I have mentioned elsewhere that I spent twenty-seven years as a cop, so it’s hard for me to discuss or think about race without a story or an image from my police years being brought to mind. Writing the last post, “Changing the Story,” brought this story to mind.
Actually, I said with chagrin, it seems I am writing about history, ancient history at that, as this story began in my earliest years with the Bergen County Police Department, which puts it in 1980, give or take a year. Our headquarters was in the small city of Hackensack, so we often drove the city streets, going between our headquarters and the highways, county parks, and county facilities that we bore primary responsibility for.
One night, about 3:00 AM, I was crossing the quiet, still city on Passaic Street. As I passed First Street, I saw a solitary man, standing on the sidewalk of First Street, in front of the corner gas station, doing nothing. This isn’t normal at 3:00 AM. Suspecting that the man was a lookout for a burglar in the gas station, I made a left at the next corner and came around the block. The man was still in place.
I called for backup, and, crossing the empty oncoming lane, pulled to the curb just short of the man. He immediately wheeled and began walking back the way I had come from. Jumping out of the car, I ordered him to stop, but he ignored me. I grabbed him, twisted his arm behind his back, and pushed him against the quarter panel of the police car. He kept struggling and shouting as I watched over my shoulder for his presumed henchman coming to his aid.
In two minutes, my henchman from the city police was there. He recognized my suspect as a mentally ill person who often behaved strangely and attracted suspicion. We found no signs of forced entry to the gas station or the business across the street, and released the suspect.
The next night when I came to work, I encountered two of my more senior colleagues who worked together on a special anti-crime patrol, working the highways going to and from the George Washington Bridge to intercept drug traffic and illegal guns. (The sort of work they did has since fallen into disrepute as racial profiling.) One of them said, “We heard you on the air last night when you called for backup; what did you have there?” I explained that I had seen a suspicious pedestrian, potentially a burglary lookout. One of the crime busters said, “First and Passaic? That’s a nigger neighborhood; it never pays to get involved in a nigger neighborhood.”
Well. I guess he schooled me.
But it’s funny how things turn out. (And how stories change.) One of those guys made sergeant a couple of years later and became one of the best bosses I ever worked for. The other guy made sergeant (and then lieutenant) the same time I did, and we became close and respectful friends. When I was tour commander on the evening shift and he was tour commander on the midnight shift, if there was disagreement on how to handle a problem at shift change, I would always defer, because I had never seen anything he had a hand in turn bad. (Like me, he had a bout with cancer shortly after retiring.)
The guy who made sergeant first? He also made lieutenant, captain, inspector, then chief. One of his main goals as chief was to enlarge the department so as to increase the services provided while strengthening the patrol function; but the county was reluctant to make the investment. So the chief explained to his bosses that the department’s lack of diversity was so glaring that it was a really bad headline waiting to happen; it was no longer acceptable to have a police department that was almost entirely white males. They listened.
The chief found a loophole that allowed him to bypass the normal civil service hiring lists to hire officers from other departments. He went on a hiring spree, adding black, hispanic, Asian, and female officers to the roster, making our department wildly diverse. The police officer whose apparent racism made me flinch in 1980 became the police chief who fully integrated the department in 2000.
I have learned never to give up on people, never, ever, no matter how well I think I know them, no matter how strong the evidence against them seems.