Ask Detective Carl McLaughlin if the police prey on black people, and this normally ebullient Brooklyn cop will respond icily: “I just prey on people that are preying on others. It shouldn’t be a race thing.”
A cop’s denial that policing is racist is perhaps not noteworthy—except for one thing: Detective McLaughlin is himself black. As such, he represents an ignored constituency in contemporary policing controversies: black officers who loathe race-based cop-bashing as much as any Irish flatfoot. As the ACLU and other professional cop-haters flood the media with tales of endemic police racism, rank-and-file minority officers, who might be considered ideal commentators on these matters, appear only as intriguing statistics—such as those showing that black state troopers in New Jersey, the alleged cradle of racial profiling, stop the same proportion of black drivers as do their purportedly racist white colleagues.
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. The thoroughly mainstream views of these black cops are a reminder that invisible behind the antics of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are many black citizens who share the commonsense values of most Americans.
Tony Barksdale’s epiphany about policing came while he was a poli-sci student at Baltimore’s Coppin State College in 1993. “I saw these officers bail out of their car and start chasing a guy,” he recalls. “They were black guys chasing the perp, and they were young. Right then and there, I just felt it. I said, ‘Wow! That’s where you should be. That’s the uniform you should wear.’ ” Barksdale dropped out of college to join the Baltimore force, to the horror of his mother—and his girlfriend, who dumped him on the spot. He has had his vindication: his ex-girlfriend’s mother saw him hobnobbing with the police commissioner recently. “She was ready to kill herself,” he gloats.
Barksdale has shot up through the ranks of the Baltimore Police Department, under the meritocratic regime of Commissioner Ed Norris, a recruit from the hard-charging Compstat-era NYPD. While Detective Barksdale was still a sergeant, Norris noticed his success in clearing big drug cases and offered him a citywide drug unit. “No thanks,” Barksdale told him. “I have a squad of guys who are loyal to me.” “Loyalty,” Norris responded. “I like that.” Then, blithely ignoring Barksdale’s demurral, he ordered: “Report on Monday.” Now a lieutenant, Barksdale, along with his 16 detectives and two sergeants, has been pulling drugs and guns off Baltimore’s crime-ridden streets at an impressive rate. “I’ve never regretted my decision,” he says. “I still get excited every day.”
The enthusiasm that brought Barksdale into policing is typical of younger black officers. “I wanted to always become a police officer,” explains David Brown, a rookie cop in downtown Brooklyn. “I had always had the mentality of the good and the just.” Lieutenant Mark Christian, a self-described “military brat” who now heads the SWAT, hostage negotiation, and canine units in San Antonio, Texas, picked up the love of “service and the uniform” from his air force–veteran father.
The reason some older black policemen pinned on the badge could not be more different. “I became a cop because I couldn’t stand ‘em,” recalls William Hubbard, who joined the NYPD in the 1960s, after being treated harshly by officers around the Queens projects where he grew up. Yet even in Hubbard’s generation, such motivating anger was by no means universal. Blacks have served proudly as cops since the early nineteenth century, despite often humiliating second-class status within their departments. Philadelphia sergeant Aisha Perry’s grandfather was a Philly officer when the department was still segregated, yet he loved his job. “We always felt policing was admirable work,” she says. Police work also offered blacks security and a hope for middle-class status long before the corporate world opened up to them.
But all black officers, whatever their reason for joining the force, face the same occupational hazard: race-based taunting. “You work for the man!” Detective Carl McLaughlin constantly hears in Brooklyn. “I don’t work for ‘the man,’ ” he says impatiently. “I work for the penal law.” The taunts have become “more sophisticated” over the years, McLaughlin reports. “They use bigger words. ‘Because of you, I’m going to get reparations!’ they shout.” McLaughlin smiles beatifically back, the soul of innocence: “Me too: I’m black!” Detective Robert Reedy, a heavy-smoking mountain of a man in an aquamarine pin-striped suit, works with McLaughlin in the 67th Precinct. “They call me a slave, a field nigger,” he says. He responds contemptuously: “That’s ‘house nigger’—get your terms right.” The perps then whine: “You black like me!” Reedy shakes his head in amazement: “What’s that got to do with taking the lady’s handbag?”
Then the wheedling begins. “It’s hard on the streets,” the thugs complain. “Get a job at McDonald’s,” Reedy replies. Reedy himself ran with delinquents growing up in the East New York projects. When he started training in the police academy, his friends would mockingly smoke marijuana in front of him and sneer: “What you gonna do to me?” Now, however, they respect his success, even as they stay stuck in the underclass.
