The Racial Reality of Policing

It was one of the more effective training exercises that I saw during my years in the New York Police Department.

The instructor would call up four cops, two black and two white, to the front of the class. He’d have one of the black cops face the wall with his hands up and place the two white cops close behind him, on either side, pretending to point guns at him.

The instructor would then ask the class, “Whadda we got?”

Everyone knew the answer: an arrest or a stop.

Then the instructor would switch the positions, arranging two black cops behind one of the whites. This time, white hands were raised in surrender, and black hands mimicked guns.

“Now whadda we got?”

Everyone knew the answer to that one too, though not many wanted to say it, as uneasy laughter filled the room. Cops of every color seemed to react the same way: The second scenario looked like a mugging.

It was a lesson in the ugliness of preconceptions, the peril of jumping to conclusions. I thought a lot about that exercise in 2009, when a black NYPD cop named Omar Edwards was killed by a fellow officer. Edwards, who had finished his shift and wasn’t in uniform, was shot when he drew his gun and chased a man who had broken into his car.

Outside the classroom, however, on our beats in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the script of that training exercise didn’t get flipped very often. It was seldom a white guy on the wall. The NYPD is fairly diverse; gun violence in New York is largely segregated.

Since last August, when a cop shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., accounts of the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police have dominated the news. The names of the dead—Brown, Garner, Crawford, Rice, Harris, Scott, Gray—have an Everyman quality about them. The cases have provoked outrage. Rep. Hank Johnson, an African-American member of Congress from Georgia, took to the floor of the House to say that “It feels like open season on black men in America.”

Others have compared the incidents to an epidemic, even to genocide. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei has tweeted about Ferguson. Michael Brown’s parents were flown to Switzerland to address the U.N. Committee Against Torture, and many see the activism that has emerged since Brown’s death as the onset of a great moral awakening.

It’s not up to me to decide what activists should protest, but after years of dealing with the realities of street violence, I don’t understand how a movement called “Black Lives Matter” can ignore the leading cause of death among young black men in the U.S., which is homicide by their peers.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 129 instances of black men killed by “legal intervention”—that is to say, by cops. The figure is incomplete because of a lack of national reporting requirements, and it says nothing about the circumstances of the killings or the race of the officers involved. But it gives a sense of the scope of the problem.

By contrast, in that same year, 6,739 black men were murdered, overwhelmingly by young men like themselves. Since 2001, even as rates of violent crime have dropped dramatically, more than 90,000 black men in the U.S. have been killed by other black men. With fatalities on this scale, the term epidemic is not a metaphor. Every year, the casualty count of black-on-black crime is twice that of the death toll of 9/11.

To talk about this vast slaughter isn’t changing the subject from police misconduct. It’s the only way a conversation about reforming police practices can begin.

In March, Attorney General Eric Holder released two reports on Ferguson. One covered in great detail the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson; the other described the broader patterns of policing in the city. Partisans have tended to choose one report or the other to support their reading of events.

No, Brown wasn’t shot in the back while attempting to surrender to a white cop, nor was he shot for jaywalking. He had just robbed a store, and he had punched Officer Wilson in the face and tried to steal his gun. In the wake of Brown’s death, Ferguson burned because people believed a lie; because many still believe it, cops have been shot there, and the threat of riot remains.

The other report showed that Ferguson was a speed trap for people going nowhere, six square miles of mostly black people, mostly poor, with 50 cops, almost all white, who were ordered to milk them for every possible nickel by white city managers. Black people were further bled dry in a punitive cycle of fines and fees; missed court dates led to arrest warrants, which left them increasingly incapable of having a chance at a productive life.

Which story to emphasize? It depends on your agenda. The more egregious practices of the Ferguson police have been curbed, and thousands of warrants have been vacated. Still, by most reports, the mood there remains tense, and homes have lost half their value.

