Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, thousands of New Yorkers have been taking to the streets to call for police reform, among other things. Many of the protesters were met with pepper spray, batons, citations and arrests to break up demonstrations and enforce a curfew across the five boroughs.
But the NYPD is not a monolith; many of the 36,000 police officers on the force are African-Americans, some of whom may feel conflicted about the demands for police reform and the oath they took to protect and serve.
One of them is Detective Felicia Richards, president of the NYPD Guardians Association, a fraternal organization for black police officers that has demanded equality in the force for decades. She’s also a member of the NYPD’s Police Service Area 2, which serves public housing developments in North Brooklyn. WNYC’s Jami Floyd spoke with her about the struggle of being a black officer in this moment:
Floyd: You've been with the NYPD for more than 30 years now. What has this moment been like for you, speaking as a black woman?
Richards: Wow. So as a black woman watching this series of events unfold...it was horrifying watching the events that brought us to this, but we were on this road for a very long time. It was expected. It was expected. So it's now just to see how the message is going to be brought and how it's going to be finally accepted.
Floyd: What do you mean? Say more.
Richards: Well, black people, period, have been seeing so much disparity. What happens is every time we hear a black person or a black man, black woman, a black boy, a black girl dying at the hands of law enforcement — as law enforcement myself -- I struggle to figure out what was actually done, what could have been done different. Was there enough time to think about actions? You know, it's very easy to say it all happened so quickly and then it was done and then we look back on it. But the truth of the matter is, during every one of these episodes, there's somebody else that was there — the opportunity to intercede, it presented itself. But we've always, you know, black people have just sort of never been valued on the same value point system as anybody else in America. How long have my people been asking for just an even footing? And it hasn't happened. How long do you keep asking?
Floyd: More than half of uniformed police officers in the NYPD are not white. It is still a majority white department, though, when it comes to the uniformed service. And a lot of us are having conversations about changing the structures from within. How about at the NYPD?
Richards: I've not been made privy to what type of changes they want to make internally in the NYPD. We've never been asked. We've never been really given the opportunity to say, without feeling that there were going to be some repercussions. You know, if we say that we're not okay with certain behavior, we're not okay with certain speech — and we're not, you know, black people themselves are not alone in that. I think most ethnic groups that are on this job might feel a little apprehension about speaking out. And this is new. This is new, not just to those who are marching, this is new to us. As far as internal changes, we just have to wait and see.
Floyd: The Guardians Association has a long history of fighting against discrimination in the force. And speaking more broadly, whatever the reform through training efforts have been, we've had Amadou Diallo, Clifford Glover, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley. And you've been with the force for 30 years. So you've lived through all of those cases.
Richards: I've been here through all of those. Yes, every one of them. I remember them all.
Floyd: Yes. And that's just in New York. I want to ask you to speak now to the culture that puts a police officer in a position to have to make a split second decision about black life in this city and all of those names I just read to you and how it is that we now have thousands of people marching through the streets asking the department to reflect on its culture and reform the culture. It's not about the training, is it? It's about the culture.
Richards: It is not. It is not. It's not the training. It's the mindset. If you already go out with the mindset that the black child you encounter is going to be problematic, you're not allowing yourself to absorb the situation. They want us to take everything on a case by case. But the problem is we've not afforded the same reset that other cases with other sets of people are allowed.
Floyd: You mean, we black people.
Richards: Black people, black people. We're not — they're not reset. They don't reset. Everything is the same. You know, if you see a group of black youths and the first thing you do is go in gruff instead of finding out why they're together, what's going on. We wouldn't do that in some of the examples that were brought. We have social distancing — people are still trying to understand that, what that means. And so they slip. We're trying to educate our community that we're working in that you need to be six feet apart, and why. Instead of just giving the person the opportunity to correct it or move on, it becomes a hands on thing. Where in, two blocks away, in another community —
Floyd: Detective, you mean to say in a white community?
Richards: Well, in a community... Yeah. Well, you know what? Let's say that. Central Park, they wanted to give out masks. They ain't giving out masks over here. They're locking people up, they're coming in gruff. I don't even ... I am at a loss for words. If we're going to go to Central Park and go up to people who are clustered and say "You have to wear a mask. Do you have a mask? No. Would you like one?" And that's it. You can do the same thing here. We go into the communities. We go into our developments. The conversation is different. You're not asking them if they want a mask and you're not giving them the option to say yes or no. It's not against the law to not have a mask, but it's the delivery that is so different. The sense of entitlement has never been as clear as when we went into [the] pandemic. And then it goes from being something about health and safety to being enforcement. And then there are those who are working in this community and we're trying to not make that hand be so heavy.
Floyd: You said it's about the mindset. How do we change that mindset?
Richards: Systemic racism is something that is learned. It's learned over generations. We need to look at the narrative as it has been taught and revise it. And I feel that people are now starting to listen because it's not just a black problem. If one part of your population is not good, it's going to call to question what is it to be an American citizen? What is that? What is the real perk in that? If it is that once you get in, then they change the narrative to accommodate not you. And that's something that's been a part of America's history as well. You know, we need to make sure that when we're embracing, we're embracing — and embracing includes learning.
This interview has been edited and condensed.