Some officers try to talk sense into the taunters. Every time Troy Smith, a hostage negotiator in San Antonio, hears: “Aw, c’mon, bro’, you tryin’ to keep us down,” he replies: “You have to make your own way. You make excuses, you’ll never get anywhere.” Other officers, however, refuse to take the bait. When San Antonio’s Lieutenant Christian is accused of selling out and working for the man, “I don’t smile at them or rise to it,” he says. “They think they can drive a wedge between us and the department.” Such insults have accompanied black police work for all of living memory. A 1969 study of black policemen, for example, recounted the abuse they received from “lower-class Negro youth.” One New York officer confessed: “When they talk like this: ‘How about giving me a break, I’m colored, too,’ . . . they get a ticket right away. No doubt about it. A real quick summons.”
Though officers report these sallies with scorn, they still wince at them. “Sometimes it hurts your feelings,” admits Detective McLaughlin. The riff-raff know where the soft spots are and aim at them with insults about, for example, the Abner Louima incident. “Your friends stick it up the ass!” they jeer. “The cop who assaulted Louima was wrong,” McLaughlin says in frustration. “He made all of us look bad. What about all the people you don’t shoot?” This usually upbeat Brooklyn detective sighs: “It’s really hard now. Anyone can say: ‘You fuckin’ cops, you fuckin’ cops, I pay your salary.’ You have to be a doctor, a psychiatrist, a bad guy, and a good guy in one minute. You have to understand the plight of the black man, the plight of women, the plight of gays, and not piss someone off and lose your job, all in the course of a day.”
The post-9/11 spurt of patriotism provided a brief respite from these pressures. “The best time to be a cop was with Elliot Ness [the federal agent who stopped Al Capone] and after September 11,” muses McLaughlin. After 9/11, “people would say: ‘I love you’; they were naming their kids after you,” he recalls with a big smile. “It went from ‘Motherfucker’ to ‘Mister.’ ” Were you bitter? I ask him. He shakes his head. “I was just shocked. These people were bizarre, clapping every time they saw you. I went on a cruise, and a woman asked to give me a hug.” Such gratitude was short-lived, however. Three months later—in Flatbush, at least—it’s back to “Motherfucker.”
Occasionally, the racial taunting pays off. When some officers hear, “You’re one of us; you’re selling out,” they take it to heart, according to San Antonio’s Lieutenant Christian. “You’ll see their mindset change; they make sideways comments about the police department. ‘It’s the department versus the citizens,’ they’ll say—treating the department as a monolith. The pressures brought to bear by ‘the community’ on black officers can make them less effective,” Christian observes. But most simply redouble their crime-fighting efforts against “the knuckleheads” on behalf of the “good people.”
It is their emotional relation to the “good people” of the community that makes policing such an imperative for these cops. Many come from God-fearing, law-abiding homes where respect for authority was absolute. Reedy’s mother warned him when he was young that if she ever got a call about him from the police, he shouldn’t call her, he should call the funeral home. These officers have seen firsthand the damage done by thugs, and they are determined to stop it. “I will never retreat,” vows McLaughlin. “We are the last line of defense against mayhem.” Amid all the anti-cop taunting they hear, they remind themselves, in the words of Officer David Brown, that crime victims “regard you as heroes.”
If the law-abiding black poor and middle class are no abstractions for these cops—as they are for guilty white liberals, who condescendingly think they are benefiting “black people” by promoting criminal-friendly policies—neither is the depravity of young thugs some distant construct to be brushed away for the more gratifying exercise of “understanding the underprivileged.” “Their values are so screwed up,” says Steve Hector, a quiet, potbellied Brooklyn detective, whose dreadlocks are swept up in a topknot. “This is a lost generation: the value of life doesn’t mean shit for them.”
Hector’s colleague Reedy nods and offers an example that he says brought him almost to tears. A 17-year-old dealer was smoking blunts with a friend, whom he then accused of owing him money. To emphasize his demand, he shot the debtor. The dealer then put his gun to his fallen victim’s head and blew his brains out, securing in an instant his reputation for toughness on the street. In the squad car, Reedy recalls, the murderer acted as if the whole affair were a joke. “He was singing Jay-Z songs,” Reedy marvels. During questioning in the station house, Reedy challenged him: “I don’t believe you murdered someone.” The teen looked him in the eye and spat back: “I’d murder you!” “I was shaking,” Reedy remembers. “I said to myself: ‘He’s psycho!’ ”
Constant exposure to criminals teaches cops how to recognize them. “Just as we stand out, they stand out,” explains San Antonio’s Troy Smith. But being black by no means insulates officers from the racial profiling charge when they arrest a lowlife they’ve spotted. “You’re locking me up because I’m black,” criminals tell Detective McLaughlin. “I’m locking you up because you’re wrong” he responds.
