In an interview with the Guardian about diversity and the NYPD, department commissioner Bill Bratton said something that at first seems baffling in its racism and stupidity: “We have a significant population gap among African American males [in the NYPD] because so many of them have spent time in jail and, as such, we can’t hire them.”
In other words, Bratton is arguing that because having been to jail is all but an insurmountable barrier to becoming an officer, and because so many black New Yorkers have been locked up, the NYPD is having an awfully hard time finding black people who are eligible to become cops. And presumably, that is why the police academy’s 2015 graduating class has the lowest percentage of black graduates since the 1960s. (6.8 percent of the upcoming class is black, compared to 7.3 percent in 1970, the Guardian points out.)
But if a disproportionate number of black New Yorkers have been arrested, who do we blame but the demonstrably biased police department that arrested them? Bratton is remarkably self-aware on this point:
Bratton blamed the “unfortunate consequences” of an explosion in “stop, question and frisk” incidents that caught many young men of color in the net. As a result, Bratton said, the “population pool [of eligible non-white officers] is much smaller than it might ordinarily have been”.
Let’s briefly and unscientifically run the numbers on his claim. Black people make up roughly a quarter of New York City’s 8.4 million-person population, and across all ethnicities, roughly 78 percent of New Yorkers are over 18. Even if half of all black adults had been sufficiently ensnared by the law to prevent them from becoming cops, that leaves more than 800,000 black people living in the five boroughs who are eligible to fill spots on a roster of about 34,000 NYPD officers, or will be eligible in a few years (The minimum age to become a cop is 22). And with no policy requiring NYPD officers to live in the city they serve, those figures entirely leave out cops who live on Long Island or in Westchester. In attempting to gently repudiate stop-and-frisk—a policy that a federal judge called unconstitutional and discriminatory in 2013—Bratton has essentially overstated rates of black criminality by two or three orders of magnitude.
But he’s not wrong about this: The NYPD’s own history—and present—is the biggest obstacle between it and a more diverse police force.
Implicit in Bratton’s minor mea culpa is the idea that a brave new NYPD has since turned its back on the ugly dragnet that left so many black residents with criminal records. Leaving aside the fact that Bratton himself is widely credited with architecting stop-and-frisk in New York during his first stint as commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, that is wishful thinking. Yes, stop-and-frisk is decidedly down under Bratton, but “broken windows” policing—the aggressive pursuit of low-level lawbreakers like turnstile jumpers, sidewalk bicyclists, and public drinkers—is decidedly up. And just like with stop-and-frisk, the NYPD has been shown to drastically favor targeting poor people and people of color for these minor offenses.
“I just think that for a lot of officers, black men are viewed as something other than human beings,” Trevana Garel, a black woman and former NYPD internal investigator, told the Guardian. What is to be done? Policies like one highlighted in the Guardian article—the department is evaluating structural impediments toward black officership, like flawed written exams and a $3,000 fee for appealing a “negative psychological assessment”—are a good start. But until the fundamental racism that Garel points out is changed, it’s hard to imagine the department changing around it.