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Samuel Battle’s first three attempts to become a police officer were rejected because he allegedly had a heart murmur. Before his fourth attempt, Battle went to an independent doctor, and, in 1911, after receiving a clean bill of health, he became the first black officer appointed to the metropolitan New York City Police Department. Battle was stationed in the West Sixty-eighth Street precinct. Almost fifty years after he joined the force, he participated in a Columbia University oral-history project. Battle communicated an impression of strength. He was a big guy—six feet three inches, two hundred and eighty-five pounds—and his personality seems to reflect that, especially when he tells one story about how he was treated at the precinct.
They never made any threats personally, to me. Never. Nobody would ever do that. But there was one occasion, when I was at the flag loft—and this was before Sergeant Stewart came up there to stay with me—I found a note pinned right over my bed, with a hole in it about the size of a bullet hole. It could have been done; I don’t think they shot off a gun, but it was something to make it look like a bullet hole. And on this note was written: “Nigger, if you don’t quit, this is what will happen to you.”
On the day he was appointed, Battle said, Rhinelander Waldo, who was then the commissioner, told him, “You will have some difficulties, but I know you will overcome them.” Perhaps his reaction to the note fulfilled that premonition: “After this note was left there, it didn’t faze me at all,” he said. “I didn’t care; it didn’t make any difference. I knew whoever did it was a coward.”
Battle also recalled a riot, in 1919, at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, where, he said, “The white officers worked in an all-Negro neighborhood, practically, and they needed me as much as I needed them, and sometimes more.” He was promoted to sergeant in 1926, and to lieutenant in 1935. In 1941, he became New York City’s first black parole commissioner. In 2009, the intersection at 135th and Lenox was named Samuel J. Battle Plaza.
Battle became an officer at a time when integration seemed to be the prevailing solution for what was then called the “race problem.” Police departments are not only institutions that aim to insure public safety; departments, and their unions, are powerful political machines, and in politics representation is important. But efforts to integrate police departments, however successful, have not erased tensions between police departments and black communities.
The origins of American policing, the historian W. Marvin Dulaney argues, cannot be fully understood without considering slavery and racism. “By the beginning of the eighteenth century, most American colonies had enacted laws to regulate the behavior of African slaves,” Dulaney writes in his book “Black Police in America.” “The codes also established the slave patrol or ‘patterollers.’ The slave patrol was the first distinctively American police system, and it set the pattern of policing that Americans of African descent would experience throughout their history in America.”
In the middle of the nineteenth century, as abolitionist movements gained momentum, the policing of black Americans—both free and enslaved—intensified. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 authorized federal agents to help find, detain, and return escaped persons to slavery, and required citizens to assist in the recovery. Moreover, the act stipulated, “In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence.” The groups of white men that had constituted slave patrols a century before evolved into official, protected actors of the state, incentivized to use force to insure the existence of slavery. By passing the law, Congress made a moral calculation. Congressional leaders wanted to avoid a civil war. To that end, California entered the union as a free state, and the slave trade ended in Washington, D.C. Western territories could become slave states by popular vote. And, by way of the Fugitive Slave Act, the free parts of the country would police African-Americans in ways that foreshadowed the tragedies that would befall Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and many others.
During this period, some African-Americans also became police officers. “By accepting the racial status quo and the legal oppression of other blacks, these law enforcement officers became the first African Americans to confront the paradox of policing a society where the color of a person’s skin often determined guilt or innocence,” Dulaney writes. “They also became the first to accept such roles because they believed that they could improve their own precarious position in a society where status was based on skin color.”
Since Trayvon Martin’s death in February, 2012, Americans have been discussing the relationship between young black men and law enforcement with new intensity. The Dream Defenders, the Ferguson protests, the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, and other social-justice efforts make it difficult for anyone to ignore the hostility between police departments and black men and women. In the past three years, we have become familiar with a long list of names, including Rekia Boyd, Kimani Gray, Garner, Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Scott, and Freddie Gray. As demonstrated in theDepartment of Justice’s report on Ferguson, the killings tell only part of the story. “Our investigation has shown that distrust of the Ferguson Police Department is longstanding and largely attributable to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement,” the report states. “This approach results in patterns of unnecessarily aggressive and at times unlawful policing; reinforces the harm of discriminatory stereotypes; discourages a culture of accountability; and neglects community engagement.”