Nor is it just hardened thugs who charge black cops with racial profiling. In Washington State, former trooper and state legislator John Lovick publicly accused Deputy Dallas Hogan of making a race-based stop. Shot back Hogan: “Lovick is a disgrace to the profession, and right now he is a disgrace to my race.” The legislator had been driving 15 miles under the speed limit after midnight. Hogan ran the plates and discovered that the car’s owner had relinquished his license because of old age. Fearful that the driver, whom he couldn’t see, might be the old man, lost or with Alzheimer’s, Hogan pulled the car over for a safety check. The legislator immediately cried racism. “Lovick has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas,” says Hogan testily. “He believes any contact with law enforcement is based on race.”
Most officers I spoke to reject the racial profiling myth. If you’re stopped, said these policemen, it’s for a reason—you fit a description, or you’ve done something to raise an officer’s suspicion, such as hitch up your waistband in a way that suggests a hidden gun. Statistics that tabulate officer-civilian interactions by race alone grossly distort the reality of policing, complain many black cops. “You have to look at time, place, and situation,” observes San Antonio’s Lieutenant Christian. “You know what goes on at that corner. If someone’s hanging out with a known offender, ethnicity is the last thing that comes into play.”
These cops scoff at the ACLU’s charge that a black driver who has not been harassed because of his skin color is an “aberration.” Bridgeport chief Wilbur Chapman says he has been stopped “a few times, to say the least.” Why? “I speed,” he laughs. “I inherited it from my father.” During one stop, while Chapman was out of uniform, his son blurted out to the trooper that his daddy, too, had a gun. “The cop politely said: ‘Excuse me, sir, do you have registration for your gun?’ I wasn’t thrown against the hood; I couldn’t have been treated nicer. Those of us without an ax to grind have stories like these aplenty,” Chapman asserts.
The racial profiling myth rests on a willful blindness to reality, say many black cops. “We’re so afraid to tell the truth,” complains Lieutenant Barksdale. “Often the entire neighborhood is black, so of course you’re going to be stopping blacks—based on their behavior.” The racial backlash sparked by many anti-crime initiatives “conveniently ignores” one salient fact, says Lieutenant Christian: “Most crime against blacks is committed by blacks, not Anglos or Hispanics.”
The costs of the racial profiling crusade, warn these officers, are enormous. Barksdale notes that an officer who hears, “You only stopped me because I’m black,” may well be inhibited from taking further necessary action or from making future stops. “But how do you know that the complainer hasn’t just shot someone, or has a secret compartment [for drugs or guns]?” he wonders. Unless top management reassures cops that they can count on support in strong enforcement actions, black officers caution, some policemen will inevitably back off in the face of racial pressures. Witness what happened in Cincinnati and New Jersey after relentless race-based anti-cop campaigns. In 2001, Cincinnati experienced the bloodiest summer in its history, as stops and arrests plummeted. In New Jersey, consent searches for guns and drugs on the turnpike plunged from 440 in 1999 to 11 in the six months that ended October 31, 2001. Drug traffickers sailed through the turnpike unimpeded, while murder in Newark jumped 65 percent in 2001.
But the racial profiling juggernaut is just one part of a broader attack on policing that makes the job increasingly difficult, lament many black officers. They complain about the second-guessing of police actions and the zero tolerance for error. “One of the problems we have today,” observes New York’s David Brown, “is so much media. Everyone has a camcorder, and they edit it to their advantage. Bystanders will say: ‘Why is this police officer doing this to this person?’—even if they arrived at the scene five or 10 seconds later, and this is a really, really bad guy. You’re trying to apprehend a bad guy and you break his arm. Now you’re the bad guy? But if he gets your gun, he’ll try to shoot someone: so is that excessive force? Say someone gets shot. Who do they go after—the perp or the cop? It won’t be the perp, because no one wants to deal with the bad guy. If you think about this every day, you go crazy, so you can’t. You won’t be policing; you’ll be out there scared to death, paranoid about everything.”
