A suicidal man had barricaded himself inside the third-floor apartment of a building on East 55th Street in Manhattan. The precinct officers from the NYPD, attempting to talk to him through the locked door, heard what sounded like a shotgun being racked inside. As if things weren’t tense enough, the smell of gas began to fill the hallway.
Four NYPD Emergency Service Unit cops were there within minutes, donning heavy vests and helmets and approaching the door. I was one of them.
We requested the gas lines to the building be shut down by the firefighters on the scene and advised other cops to begin evacuating the building’s other residents. The smell of gas was soon replaced with the smell of fire. Heavy smoke billowed from the apartment’s window. After repeatedly trying to engage the occupant in dialogue, we were listening to the worst sound we could hear at a barricade assignment: silence.
Fearing for the safety of the occupant—and for the other residents still being evacuated—we immediately breached the doorway. Once inside, we observed the entire rear wall of the dwelling fully engulfed in flames. The air was thick with smoke. As we moved deeper into the apartment, the occupant suddenly emerged from hiding behind a couch and charged at us with something in his left hand raised over his head.
At this moment, training superseded impulse. Our minds conducted a split-second debate between protecting ourselves and making sure that we didn’t overreact. A ballistic bunker had been skillfully positioned by the lead member of our team to provide the instant of shielding needed for clarity. We quickly identified the clutched object as a piece of furniture. The man and his blunt weapon were still a threat to us but not the deadly threat posed by the fiery room itself.
Despite the fire, the man proceeded to fight as we wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, and removed him to the relative safety of the street. Minutes later, he was in a local hospital, getting the treatment he probably didn’t even know he needed.
Let’s forgive newsreaders nationwide for not knowing the details of the encounter my colleagues and I had that afternoon on East 55th Street. The event didn’t slip your mind—it was never reported anywhere. The front pages of newspapers are generally reserved for conflict, so cops’ rescue of a man—instead of assaulting or killing him—was not worthy of newspaper ink.
The peaceful resolution of volatile confrontations is the most ordinary story in American policing. Our experience with this disturbed, dangerous man may sound extraordinary to some, but the harmless resolution of a situation where we potentially could have used more force, but didn’t, is the norm—not the exception—in policing today. A survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics over a ten-year period found that only 0.8 percent of people reporting contact with the police said that they experienced use of physical force, and this includes simply being handcuffed as part of an arrest. This fact goes largely ignored by journalists and police critics.
All of us in the NYPD have been through similar circumstances countless times. Each time, the catalyst is something different: a family dispute, a person acting violently from not taking prescribed medication, a custody case that turns physical, a fight between neighbors over some slight—or, in many cases, like the man in the apartment, simply a person in a psychologically dark place.
Some reformers demand uniform national statistics relating to police use of force. Such data should be presented with stats detailing the number of cases where police officers could have used force but didn’t. I can say firsthand after 21 years of policing that cops overwhelmingly seek to deescalate situations.
Then there is the story of George Floyd. The circumstances surrounding his death in the custody of Minneapolis police officers are disturbing and difficult to comprehend. Multiple video recordings captured him on the pavement of Chicago Avenue, handcuffed and facedown, as a uniformed police officer kept a knee to the back of his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. During the encounter, Floyd periodically begged for air and pleaded for his life. Three other officers in the immediate vicinity vacillated between doing nothing, assisting to restrain Floyd, directing traffic, and keeping a crowd of vocally concerned onlookers at bay.
The defense of the police when they are right can only be credible if we recognize officers of the law operating in a manner that is dangerous, illegal, or just blatantly wrong. When cops use the power that the people have entrusted to them, the circumstances should—and do—receive scrutiny.
In the case of Floyd’s death, the scrutiny came swiftly from the public and from the police. The firing of the four officers by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo within one day of the encounter received near universal approval. The local prosecutor has given the case to the Minnesota attorney general, and the FBI is investigating civil rights violations.
Floyd’s arrest, especially once he was placed in handcuffs and it was evident he wasn’t resisting, was not a developing violent confrontation. There was no ongoing threat or struggle. This explains why it would be difficult to find anyone, from the usual police critics to ardent police defenders, who views the actions of the officers in this situation as anywhere near appropriate or anything short of criminal. Yet, nearly any controversy involving the police results, like an ink-blot test, in people viewing the same set of circumstances but arriving at different conclusions.
No one can predict what Floyd’s legacy will ultimately be. Near unanimity exists about the senselessness of his death but not about what should be done as a result. The task before our leaders, as well as our fellow citizens, is to find solutions to bridge these divides. One place to start would be an evidence-based consideration of whether Floyd’s fatal encounter with law enforcement indicts a group of rogue officers or a rogue system.
In the absence of meaningful dialogue on the issue of policing in America today, divisive monologues only widen the divide. This simultaneously malignant and predictable result needs to change. Until we all recognize the importance in listening more and talking less, George Floyd’s death will only serve further to politicize the issue of race and policing.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images