In 1971, shortly after exposing widespread, even systemic corruption amounting to millions of dollars in bribes and illegitimate relationships between the New York Police Department and criminals citywide, I was shot point-blank by a dealer during a buy-and-bust drug operation. My backup team failed to call 911, but an elderly Latino tenant did, saving my life. I was awarded the Medal of Honor by the NYPD—not for exposing corruption, but for being shot while engaging a drug dealer.
To this day, many officers believe I gave the department a black eye. I’ve been vilified for speaking out about corruption and the excessive use of force, for holding my colleagues accountable and for reminding them of their mission: first and foremost, to protect and serve the community.
Decades later, more and more citizens across the country are losing faith in our justice system, with brazen acts of police brutality frequently captured on cellphone videos; the militarization of police forces through the acquisition of war-machine surplus; continuing racial tensions coupled with a lack of initiative for community policing; and the sentencing of minor offenders to long terms in for-profit prisons, where they essentially become indentured servants.
Over the past month, police officers from around the country assembled in New York City to mourn the loss of two of their brothers in blue, who had been slain by a disturbed gunman. Relations between the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio fell to a new low after many officers at the memorials—spurred by incendiary rhetoric from Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association—turned their backs on the mayor as he spoke. Such puerile behavior constitutes conduct unbecoming an officer and insubordination, and it should be disciplined as such.
Every police agency needs leadership, and that leadership needs to be followed. But grievances should be resolved at the proper time and place. There are thousands of competent men and women in the NYPD. With the removal of politics and nepotism, a union can elect as its leader someone who is capable, articulate and informed—a person who understands the inner core of the department’s concerns and grievances, but who can also connect with and understand the demands of the community.
The NYPD and police departments across the nation must revisit their mission to protect and serve; they must also implement this mission with a revised set of policing principles in consideration of our evolving communities. This should be coupled with the empowerment of the disenfranchised throughout the justice system, to ensure fair and equal treatment under the law. Police must be taught that the power entrusted to them is not theirs to use or abuse as they see fit.
Here are some general considerations on how to re-establish the legitimacy of the policing profession and renew the respect between officers and the community:
§ Community engagement. Police departments should have a policy of hiring from the communities they serve so that the racial and ethnic makeup of departments reflects those communities. Understanding and trust within the community start with its individual members. In order to engender that trust, officers should reach out to the public. This acts as a preventive measure, not only helping officers to fight crime with tips from residents who know them by name, but also precluding misunderstandings due to unfamiliarity with the people who live on their beat. The old police adage still holds true: “Good police work should be 10 percent perspiration and 90 percent information.” If the police have the respect of the public, then the public will be there for them. It certainly was for me, on more than one occasion.