From the firearms-discharge review process to civilian-complaint review boards, black cops, like their peers of all races, feel that they, not the criminals, bear all the weight of public suspicion. “After you discharge your weapon, you think: ‘Now this job is coming to get me,’ ” says Detective Robert Reedy. “This job makes you feel guilty until proven innocent.” All the cops I spoke to reject the notion that the shooting of Amadou Diallo had anything to do with race. The public should try to understand the life-and-death pressures they face, they suggest. “With a situation like Diallo, you have to make a split-second decision, and it can change your life,” says McLaughlin. Sometimes officers make mistakes, acknowledges David Brown. “But do you hold them liable as racist persons? That’s where the stress comes from: you can’t make mistakes.”
Cops—black, white, Hispanic, you name it—scratch their heads at the seeming priorities of “the community.” “There can be 50 shootings of civilians, and no one will protest,” marvels John Hayward, a fast-talking community-response officer from the Philadelphia department. “If a cop shoots one person, everyone’s demonstrating. If you protest against us, why don’t you protest against the drug dealers?” Cops also notice the strangely variable perceptions of civilians. “Some blacks who complain about the police—they’ll see it if an officer shoots someone three blocks away,” chuckles Detective Reedy. “But if a drug dealer shoots someone right in front of them, they don’t see it.” Another galling double standard: cop-haters in the community rush to take down squad-car license plates when the cops are pursuing a vehicle. “How about taking the plates of drive-bys?” suggests Reedy.
Surely the cops would get more support from the community if their moral authority were not constantly under siege from left-wing activists both within and outside of police departments. Lieutenant Eric Adams of the NYPD has made a media career for himself by testifying against the department before every camera he can find, as the self-appointed head of a shadowy organization called One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. Every time Adams says something negative about the police, observes Wilbur Chapman, the NYPD’s Chief of Patrol during the 1990s, the department loses blacks who are “on the fence,” whether as witnesses or potential recruits. “There’s no voice to say: ‘This is not the reality,’ ” laments Chapman. (Adams did not return City Journal’s calls.)
The sum total of these pressures is a police force fighting with one hand tied behind its back, according to many black officers, contrary to black activists who incessantly portray police forces as out of control. Black cops, no less than white cops, support assertive policing. “You can’t pull your gun, no Mace—why don’t we just arm-wrestle to see if you go to jail?” asks Detective McLaughlin. Reedy chimes in mockingly: “The liberals are crying that ‘crime is up, rape is up.’ ” Nods McLaughlin: “If they let cops be aggressive and do the job, we’d get a handle on it.”
Sadly, the media and politicians never recognize these moderate voices as valid representatives of black officers. The perverse logic of race politics, even within police departments, dictates that the only authentic blacks are angry blacks. And so the “spokesmen” for black officers are almost always the most radical members of a department, usually unelected, who push a grievance agenda of quotas and lower standards.
Baltimore’s department, like that of Washington, D.C., suffers from a particularly virulent form of internal race politics. A very small but vocal group of black officers is playing the race card against the white commissioner, Ed Norris. Lieutenant Barksdale could not be more disgusted. “I have no time for the-white-versus-the-black mentality,” he scoffs. “Where were the radicals when 261 black kids were getting killed a year? It didn’t matter to them, because we had a black commissioner. This commissioner has dropped homicide levels to their lowest in a decade. [In 2000, homicides dropped below 300—to 261—for the first time in ten years.] I’m sick of [the politics].” Barksdale argues that when the radicals claim discrimination in assignments and promotions, they are merely deflecting attention away from their own shortcomings. “If you asked them, ‘What have you done on this job?’ you’d find excessive medical history and excessive complaints against them. Some cops don’t deserve the uniform; they’re scared to do the job they swore to do.”
As with the racial profiling charge, being black does not immunize managers from charges of racism. Bridgeport chief Wilbur Chapman is struggling with his own radical clique of officers. “I have people who talk ‘black,’ ” he says, “griping that ‘African Americans don’t get this or that’—and all that other crap. When it’s time for them to step up to the plate, they’re not there.” The NYPD’s black Guardians Association harangued Chapman, when he was New York’s Chief of Patrol, for not having “enough” blacks on his staff. “I looked to see who could do the job best,” he says unapologetically. “Right now, I’m 68 officers short. I want 68 of the best officers I can get. I don’t give a damn what color or sex they are.”
