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Former NYPD officers talk police-minority relations

A major topic of conversation in recent months has been the often fraught relationship between police and minority communities. Last week, PBS NewsHour Weekend spoke to the President of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP and retired NYC police lieutenant Julian Harper, who were critical of police. Tonight, two former NYPD officers talk about the challenges they faced serving low-income communities.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I'm joined now by retired officers Mike Byrd and Russell Williams.

    So, not just in New York, but around the country, there are active conversations now about policing in communities of color.

    Beyond that, in your opinions, what is the source of these tensions?

  • MIKE BYRD, Former New York Police Department Officer:

    It's mostly frustration, you know?

    And people are taking their frustrations out. And I blame — I blame the administrations. The police officers are just doing what they have been taught to do, which is enforce the laws of their respective city, state, or local government.

    And, sometimes, yes, you do have certain officers that go above and beyond that. But, however, it's more so government is turning their backs on a lot of the people.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When you saw these demonstrations after Ferguson here in New York, after Eric Garner here in New York, what went through your minds?

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS, Former New York Police Department Officer:

    A lot of people took it on as being anti-police.

    But I think, you know, you can be against policies without being anti-police. You can be against overuse of stop, question and frisk. And, of course, you can be against brutality. Who wants to be in favor brutality?

    So, I understand their frustration that they feel. Like, they feel like they're being targeted unfairly. So I didn't take it personally, although I know a lot of people do —

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mm-hmm.

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    — that they feel, well, it contributes to an environment.

    And a lot of officers that it was anti-police in general. And that's why that guy came all the way from Baltimore to kill two police officers.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There is also this feeling that, when an officer does try reach out to try bridge the divide and improve relations with the community — for example, in Pittsburgh, around New Year's, there was the chief of police there had posed for a sign in a coffee shop or something and it kind of went viral on the Internet. In the sign, he said, "I resolve to challenge racism at work, end white silence."

    And, immediately, he got a lot of pushback from some of his kind of unions, saying, look, you just labeled us, all us cops, as a bunch of racists, and that's not fair.

    Why is it that it's such a harsh dichotomy?

  • MIKE BYRD:

    Well, I can't speak as far as Pittsburgh is concerned, but I know the 20 years that — 20-plus years I had with police department in New York City, they're — the New York City Police Department is so racially diverse.

    You have Russian cops. You have black officers, Latino officers. You have gays. You have — I worked with people from India.

    So, to label us as racist, it's kind of hard, you know, because we're more diverse than any other industry or any other type of profession in the world.

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    When you go to a 911 call, we don't care who's calling. We just go to assist. We go to help.

    So, officers don't feel like they're — you know, don't like to be labeled as racist, although that is a hard conversation. That is something that is very hard to hear.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There was a community activist here last week who was talking a little bit about her organization ends up having to field phone calls from people because they can't get themselves to trust the police.

  • L. JOY WILLIAMS, President, NAACP Brooklyn Chapter:

    To be an effective law enforcement, you have to have the trust and the commitment and cooperation of a community.

    Listen, I have had instances, just in this past year, where I have had a grandmother call an NAACP office with her young grandson that she takes care of at 14 years old, and that a local gang is making him keep guns in her house.

    She does not feel comfortable calling the police department, because she doesn't trust them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, you have walked the beats before. You have figured out how to make things work.

    Why is there that type of distrust in the community, especially communities of color? And what do you do to get over that?

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    Well, it helps if you do community policing, one on — you know, talk to people one on one, which is what I did when I worked in the South Bronx.

    You can't generalize. One community, they welcome you there. You know, I worked with the people, and they were glad to see me.

    Another area, they actually had a neighborhood watch against the police. Whenever I came, it's like, all the drug dealers, they had their lookouts.

    Everybody was working against me because they were trying to make money.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So why do you think that distrust exists?

  • MIKE BYRD:

    Giuliani moved away from community policing, and it moved towards, we need to clean up the streets. We need more proactive.

    We need to make more arrests for quality-of-life issues.

    And after that was all done and we cleaned up the streets, the mistake in the New York City Police Department was not to go back to community policing.

    The police department needs to go back to teaching social sciences and having the cop know how to deal with different types of people, different races, you know?