In New York City, things came to a breaking point this past December, when two N.Y.P.D. officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were killed by a man who, at least according to his social-media postings, was seeking revenge for the deaths of Garner and Brown. In the last days of 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio gathered with Governor Andrew Cuomo, Vice-President Joseph Biden, and others to pay tribute to officers Ramos and Liu. At the funeral for Ramos, as the mayor rose to speak, many of the police officers watching on screens outside of the church turned their backs to his image in dissent. In the opinion of many of the officers, de Blasio had fanned public discontent with the N.Y.P.D. by making statements that month about how he had warned his son, Dante, to be careful when engaging with police officers. “Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone,” de Blasio said he told his son. “Because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton also eulogized the two police officers. “We don’t see each other—the police, the people who are angry at the police, the people who support us but want us to be better,” Bratton said. “If we can learn to see each other; to see that our cops are people, like Officer Ramos and Officer Liu; to see that our communities are filled with people just like them, too; if we can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal.”
In February, 2015, Commissioner Bratton spoke to a large crowd assembled at One Police Plaza for the department’s celebration of Black History Month. The N.Y.P.D. employs close to thirty-five thousand uniformed officers, about six thousand of whom identify as black. These officers of all ranks gathered alongside their families, children, and community members to celebrate the “progress within our diaspora,” as the program of the day stated. During his remarks, however, Bratton noted what he saw as a regression. “Your numbers in this department are declining, numbers in our recruit classes are declining, even as your numbers in this city are increasing,” he said. He made an appeal:
If you like this job, if you like this profession, if you like what it’s done for your family, if you like what it’s done for you, and what we, collectively, can do for this city, then I ask you to share—to share the responsibility for insuring that, as the march continues, there are many more marchers, many more African-American marchers, many more black marchers. We will work hard—the leadership of this department—to have that happen, but we cannot do it alone.
Bratton’s request, though, reflected a common confusion about race. What our eyes identify as race is a signifier that divides our country along the indices of wealth, power, and full citizenship: white Americans, with their relative ease of access to those goals, and black Americans, aspirant but still largely excluded. Black officers in New York City stand at the intersection of those lines. Those officers embody the difficulties that racism presents for our police forces, and their struggles show how current N.Y.P.D. policies would need to change before there can be anything like healing.
Not long after the police officers turned their backs on de Blasio at Officer Ramos’s funeral, I met with a black transit officer who has been on the force for seven years. One of the first things he asked me was whether or not I wanted to hear the truth about his experience. He did not feel comfortable discussing his experiences without anonymity, fearing that telling the truth could result in on-the-job reprisals and jeopardize his chances for promotions. (Numerous other policemen I spoke with either declined to comment or asked that their remarks be kept off the record. Their fears are not unfounded: an N.Y.P.D. officer named Adhyl Polanco was suspended, and later reassigned, after he complained internally about stop-and-frisk.) And so the officer, comfortable with the terms of anonymity, began to tell me his story:
“Born and raised in Brooklyn. I had a real tough childhood. Caribbean descent. My parents came here chasing the American Dream like anyone else,” he said. As a teen-ager, he recalled, “I didn’t want to become a police officer, yet I kept getting stopped—about the age of fourteen, fifteen. I started getting stopped a lot. I just didn’t get it, because I know I wasn’t doing anything wrong, although there were people in the area that were.” One particular moment sticks out in his mind. At eighteen, he was walking with his girlfriend when an officer stopped him and began “searching through every pocket, going through everything, as if I was under arrest,” he said. “And on the adjacent corner were the actual criminals, watching me get searched.” He told me that he realized then that, in the eyes of the police, “we’re all just criminals.” His desire to know if, or how, the police academy was encouraging officers to treat citizens that way sparked his interest in becoming an officer.