For most cops and their supporters, the rising homicide rate over the past year—surging in Baltimore and St. Louis, creeping up in New York and elsewhere—is the inevitable result of demoralized police departments. The price of rage can be calculated in the number of cops who have been targeted and shot—most notoriously, NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos last December and, just last week, Deputy Darren Goforth in Texas.

The price of fear and distrust is harder to gauge. After nearly a year of relentless coverage of stories portraying police as irredeemably brutal and racist—whether the facts surrounding the deaths remain troublingly obscure, as with Freddie Gray in Baltimore, or appear plainly criminal, as with Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.—who knows how many people in danger now hesitate before calling the police, or don’t call at all? Who knows how many kids doing something stupid now think of resisting cops not just as an option but as a moral obligation?

And who knows how many qualified black kids with ambitions to serve their communities now reject the possibility of doing so in a police uniform? In May, Ismael Ozanne, the biracial district attorney of Madison, Wis., announced that charges would not be brought against the white officer who shot Tony Robinson, a biracial 19-year-old. Even as he acknowledged the urgency of issues of racial disparity, he lamented that black high-school students who had been interested in law enforcement were now rejecting it, “when that is precisely where their view and experiences are needed.”

Twenty years ago, when I first walked a beat in the housing projects of the South Bronx, the greatest and most gratifying revelation was that most people wanted me there. The writer James Baldwin may have seen the police as an “army of occupation” in Harlem, but that wasn’t the case across the river. The ranks of those who always seemed glad to see me (church ladies, the elderly, many working people) were larger than those who never were (the young men loitering on the corners and in the lobbies). For the rest, the relationship was as ambivalent as it is in policing white middle-class neighborhoods: Cops are wonderful when we find your lost kid, and we’re jerks when we write you traffic tickets.

For all the discontent with police activity—for doing too much or too little—and genuine anger at incidents of abuse, any local politician could tell you what his constituents tell him: “We want better treatment by cops, but we also need more of them.” That’s not what Palestinians in the West Bank say about Israeli soldiers.

Most of my career was spent as a detective in the 44th Precinct of the Bronx. Though crime fell precipitously during those years, robberies, stabbings, shootings and homicides were routine events. Gang conflicts and the drug trade were behind much of the bloodshed, but the largest number of violent incidents were classified, tepidly, as “disputes,” a word as good as any when words failed to explain them.

In one 24-hour period, we had a man shot multiple times by two strangers who didn’t like how he looked at them. We had another man shot in the penis after drunkenly needling a friend that he was too chicken to use his gun. A third man inadvertently spit into the window of a passing cab. The passenger had the driver pull over and stabbed the spitter, nearly fatally, before getting back in the cab to go about his business.

Though thuggish acts like these weren’t representative of the neighborhood, too often they defined it, for locals as well as for outsiders. The area is overwhelmingly black and Latino, but it isn’t a place of monochromatic and monolithic poverty. Most people work, and many live in decent housing. There are growing populations of African, Caribbean and Central American immigrants who came from far meaner streets than the ones where they now live. Because the goals of public safety were so widely shared, the day-to-day frustrations of detective work and the substantial failure of the criminal justice system were all the more difficult to bear.

No cop I worked with would disagree with the protesters’ chant that black lives matter. I spent a substantial part of my career begging black kids to tell me who shot them. Often, they wouldn’t. When they were killed, there was no guarantee that their friends and family would tell me what had happened, let alone agree to testify in court. And the enormous effort undertaken to get as far as an arrest—knocking on countless doors, calming and cajoling fearful witnesses—was often labor in vain.

Simply put, the Bronx is an excellent place to kill someone. While your odds of getting caught are slightly better than even, the chances of beating the rap are in your favor. The conviction rate for felonies in the Bronx is the lowest in the city, by far. When a criminal justice system delivers justice for only one murder in four, it really ought to be called something else.

