean that black police officers are less inclined to treat blacks harshly? There is no basis for such an assumption. Sure, it makes intuitive sense, but where is the empirical data to suggest that black cops are more black and less cop?
An alternative possibility, indeed a likelihood, is that when a black person puts on a uniform, he’s more blue than black. That shield distinguishes him from those who share a skin color, and it’s a much closer tie. It also serves to make him far safer, far more immune, from the vicissitudes of an unpleasant life that he might otherwise have to endure without a shield. Would you rather be the guy with the power or the guy without it?
It’s possible, however, that the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley, all creating a degree of introspection, are somehow finding their way into the consciousness of black police officers, raising an awareness that as much as they are on the blue team when they wear the shield, they are on the black team the rest of the time. As are their spouses, their children, who only get the benefit of being related to a blue team member.
At an ale house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last week, a group of black police officers from across the city gathered for the beer and chicken wing special. They discussed how the officers involved in the Garner incident could have tried harder to talk down an upset Garner, or sprayed mace in his face, or forced him to the ground without using a chokehold. They all agreed his death was avoidable.
Said one officer from the 106th Precinct in Queens, “That could have been any one of us.”
Damn right, that could have been any of us. While guys like Lynch use these deaths as an opportunity to build the wall between cops and non-cops higher, thicker, more impenetrable, maybe the time has finally come when black cops come to the realization that they can’t hide behind the shield to deny their race, and the treatment received at the hands of the police.
For years, I’ve argued that the shift needed to end police misconduct and abuse is cultural, and cultural changes must come from within. The problem has long been that there was no impetus for internal change, with cops enjoying their privilege, with no one questioning or challenging that privilege, and with no consequence for abusing that privilege.
Maybe there will be a crack in the blue wall this time. Maybe it will come from cops who realize they are just as much black as blue. Maybe there are even some white cops who aren’t so self-serving as to not care who they kill in the process.