The training he received at the police academy, he said, was actually quite good. Reflecting on the times when he was stopped as a teen-ager, he said, “I learned in the police academy that those stops were unlawful.” When Bratton ran the N.Y.P.D. in the nineteen-nineties, he introduced a policing tool called CompStat, which is used to identify patterns and locations of crimes throughout the city. Greater intelligence about where crime happens is not controversial on its own. But CompStat is also used as a tool for measuring officers’ performance; it sharply raises the accountability of precinct-level commanders and officers who work in areas where the most crime occurs. Broken-windows policing operates on the belief that focussing on minor infractions will discourage more serious crimes, and CompStat created a way to measure which officers have done the most to stop those minor infractions. The N.Y.P.D. began implementing versions of stop-and-frisk in the nineteen-seventies; the introduction of CompStat marks one point at which stop-and-frisk tactics expanded. The N.Y.P.D. has drastically curtailed stop-and-frisk in recent years. Among criminologists, there is little consensus on why crime rates have decreased in New York City. Whether or not broken-windows policing prevents crime without inflicting unnecessary and unjust harm is the question that animates the current disputes, and is what concerns the officers I spoke with.
A 2014 report by John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that, from 1990 to 2013, as violent and non-violent crime rates dropped across the city, “the greatest increases in misdemeanor arrests have been experienced by young minority men.” For instance, the report states, “the rate of misdemeanor arrests for Black males aged 18-20 almost tripled.” The transit cop I spoke to argues that broken-windows policing insures that such discrepancies will continue.
The N.Y.P.D. is, of course, only one part of the city’s criminal-justice system: high numbers of low-level arrests and summonses strain resources for courts, jails, and taxpayers. In April, city officials announced plans to reform the summons process. The changes will include redesigning the paper ticket that a person receives, reminding people of their court dates, elucidating the consequences of a missed court date, and adding a section on the form where officers can note a person’s race. In May, Bratton said that he is open to clearing the 1.2 million or so open warrants that have resulted from missed court appearances for low-level summonses. Still, the threat of disproportionate punishment—a summons, an arrest, police brutality, or death—hangs over impoverished, largely black and Hispanic communities throughout the city. “Given the way that crime has fallen in New York City, a so-called high-crime area just means there’s higher crime than in other parts of the City, but with the low numbers that the police department is reporting it’s still not really high crime,” Delores Jones-Brown, the founding director of the John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice, told me. “In those so-called high-crime areas, people who can least afford to have anything else affect their employability are being strapped with these low-level offenses.” The transit officer I spoke with corroborates Jones-Brown’s research. “Because of broken windows, any arrest is a good arrest,” he said. “I arrest you for spitting on the floor—it’s a good arrest. It’s a quality-of-life arrest.” He added, “Because of CompStat, we need more arrests.”
Broken-windows policing relies on officer discretion, but with the incentives heavily stacked toward making an arrest, proper training and a good conscience can easily be overwhelmed. Arrests and summonses are what officers “live and die by,” the transit officer told me. “As a commanding officer, if you want to be promoted to a higher rank there’s no more exams; it has to be done at the discretion of the top brass, and the only thing that they judge you by, what your effectiveness as a commanding officer is, is how many arrests you have in comparison to this point last year.” Because of his upbringing, though, he chooses not to engage in the types of policing that prioritize arrests; this choice, he says, might threaten his chance to be promoted. “As an officer of color, it doesn’t sit well with me whatsoever. And, personally, I don’t engage in it.”
When I asked him what, in the face of this internal struggle, keeps him going, he said,
I was always big on giving back to the community, doing for others. My father, he raised me saying, “Just because you’re capable of helping someone means you have to. It’s not an option.” I’d always known that I was going to give back and do something, somehow. I had no idea that it’d be through this job. But I think that’s my calling. I think this is what I need to do, where I need to be. At least twice a month, after interacting with someone, they tell me that it’s the first time that they’ve actually felt the service of what policing is supposed to be. And that keeps me going—just the people.
135th and Lenox is a busy intersection. On one corner, a street sign marks Samuel J. Battle Plaza. Here, Lenox Avenue is also called Malcolm X Boulevard. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture sits across from Harlem Hospital. In January, 2015, it was one of the starting points for the protesters who gathered after the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.