    It's not — it's more — nowadays, it's more robotic, and they have lost touch with the community.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, one of the sources of tension was the conversation that Mayor Bill de Blasio described at a press conference with — that he had to have with his biracial son.

    Now, African-American communities said, that's not really news to us. We have had to have that conversation.

    In fact, an officer sitting here last week had this very difficult kind of dilemma, where he said, yes, I'm a police officer, but I had to have that conversation too.

  • JULIAN HARPER, Former New York City Police Lieutenant:

    I have a younger son who is 13 years old that is a pretty big 13-year-old.

    And he's a very innocent child. So, he wouldn't even understand an interaction between him and the police.

    He understands that his father was a policeman. He understands that he's taken photos as a child in his father's uniform, and he was proud of that.

    But, unfortunately, the way that police respond and interact with our young black youth is problematic.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Just the mention of that conversation and perhaps the increased legitimization of it was a very sore spot for so many police officers here in New York and elsewhere in the country. Why is that?

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    Well, I blame a lot of that on Mayor Bloomberg, actually, because you got to remember that what happened was that there was a great increase in stop, question and frisk.

    That's where a lot of the tension came from, from a lot of blacks being stopped.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mm-hmm.

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    You have 90 — out of all those stops, maybe 90 percent, they weren't even arrested, which means that you had 90 percent of people were stopped for basically no reason.

    And of course you're going to have tension there. You have got to remember that, under Giuliani, even though we were cleaning up the city, the number of stop, question and frisks topped up at about 100,000 a year.

    Under Bloomberg, that increased 600 percent to almost 700,000 a year. That's a vast increase.

  • MIKE BYRD:

    Hari, I grew up as a child and through my teenager years, I grew up in Washington Heights in Harlem.

    And I come from a biracial marriage. My father's Irish. My mother's Dominican. OK?

    I was always taught to respect the police. If a police officer comes up to you and asks you a question, you answer him with respect.

    I have given that same philosophy to my children. If they get stopped by the police, "It's, yes, sir, what did I do wrong, sir?" not sucking your teeth and waving your hands or anything like this that you do see in certain communities in New York City.

    When a police officer comes up to a group of kids on the corner, they will have an attitude. That part comes from your upbringing, you know? Respect the police.

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    I mean, I have to say that I come from a police family. My brother was a police officer before me. My father was a police officer.

    So, actually, my father didn't have that kind of talk with me. I mean, of course, I respect people, but he didn't say, well, you have to look out — you know, you are going to have to look out for the police, you know?

    He said — he told me that you just have to respect everybody, you know, and respect authority.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Do you understand that that conversation is happening places, in places beyond Mayor de Blasio's household?

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    No, of course. I understand that conversation is happening.

    And that's because, you know, police are the enforcement arm. So, the whole system can seem kind of stacked against minorities.

    I mean, if you look at the disparities between marijuana arrests, studies show that whites and blacks show — use marijuana at the same rates, right?

    But, as far as arrests go, blacks are vastly over-represented. And that's because the policing is focused on the minority community.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, then how could you have such different outcomes?

  • MIKE BYRD:

    Well, it's just like Russell said.

    Whites and blacks smoke the same amount of marijuana. I would say 90 percent of the whites are smoking it in the privacy of their home or in the privacy of a certain place, whereas, in the black communities, they're out in public smoking it. So we — we see it, you know?

    If I see a white guy smoking pot, I'm going to stop him and give him his summons or make the arrest.

    It just — to me, it doesn't matter who's smoking it. It's breaking the law in my presence. It doesn't matter.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Down on the street level, what is the tip, as two retired officers, that you have for both the community, as well as the police, to stop this before it gets worse?

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    Well, it's like Mike said earlier. You have to get back to community policing. Let the officers focus more on one-on-one.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And beyond New York, what's your suggestion?

  • MIKE BYRD:

    The police need to get out into the community. They have to. They can't just stay in the cars and drive around and wait for something to happen. They need to go and just walk the beat.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. Mike Byrd, Russell Williams, thank you both for your time.

  • MIKE BYRD:

    Thank you.

  • RUSSELL WILLIAMS:

    Thank you.

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