Racial bean-counting reached its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, when federal courts across the country imposed on police departments draconian quota systems for hiring and promotions and threw out meritocratic standards. Chicago was enjoined from looking at a recruit’s arrest history; Akron couldn’t consider school discipline, academic records, or neighborhood references. In 1980, a federal judge ordered that one-third of the NYPD’s recruits be black. To move things along, he lowered the passing score on the entrance exam for blacks to 84, ten points lower than the requisite score for white recruits.
William Hubbard remembers that era in the NYPD, and deplores it. “They decreased the standards for promotion in 1976: all the passing scores were lowered for minorities,” he recalls angrily. “It was an injustice to all those blacks who had succeeded without decreased standards. You accepted the argument that you were inferior.” Hubbard rejects the idea that the promotion test was biased. “If you just studied, instead of going out on Saturday night and having fun, you could have passed it.”
Alleged racism in promotions is a favorite topic of radical cops and anti-cop agitators. In its crudely ignorant post-Diallo report, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission accused the NYPD in 2000 of discriminating against would-be minority commanders; Eric Adams preposterously resurrected the same charge this April against the NYPD’s current commissioner, Ray Kelly, just three months into his term of office.
In fact, as is always the case in such charges, the discrimination runs in exactly the opposite direction. For every position to which promotion is discretionary, rather than determined by an objective exam, blacks and Hispanics in the NYPD jump the queue at a breathtaking rate. They become detectives almost five years earlier than whites, for example; whites wait twice as long to be appointed to deputy inspector or deputy chief as blacks and Hispanics. If such a disparity showed up in whites’ favor, it would be attributed to racial discrimination, not merit.
The most destructive quota pressures come in the area of discipline. Radical officer organizations forever allege that disparate rates of discipline reflect managerial bias, not actual misbehavior, and they are ever ready with individual and class-action lawsuits to put teeth in their claims. This February, for example, a divided jury awarded $1.72 million to an Akron police officer who claimed he had been fired because of his race—not because he had broken his wife’s jaw. The Philadelphia Guardians Association is currently collecting data on discipline rates by race; in 1999, the Clinton Justice Department notified the Dallas Police Department that it was under investigation for its disciplining of black officers. As a result of such actions, managers think long and hard before taking necessary disciplinary measures. Ed Flynn, chief of the Arlington County, Virginia, police force, says that he will extend a longer probationary period to a “non-thug” black cop with discipline problems than to a similarly situated white cop. “I want a paper trail that says you got more breaks rather than fewer,” Flynn admits. Naturally, white cops resent this double standard.
Baltimore’s Barksdale sees this disciplinary hesitation all the time and rues its consequences: “You have to fire bad officers, because they will screw up. It cripples the department.”
Actual analysis belies the racist punishment charge. In response to a still-pending lawsuit by the Latino Officers Association, the NYPD analyzed its disciplinary records several years ago and found that black and Hispanic officers were indeed punished at higher rates, but only for those infractions that carry mandatory discipline, such as drug use or criminal behavior. Black male officers failed drug tests four times as often as white male officers, for example, and they received mandatory discipline for off-duty misconduct like assault and grand larceny nearly three times as often as white officers. Any discretionary punishment, on the other hand, was carefully meted out in exact racial and ethnic proportions. It’s unlikely that officers are more careful about following rules in matters for which punishment is discretionary and thus uncertain. Assuming that rates of rule-breaking are constant between mandatory and discretionary disciplinary categories, blacks and Hispanics are therefore under-disciplined whenever managers have the leeway to do so.
The long-running race racket that has so distorted our national discourse shows no signs of letting up, but that is only because we have been listening to the wrong people. For every Al Sharpton or Eric Adams, there is at least one Carl McLaughlin or Tony Barksdale, who speak of American opportunity and fairness. There is no inherent reason why only the victimologists should be granted legitimacy as representatives of black interests, especially since so few of them are elected. Why not at least give equal time to a Wilbur Chapman, say, when he argues that the “biggest impediment to minority advancement is white guilt” and asserts that, whatever the remaining problems in American race relations, “the bottom line is: no one can stop me from getting my piece of the American dream”?
As for the state of policing itself, while my interlocutors don’t constitute a perfectly constructed randomized sample, neither do Eric Adams and his counterparts across the country. And, unlike the cop-complainers, these pro-police cops are not seeking benefits or power from their testimony. I believe that the support for law enforcement expressed by these officers is widespread among black policemen. Their voices represent an essential, and wholly overlooked, perspective on current law-enforcement controversies, one that should give us hope not just about the politics of policing but about race relations writ large.