What Police Officers Think About Race and Their Job

PHOTO: Police guard as hundreds of protesters gather at Foley Square in New York, Dec. 04, 2014.PlayGetty Images
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One white former NYPD Sergeant recalled a time when he bumped into a black colleague who had been working “deep” undercover and was standing outside the courthouse after an appearance about his third time he killed a suspect on the job.

“He said ‘That's the good thing about being a black man in the NYPD—I can pretty much shoot whoever I want. If you were involved with the shootings that I’ve been involved with, you’d be in a lot of trouble,’” former Det. Sgt. John Paolucci told ABC News. “That always stuck with me.”

According to Paolucci, that interaction happened back in 1997, and he is far from the only former police officer who remembers distinct moments where race played a factor in the way in which the NYPD operated.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is black and was a member of the NYPD for 22 years before going into politics, said that he remembers colleagues opening up to him about how they treated different members of the public differently according to race.

“Another officer told me -- and he was a good officer -- he said 'Eric, I’m going to be honest with you: when I see a black guy with a gun I’m going to take precaution for myself. If I see a white guy with a gun I’m going to take precaution for myself and for him,'” Adams told ABC News.

PHOTO: New York Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams attends a press conference regarding new NYPD departmental guidelines for police officer retraining at the New York Police Academy in Queens, New York, on Dec. 4, 2014.Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP Images
New York Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams attends a press conference regarding new NYPD departmental guidelines for police officer retraining at the New York Police Academy in Queens, New York, on Dec. 4, 2014.

“We have real racial, homophobic, anti-Semitic, women issues in our society… those same schisms that exist in society exist in the same pool of officers,” Adams told ABC News.

“All of the sudden the uniform comes over the head and you become this angel?”

Renewed scrutiny of the NYPD’s handling of race issues came swiftly after the announcement of the decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict a white police officer who put a black man named Eric Garner in a choke hold. Garner died shortly after the altercation, and a video from the scene showed him repeatedly saying "I can't breathe." The day after the grand jury announcement, Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio detailed the new retraining process that all officers will have to undergo, though they said the change was not a reflection of the grand jury decision but an effort to overhaul the department’s stop and frisk policy.

“I like to use the analogy of alcoholism: I believe our agency (the NYPD) has been intoxicated with police abuse and we now must take the first steps towards sobriety,” Adams told ABC News.

“It must be strategically done and I think what the police department has done is the steps towards sobriety. Anyone who went through AA will tell you, you still live day by day…. you have to constantly have a buddy system to reinforce the partner in that car,” he said.

Now the NYPD will be focusing on improving officers communication skills which, theoretically, will help them build better relationships with the community.

PHOTO: Hundreds of protesters gather at Foley Square in New York, Dec. 04, 2014. Getty Images
Hundreds of protesters gather at Foley Square in New York, Dec. 04, 2014.

That’s what helped former Sgt. Paolucci do his job while he was working in the south Bronx, which is largely Hispanic, as well as other neighborhoods in Manhattan from 1992 and 2012.

“If you looked around at some of the playgrounds and parks on a hot summer day -- these places are full of criminals, but when you spend time in that community you realize what a small percentage that really is,” Paolucci told ABC News.

He said that some residents would come up to him in the stairwells of the housing projects and thank him for being there, and how he and his colleagues would get bizarre fake emergency calls from elderly residents who were hoping for a different kind of rescue.

“It was merely a ploy to get you to escort them to the mailbox so they could get their Social Security check,” Paolucci said. “They were afraid of some of the people lurking in the lobbies or the stairwells. Some cops would be upset about that but to me that's the reason why you became a cop.”

One point that came up in multiple interviews with former police officers was that the force needs to be more meticulous in how they recruit officers and they can’t ignore the prejudices that officers may bring in with them to the job.

“Listen, are there people that shouldn't be police officers all across the country? Absolutely, but that means we need to look at how we recruit them how we train them and how we discipline them,” former NYPD Sgt. Joe Giacalone told ABC News.

Steve Gomez is a former LAPD officer who was assigned to investigate a faction of the notorious Crips gang in South East Los Angeles before becoming an FBI officer and now works as an ABC News consultant.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of cops being racist,” Gomez told ABC News. “It’s about cops that have been given this power and they I don’t think necessarily know how to use it sometimes.”

Adams praised the NYPD’s move of instating a retraining program, saying the force was not effectively dealing with “the emotional baggage that we bring with us to the job.”

“The big problem that police departments across the country are making is that they believe they can’t talk about race,” Adams told ABC News. “They believe the term is taboo and so because of that, they are failing to instruct their officers on how to police in a racially charged environment. Police departments did not create the racial tensions that exist in America but they do have to police in them.”