Former Officer: Policing Takes Patience, But Black Suspects Get Little
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's bring in one more voice here. Before entering politics and becoming the Brooklyn Borough president last year, Eric Adams spent 22 years in the New York City Police Department. One reason he joined the force was to try and change a culture that he says treats people of color differently from whites.
A grand jury's decision last week not to indict a New York City police officer over the death of Eric Garner prompted Adams to speak out publicly. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke to Adams about his New York Times op-ed called "We Must Stop Police Abuse Of Black Men." Adams began by describing a double standard he sees playing out.
ERIC ADAMS: If it's a white person with a gun, it's likely that in his mind that the person could be a law enforcement officer, a FBI agent, a DEA agent. But that goes out the window when he sees a person of color with a gun. And in America's style of policing, gun or appearance of a gun in a possession of a person of color equals criminal. The precaution goes out the window, and you're really just concerned about yourself. And you'd rather error on the side of harming him than on the side of having to be carried by a pallbearer.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Well, as a person of color who was also a police officer, did you end up thinking that way?
ADAMS: There were moments in my policing career where I became stereotypical, just like my white colleagues. And you really have to constantly ensure that you don't fall into the trap of believing - because you are hearing a large volume of calls that are a small portion of a community, committing crimes that you do not broad-brush the entire community.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about the case in Staten Island in New York City. There's a case where, unlike Ferguson, we know much, much less about what was on the grand jury's mind collectively when they decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo. As a former police officer, when you watch that videotape and think about all the circumstances of that incident, is there something that is apparent to you that is not apparent to the rest of us?
ADAMS: Yes. When we police in America, we leave the station house with this symbolic toolbox we can use based on the circumstances that we respond to. In many communities of color, the only tool we use is the hammer. And so when you look at the incident that took place with Eric Garner, those officers could have used a Taser. They could have used stun guns. They could've used other non-lethal methods to subdue him. Also they were not at the point of having to place their hands on him. They were still at a point where you want to de-escalate the situation. But in communities of color, the officers don't use those tools of conflict resolution. They quickly go from zero to 100 in police action.
INSKEEP: You talked about police metaphorically using the hammer. You have written that when you were a very young man - when you were a teenager, the hammer was put down on you.
ADAMS: Yes, you know, as a young boy arrested in South Jamaica, Queens, at 15 years old, while in custody, I was assaulted by officers where they'd kick me repeatedly in my groin and caused, you know, not only substantial pain, but for days after they caused me to urinate blood until it eventually cleared up. But the problem didn't clear up.
What it did was it followed the long tradition, and people really don't want to understand that although laws change, the spirit of things can remain. And there's a long tradition of teaching people of color lessons - if it's hanging a black man from a tree so others can see as they walk by, if it's dragging a black man behind a truck - those symbols are important, and I believe that was a symbol that was embedded in me as a child. People ask why was I a person that seemed to have been possessed about fighting police abuse. It's because there was a demon that was inside me, and the only way that demon was going to leave me is for me to go in. And so I joined NYPD, and I fought from within and spent my entire career fighting.
INSKEEP: It is said by police and their supporters that here you have two incidents that were tragically fatal, but they involved men who had broken the law in some minor way, who were being confronted by police, who appeared to be resisting or difficult in some way. And, yes, things got out of hand, but they were being difficult and police were doing their jobs. There's police saying that they feel that their point of view has been completely ignored and overlooked by everyone except, of course, the grand juries. Do you ever feel that way?
ADAMS: No because the enforcement of laws and the methods used should be equal to the violation or criminal action. You can't use lethal methods on someone that's participating in a non-lethal action. What happened in Staten Island is what I am attempting to get clear to all of our police agencies, is that in communities of color, the actions in training and skills that police officers acquire, they do not utilize it when they come to a Eric Garner-type situation. They do not take the patience that's needed.
So no one is saying that police officers are wrong for responding to calls of service. I want my police officers to respond if someone is selling loosies, if someone is playing their music too loud. I want my police officers to come. But when they come, I want them to use the force that's equal to the crime that is being reported, not for them to come with a one-size-fit-all enforcement in communities of color. And that's where we're going wrong, and that is what we have to acknowledge.
GREENE: That's Eric Adams. He's the Brooklyn Borough president and also a former New York City police officer. And he spoke with our colleague Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.