How Black N.Y.P.D. Officers Really Feel About the Floyd Protesters

Edwin Raymond, a black lieutenant in the Police Department, heard racial insults — “Sellout!” and “Uncle Tom!” — rising above protesters’ chants as he helped to control the crowds at recent demonstrations in Brooklyn against police brutality and racism.

He said he understood the words were aimed at black officers like him. He tried not to take them personally, but the shouts were particularly painful, he said, because he has long been an outspoken critic of what he sees as racial discrimination within the department.

“I’m not blind to the issues, but I’m torn,” Lieutenant Raymond said. “As I’m standing there with my riot helmet and being called a ‘coon,’ people have no idea that I identify with them. I understand them. I’m here for them. I’ve been trying to be here as a change agent.”

Lieutenant Raymond, 34, is one of hundreds of black and Hispanic officers in New York City who have found themselves caught between competing loyalties. Many said they sympathized with protesters across the city and the country who have turned out en masse to demonstrate against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white officer in Minneapolis.

The officers said they had experienced racism and share the protesters’ mission to combat it. Still, the unrest offers painful reminders that many black and Hispanic New Yorkers see them as enemies in uniform, worsening the internal tug-of-war between their identity and their badges.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the Police Department has become “majority-minority”: White officers now make up less than half of the 36,000 uniformed members of the force. The number of Hispanic officers has grown to make up 29 percent of the force, while the percentage of Asian officers in the force doubled to 9 percent, according to the department’s data. (In the 2010 census, about 29 percent of city residents were Hispanic and 14 percent Asian.)

But the department has struggled to boost the ranks of black officers. Black people make up about 24 percent of the city but only 15 percent of the force, a number that has remained flat since 2014. And even though more black and Hispanic chiefs have been elevated to leadership roles under Mr. de Blasio, two-thirds of the officers in the department’s top ranks, from lieutenant to chief, are still white, the data show.

In the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death on May 25, some black officers felt a duty to speak out. Two days later, Dmaine Freeland, a black detective in Brooklyn, put on his uniform, sat at his kitchen table, clasped his hands and recorded a video on his cellphone.

The detective denounced the officer who had knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers watched. He called him an “enemy” and asked “every good cop to speak up.” Then he posted the two-minute video on Facebook.

“I just spiritually felt the need to speak for good cops out there,” Detective Freeland, 44, said in an interview, so “that we don’t get bunched in with the actions of one or four bad cops.”

Sergeant Khadijah Faison, a black officer in Jamaica, Queens, took a public step of another kind: She knelt with protesters in a gesture of solidarity.

Sergeant Faison had been working at a midday protest on May 31 near the 103rd Precinct station, where she is part of the community affairs unit. The demonstrators formed a circle and beckoned her and other officers to join them for prayer. She said she felt moved to do so.

“If you are asking to pray, you kneel. So I kneeled too,” she said. “I think we were all looking for a sign.”

Two other officers also decided to kneel next to her, including her commanding officer, who is white.

The department frowns on officers’ making political statements in uniform, but the Floyd protests have created a different dynamic, as top police officials and union leaders have condemned the officers in Minneapolis.

The police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, shared a NY1 News reporter’s photos of the moment Sergeant Faison knelt, writing: “We need more of this, to see and hear each other, to work together, to recognize that our differences are our strength.”

The next day, Chief Terence A. Monahan, the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, also knelt with protesters in Manhattan, and other officers have followed suit.

Black and Hispanic officers said the show of support from white officers and commanders like Chief Monahan was one of the ways the current protests have been different from past demonstrations over police killings.

Several of the officers said they were disappointed by the looting and violence that has occurred during and after some protest marches, including instances of unnecessary force used by the police against demonstrators.

The violence has made it difficult to have reasonable exchanges with protesters, these officers said. The police have been videotaped shoving, beating and pepper-spraying demonstrators. One officer has been arrested, at least two others have been suspended, and dozens are under investigation over attacks on protesters.

At the same time, the black and Hispanic officers say they feel unnerved by violence aimed at the police. Protesters have hit officers with rocks and bricks and have surrounded occupied police cars, throwing heavy objects at them. Some have even hurled Molotov cocktails.

“You’ve got to worry that someone’s going to hurt you,” Officer Pedro Serrano, who works in the South Bronx, said. “But on the other hand, you understand the fight. You’ve seen the racism.”