For Bronx cops, tales of travesty take up quite a bit of shelf space in their library of job stories. I had a cab robbery in which the two perpetrators were caught in the act by a camera attached to the rearview mirror of the car. The photo that ran in the Daily News was so flattering that one of them had the clipping in his pocket when I arrested him. The case didn’t make it out of the grand jury.

Another time, I had what seemed to be a straightforward attempted murder—a car full of bullet holes, two blameless, hardworking black victims, a recorded threat by a perpetrator with a long record of violent crimes. He apparently believed that one of the men had been seeing his ex-girlfriend. When I went to arrest him, he grabbed a baby and held it up, yelling, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” He was acquitted, for reasons that still escape me.

When I hear about the “nonviolent drug offenders” doing time, I can’t help wondering how many of them have a shooting or three they got a pass on. There may be a growing consensus that too many men are in prison in America today, but I know that not enough from the Bronx are there. The system is broken in more ways than one.

And more than one kind of approach will be necessary to fix it. Let’s assume that mistrust of the police is a central factor in the abysmal conviction rate in the Bronx. It surely follows that the rate would improve if cops worked harder at gaining the respect of the communities they serve. Even if there were no practical gains to be made in regard to jury verdicts, insisting that cops place public trust at the core of their mission is self-evidently worthwhile.

‘The NYPD is fairly diverse; gun violence in New York is largely segregated.’

Still, I doubt that suspicion of me in particular or cops in general mattered much in those two cases I lost. I wasn’t the one accusing the two guys of the cab robbery or the one guy of shooting at the other two in the car. The victims were. Detectives manage investigations, but they generally testify only about ID procedures and statements—that is, confessions. The perpetrators in both lost cases were career criminals, and they kept their mouths shut when I interrogated them. With the shooting, the victims knew the shooter.

With the cab robbery, the driver picked the perpetrators out of a lineup, and we also had the photos. There wasn’t much for me to screw up.

So what happened? As a DA friend once told me, these incomprehensible acquittals were often surreptitious acts of hope. Maybe some of those nice church ladies who always said hello to me when I was a beat cop were on the jury. Any prosecutor would have gladly picked them. In my first tour of the projects, I saw the church ladies and the corner boys—the ones doing stickups and hustling crack—as two distinct groups. But they weren’t, really, because the lovely old grannies had sons and nephews and grandsons, and the corner took its share of them. They didn’t have to disbelieve a white detective; they only had to see the defendant, and think about their family, and pray that God will be good.

We can stress the community-service aspect of policing and hold cops accountable when they fail. We can outfit cops with body cameras, which, if nothing else, should recalibrate any number of interactions that start with a cop yelling, “Hey, stupid!” to one that begins with, “Excuse me, sir…” In the communities most in need of careful policing, disrespect by cops of every color turns routine interactions into conflicts and turns conflicts into crises. And we can treat marijuana possession as an offense on the level of drinking in public (I’ve never seen a cop take a last look at a rap sheet and say, “We have to be real careful with this guy—he smokes weed.”)

We can do all of these things, and more, to improve policing. We should read both reports about Ferguson, not just the one that validates what we already believe, and the CDC data, so that we don’t forget the dead black kids who don’t make the news.

For many generations, legal and social discrimination kept African-Americans from the kinds of employment, education and housing opportunities that provided so many other groups with a platform to rise out of poverty. In New York and other cities, blows for freedom were struck at the same time that the factory doors began to close. In more recent times, there has been a profound erosion of black family structure, which had provided a bulwark against instability in even more hostile times. What else can we do? Better efforts on mental health treatment and gun control, certainly.

What we can’t do is pretend that police will solve the problem. The boys and girls on the corner have to find somewhere better to go, and few believe that most of them will get there anytime soon. We can only hope that the experts are wrong, as they’ve so often been before. Maybe the church lady on the jury is right, and redemption is never out of reach.

Mr. Conlon served in the New York Police Department from 1995 to 2011. He is the author of the memoir “Blue Blood” (2004) and the novel “Red on Red” (2012).