NEW YORK — Wearing the blue uniform of the NYPD did not come easily for officers of color and tensions from more than a century ago have impacted Black and Hispanic members of New York’s Finest.
In 1845, officers were predominantly Irish men. Then the NYPD appointed the first Italian officer: Det. Petrosino, John Jay College of Criminal Justice ProfessorFritz Umbach said.
“That was seen as breaking racial barriers because Italians weren’t considered white at the time,” Umbach, who wrote “The Last Neighborhood Cops,” a book about inequality in the NYPD, said.
Officers at the time focused on two groups: immigrants and freed Black slaves.Retired NYPD Inspector Corey Pegues described it as being “inherently racist.”
The first Black officer, Samuel Battle, joined the department in 1911. After that, cops targeted not just Black members of the community, but officers of color in their own ranks.
“Battle’s appointment in 1911 may have changed things, but the head winds are growing against him because of the great migration which deepens the racial sentiments in New York,” Umbach said.
From the Harlem riots in the 1930s to race riots in 1964, the department continued to target the Black community. Retired NYPD Detective Graham Weatherspoon and other former minority officers experienced that racial bias firsthand.
“When I came on it was the mid 70s and I was met at the door with racism,” Weatherspoon said. “They tried to weed Black men out by telling them they had heart murmurs.”
Retired Deputy Commissioner of Training Dr. Robert Gonzalez was one of only two Hispanic officers at his precinct.
“I recall getting out of the Academy going to my first assignment in my new precinct and being isolated compared to my white counterparts and they were rookies just like me,” he said. “They were put in police cars, given favorable assignments and training, and I was left to fend for myself.”
He said they were treated as the “laughing stock” of the precinct.
“They would make comments like ‘the landscapers made an arrest today,'” he said. “They would make explicit comments to let us know that we were judged based on our ethnicity and out race and not on our performance.”
In 1992 after New Yorkers elected David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, more than 4,000 off duty officers violently protested, blocked traffic on to the Brooklyn Bridge and shouted racial slurs aimed at Dinkins. The officers were supported by their union and led by then US Attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Pegues was there working as a rookie—at the time assigned to keep the peace.
“Not only did they have racist signs, they were carrying nooses,” he recalled. “It was calling him the N-word. It was a racist rally.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is also a retired NYPD captain.
“For the first time in my life, I saw a police-controlled mob in an attempt to take over City Hall,” he said.
Adams was worried about what would have happened if Dinkins were to step outside.
“This was a department that had me under surveillance for years,” he said. “This was a department that targeted Black and brown officers who spoke out.”
Adams and a few other officers started an organization of Black cops.
“It was our way of saying ‘we want to be pro public safety, but we needed to fight racism from within the department and that’s why the organization came about,” he said.
Now, of the 35,000 member force, 47 percent are white and 53 percent are minority. Even as the faces of the NYPD have become more diverse, cops who once walked the thin blue line said not enough is being done to change the racist culture.
“We don’t need window dressing we need people who are in position of authority,” Weatherspoon said.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board now plays an important role in holding officers accountable for their conduct. A new disciplinary matrix will have police working in tandem with the board.
Also, changes are being made within the department to create more supervisory positions for people of color. Just last week, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea announced the community would help select precinct commanders.