But they have also been heartened that the crowds marching after Mr. Floyd’s death are bigger and more racially diverse than those that turned out after the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island father who died after he was put in an illegal chokehold by a New York police officer in 2014.

“You’d think that would be the big one,” Officer Serrano said, referring to the Garner case. “But police departments across the world are showing time and time again that people of color, they don’t matter. So I’m glad to see that more and more people are speaking up and seeing what’s really happening.”

Lieutenant Raymond said the protesters were calling attention to some of the same policing practices that he and 11 other New York officers were seeking to change when they sued the city and the department in 2015 over racial discrimination in enforcement and in promotions. Officer Serrano is also one of the plaintiffs.

The officers said in their lawsuit that the Police Department uses a racist and illegal quota system to target black and Hispanic people for arrests and summonses. Their careers were stalled, the officers claimed, because they objected to the quotas as unfair.

Lieutenant Raymond said the emphasis on numerical targets has led to the overly aggressive policing of black and Hispanic neighborhoods, which in turn has led to more fatal encounters between residents of those areas and the police. “It just becomes an oppressive organization,” he said.

The Police Department has denied the existence of quotas and disputes the accusation that its strategies are racist. The city is fighting the lawsuit.

But similar charges of racism in police departments across the country lie at the heart of the protesters’ complaints.

Officer Serrano said recent measures passed by the State Legislature aimed at addressing some problems raised by Mr. Floyd’s death — a statewide ban on police chokeholds and the repeal of a statute that kept officer misconduct secret — were small improvements.

But he said they fail to address the main issue, which, in his view, is the racial biases of the Police Department’s leaders. “If you have a racist leadership who is never held responsible, nothing’s going to happen,” he said. “You’re putting Band-Aids instead of fixing what the problem is.”

Commissioner Shea has defended his department’s record on race and diversity. He has pointed out that the department in the last six years has moved away from flawed strategies like “stop and frisk,” which a judge found disproportionately affected black and Hispanic residents and ruled unconstitutional. They have also steadily reduced arrests and summonses.

Detective Yuseff Hamm, the former president of the N.Y.P.D. Guardians Association, a group of about 1,000 black police officers, said the killing of Mr. Floyd had eroded the progress that black leaders in the department, like Chief Jeffrey Maddrey in Brooklyn, have made in creating a positive image of policing in black and brown neighborhoods.

“We have to make up ground that we previously had and lost, to get people interested again in becoming police officers,” he said.

Detective Felicia Richards, the current president of the N.Y.P.D. Guardians, said the visibility of black officers had been important in keeping the peace at the protests. “Kids who look like me need to know they are secured,” she said. “This protest is as much about us as it is about them.”

But sometimes visibility makes officers targets for abuse. During a protest earlier this month outside Trump International Hotel in Columbus Circle, a young black woman saw a black police commander wearing a white shirt and raised her voice to get his attention.

“Hey, you, Uncle Tom! When are you leaving your master’s house!” she shouted over and over again, using an epithet for black people accused of appeasing whites.

The police official glared at the heckler before shifting his gaze, his face a rigid mask showing no emotion.

Other protesters have seemed to ignore the possibility black officers might be sympathetic to their cause. On another night, two black officers tried to get protesters to move from the street onto the sidewalk in front of the Barclays Center. A white woman gave one of them a hard time, but he remained polite.

Then a white man walked up behind him and yelled, “He wants to stomp on your neck and kill you!” The officer flashed a look of exasperation before turning around and asking the woman, again, to move toward the sidewalk.

Other protesters have tried to make black officers feel guilty, suggesting they are insufficiently upset about Mr. Floyd. “They’ll say, ‘How do you feel if it was your child? If that was your husband or that was your father?’” Sergeant Faison, in Queens, said. “It’s not about a side. I experience the same pain that you experience.”

Officer Oriade Harbor, 38, a transgender black man assigned to Police Headquarters, said that even though he often speaks out against what he sees as social injustice, when he does police work he is still seen as “part of a system that is oppressive to black people.”

“People treat me different in uniform, because they only see the uniform,” he said. He added, “At the end of the day I am a black person who dons a blue uniform. I am a trans male. I walk in all of these worlds.”

Ali Watkins and Alan Feuer contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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