Everybody Loves a Firefighter

One highlight of my job as the spokesman and policy director of New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board was the NYPD’s Advancing Community Trust program. Twice a year, the entire graduating class of the police academy would attend a day-long session at the Apollo Theatre. It started with group of high-profile panelists (Al Sharpton, Herbert Daughtry, Calvin Butts–one year Wycleaf Jean came) talking about policing in minority neighborhoods. The rest of the day was a series of role-play exercises and lectures. I gave an hour-long presentation on the CCRB and accountability.

But giving my presentation was not what made the day so enlightening. Instead, it was the keynote speech at the end by Wilbur Chapman. After a career in the NYPD and a controversial stint running the Bridgeport PD, Chapman has been brought back as the Deputy Commissioner for Training. I don’t know that he had any responsibilities other than to give a speech at ACT twice a year. But what a speech it was.

Chapman’s speech, “Everyone Loves a Firefighter,” stoked the bunker mentality, comradery, and paranoia already common in of most patrol officers. Chapman pointed out that the outside world would never give them credit for what they did to protect it, and that if they had been looking for easy accolades, it wasn’t too late to withdraw and join the Fire Department. Firefighters, after all, sit around making dinner for each other for eighty percent of their lives—and when they get caught stealing jewelry from a burning home, or drivinh a ladder while high on cocaine, you don’t hear about it in the tabloids and you don’t see protests at City Hall. Sanitation workers, Corrections officers, teachers, EMTs, building inspectors – all of them, Chapman said, live in a bubble, free from the constant second-guessing and irrational criticism faced by cops. The only people who will ever support you, he made clear, are each other.

Chapman was boosting morale, putting a spring in the step of officers who had felt beaten down all day. You could see the officers who had slumped in their chairs sitting up and paying attention. Still, it was almost incendiary—it encouraged and promoted the blinders that stand in the way of reform, the belief that no one else can really understand, so you may as well turn your back on anyone asking questions. But from Chapman’s perspective, it had one additional benefit. It was—and remains—pretty much true.

The current crisis on policing has been pitched consistently in terms of race—white officers against black civilians. You wouldn’t guess, from reading most columnists, that in a very short period of time, the NYPD has made enormous gains in diversity, and as older (predominantly white) officers age out of the force, it is on track to match the city’s demographics. Meanwhile, the FDNY has long been a bastion of white privilege—while the NYPD, on its own initiative, has increased minority representation on its force to 46%, the FDNY remains, even after a seven-year lawsuit, nearly 90% white. Corrections officers are notoriously abusive—a series of articles in the New York Times last year received national attention, but has not coalesced into any noticeable activism. The transit workers union fought the De Blasio administration tooth and nail to keep its members from being subject to criminal penalties when they kill pedestrians by running stoplights, and the progressive Working Families Party took the TWU’s side. A beat cop would be right to wonder, where is the “Inmates Lives Matter” movement? Where are the “Jail Killer Bus Drivers” signs? What makes us such special and inviting targets?

It has been well-documented that violence against police or on-the-job-murders are not on the rise, but what most police officers are talking about when they say there is a “war on cops” is not an increase in physical attacks on police, but an increase in how quickly and how unfavorably police are judged. It takes three years for a Corrections officer is videotaped and admits that he "stomped on an inmate's head" to go through the disciplinary process and be fired. But editorials call for cops to be immediately fired, or even arrested days after an incident. No one is demanding the resignations of the teacher and the administrator in South Carolina—who after all called the officer to the classroom to remove a student, watched him do so, and stated afterwards that he had done precisely what they had asked.

Those of us who work for or seek police reform, I believe, have an obligation to acknowledge that the problems are complex, the people involved in creating them are numerous (and often include ourselves), and that sometimes, it is our statistics or narratives that need correction. When the claim that a black person is killed by the police every 28 hours is given four pinnochios by the Washington Post, and the creator of the statistic writes back to say that so long as people join the movement, truth is “not the point,” she is playing the same game as Donald Trump. When a dashcam video supports the police version of an incident, we should acknowledge it. Otherwise we risk being the boy who cried wolf, and giving the police unions and officers good reason to ignore us when we point out real abuses, unjust policies, and the need for reform.

Police silence is a problem. The bunker mentality is a real obstacle to truth. We will not break it down in a day. But we will never break it down if we fail to acknowledge its legitimate roots, and to hold ourselves to an even higher standard than those that we critique.