Crime, police shootings, civilian complaints, officer corruption—all are at historical lows, giving the NYPD good reason to claim that it's more successful now than at any time in its history. Yet not everyone has a high opinion of New York's Finest. In particular, many of Gotham's black residents believe that the cops are racist. But I think they're mistaking something else for racism—something ugly, but entirely color-blind.
Two personal experiences illustrate what I mean. In 1988, two years after I joined the force, I became an undercover narcotics officer. To look the part, I let my hair grow down to the middle of my back, sprouted a goatee, and put six diamond studs in my left ear. Though my new look made it easy to buy drugs in Washington Heights, it led my mother to ban me from visiting her at work. One thing was sure: I didn't look like a cop.
One evening around this time, leaving my Greenwich Village apartment, I found my car broken into and my radio stolen. I went down to my local precinct to make a report. Behind the desk, a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a police officer were conversing. I wasn't looking for special treatment, so I stood there without identifying myself and waited for them to stop talking. After several minutes of listening to them enthuse over an upcoming barbecue, I said, "Excuse me"—big mistake. The lieutenant wasted no time in correcting my audacity, showing me the upturned palm of his hand and saying: "Hey! We're talking here!" Furious but outranked, I held my tongue and filed the experience.
Circumstances were different in my second experience. Since becoming police commissioner in August, I've regularly gone out on the streets to see how the cops are performing. One Saturday in February, I was riding in my unmarked car, stuck in a Times Square traffic snarl. I saw some officers standing around on the street-corner, and decided to do some field commanding. I asked a plainclothes detective in my security detail to roll down the window and ask the sergeant to come over.
The detective did as I instructed without identifying himself. I heard the reply: "We don't come to you—you come to us" (expletives deleted). I quickly told my detective to convey a new message: "Sarge, that's the police commissioner, and he says he's not coming to you." It gets worse. As I began to retrain the sergeant, who now had come running over, my detective whispered, "He's not the one who said it—it was the police officer." This floored me. That a police officer would talk to a citizen in this manner was bad enough; that a supervisor would create an environment where a subordinate felt comfortable behaving in this way—and then do nothing as it happened—was totally unacceptable.
In both instances, the officers had responded with inexcusable rudeness. But what motivated them? It wasn't racism: in the precinct incident from the eighties, all the parties involved were white and male; in Times Square, my detective was a male Latino, and so was the officer who cursed at him. No, what drove these officers wasn't prejudice but a warped idea of what it means to be a public servant. The Times Square cop said, "We don't come to you" when that's exactly what a police officer should do. And the desk lieutenant acted as if the stationhouse belonged to him and not to the community. The common factor in the two cases was arrogance.
Arrogance is hardly exclusive to the NYPD. But in cops, it can be particularly destructive. It tarnishes our image by leaving negative impressions among the citizens who pay our salary. Worse, it's easily mistaken for racism or sexism, so it can offend entire communities. After all, if a black civilian had gotten the same rude treatment that I did in the eighties or that my detective did a few months ago, couldn't it easily seem like bigotry? Cops are particularly susceptible to arrogance, since the public really has invested them with authority, and given them guns to back it up.
That's why it's so crucial for commanders to make sure that it's always kept firmly in check. A police officer has to be many things—a crime fighter, a street lawyer, even a marriage counselor. But above all, a cop works for the people. When officers lose sight of this, the resulting harm can wipe out other accomplishments. We can make a neighborhood safer than it's been in a lifetime, organize youth events, and talk endlessly about community partnerships. But if we can't treat citizens with civility and respect, no matter what, we will never win their support.