Despite diversity gains, top NYPD ranks fall short of reflecting communities
Nearly 70 percent of New York City’s residents are Hispanic, black, Asian or mixed race — a non-white majority that’s steadily solidified since the 1980s.
But over at One Police Plaza, the top ranks of the New York City Police Department appear to be frozen in time.
Almost 80 percent of the NYPD’s chiefs and deputy inspectors and inspectors who hold a rank above captain are classified as “non-Hispanic white.” Add in captains, and the NYPD leadership is still 72 percent non-Hispanic white.
While the racial and ethnic diversity of rank-and-file patrol officers has grown substantially over the last 30 years, the upper echelon of the nation’s biggest police force hasn’t come close to keeping pace.
The imbalance between police and the policed plays out in precincts across New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed the department to embrace the community policing model that encourages beat cops to foster relationships with local residents.
Using data obtained from the Police Department, THE CITY examined the NYPD’s hiring and promotion over the last three-plus decades, looking at a snapshot of the racial and ethnic breakdown of the uniformed force every 10 years since 1988.
Our review found:
- In 1988 and again in 1998, 90 percent of the force at ranks above captain was non-Hispanic white. Today it remains 79 percent non-Hispanic white — while overseeing a force of police officers that is 45 percent white.
- Commanding officers in 48 of the city’s 77 neighborhood precincts are non-Hispanic white as of this week. That includes 13 white COs running precincts where the population is at least 80 percent non-white.
- While the share of Hispanic and Asian patrol officers has risen dramatically, challenges in recruiting black officers persist, helping drive under-representation in higher ranks. The share of patrol officers who are black rose from 13 percent in 1988 to peak at 18 percent in 2008. But that figure has since dropped to 15 percent — in a city where 24 percent of the population is black.
- As of Jan. 31, 18 percent of the uniformed force was female (6,648 of 36,753), and 8 percent of those holding a rank above captain were women. Of the 77 precincts, nine are run by women.
- Fraternal groups representing black and Hispanic officers say they face an internal ceiling that inhibits promotions to the top echelons — because attaining a rank above captain is a purely discretionary choice of the NYPD’s predominantly white top brass.
Critics of the NYPD’s hiring and promotion practices acknowledge the department’s success in diversifying the rank and file — but question the NYPD’s devotion to diversity in the upper ranks.
Take Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain. In the 1990s as head of a fraternal group for black police officers, 100 Black Men in Law Enforcement, he repeatedly pressed the department to diversify the force.
Years later as an elected official, he praises improvements in recruitment, while noting the slow change at the top.
“If you want to diversify the higher echelon of the department, if the desire is there — you can do it,” Adams told THE CITY. “I don’t see it. I’ve never seen the desire to do so.”
A tale of two departments
Racial and ethnic disparities persist despite years of efforts to change the face of policing in New York City. And they’re papered over in the NYPD’s own public accounting of its uniformed officers’ racial diversity, which sits on the last page of its annual enforcement report.
Lumping together all ranks above sergeant, the Police Department Census shows that in the past decade, black representation in those higher echelons has jumped from 6 percent to nearly 11 percent, Hispanic from 11 percent to 17 percent and Asian from 4 percent to 6 percent.
But at the top ranks — above lieutenant and captain — gains have been incremental, at best.
Numbers obtained by THE CITY tell a tale of two departments.
In the lower ranks, the share of non-Hispanic white officers has dropped from 73 percent in 1988 to 45 percent as of Jan. 31, while Hispanic officers have risen from 13 percent to 30 percent and Asian officers from less than 1 percent to 9 percent of the force. The share of black cops has risen slightly, from 13 percent to 15 percent.
That’s much closer to the racial breakdown of New York City, which is 33 percent non-Hispanic white, 24 percent black, 29 percent Hispanic and 14 percent Asian, according to the latest census figures.
Yet the racial and ethnic makeup of the top ranks of the NYPD remains largely non-Hispanic white — with four out of five holding high ranks in the department, such as inspector or bureau chief.
“Whites pretty much are 45 percent of the police department but they get 80 percent of the executive promotions. How is that possible?” asked Anthony Miranda, chairperson of the National Latino Officers Association and a former NYPD sergeant.
In an interview with THE CITY Friday, First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, the NYPD’s second in command and highest ranking black member, contended the demographic makeup of the upper ranks “has no discernable [sic] impact at all.”
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “You have to look at the bigger picture. To focus on that fact that it’s not quite as diverse as you think it should be, I don’t think you can point to a magic number.”
In 109 of the last 118 years, the NYPD has been run by white men — including James O’Neill, the current commissioner. Since 1901, when the NYPD was first run by a single commissioner, only two of the 42 commissioners appointed by mayors have been non-white.
Benjamin Ward, appointed in 1984 by Ed Koch, became the department’s first African-American commissioner. Lee Brown, tapped by David Dinkins, became the second six years later.
Adams, Miranda and members of a black fraternal group, the Guardians, describe a daunting path minority officers face as they try to rise through the ranks. They speak of a system in which promotions above captain are controlled by those already at the top.
“If you’re going to turn over that power to someone who’s not your poker buddy, is not your car-pool buddy, is not your golf buddy — there are these institutional relationships within the Police Department and you’re not going to turn over this power to someone on command that you don’t feel ‘He’s one of us’,” Adams said.
“That’s a term that’s used a lot in policing. ‘He’s one of us.’ If you’re not one of us, then you are not going to be given that authority.”
Miranda describes an obstacle course that holds back aspiring officers.
“The PD has a ceiling where you won’t get past these numbers, where you won’t get past this rank. It’s discretionary,” said Miranda. “When the majority was white, they had no problem doing that. Now that you have minorities on the force, they’ve put up hurdles you have to jump over. It is something that is strategically and deliberately implemented.”
Tucker argues that appointments to the upper ranks are based on merit. Candidates, he said, are chosen from a pool of uniformed personnel who choose to take the captains test that puts them in line for top slots.
Promotions today are made “not because of who they know and who they’re related to,” Tucker said.
“We’ve gotten better at doing that,” he added. “We’ve tried to level the playing field … We tried to across the board create an environment where what you look like is less important than how you lead.”
Police officials note the system requires civil service exams for all ranks up to captain, which slows the department’s ability to change the top ranks. Last year, the department created the Office of Professional Development and Inclusion, tutoring cops in test-taking skills.
And the top ranks also tend to stick around longer, so job openings are relatively few. Of 2,459 retirements in the last two years, only 66 were from ranks above captain.
Precincts and power
The NYPD’s diversity challenges play out in neighborhoods at the precinct level. Most precinct commanders — 48 of 77, as of May 2019 — are non-Hispanic white, including 26 who oversee precincts that are majority black or Hispanic or Asian.
In East New York, Brooklyn’s, 75th Precinct, for instance, the commanding officer is white, while 96 percent of the precinct’s population is non-white.
In Mott Haven, The Bronx’s 40th Precinct, the commanding officer is white. The population is 98 percent non-white.
Commanding officers have tremendous power in determining how cops respond to the needs of the community. Adams says the NYPD could improve community relations by synching the leadership with the neighborhood’s racial and/or ethnic makeup, including allowing local input into the selection of COs.
Or as Miranda put it, “‘I understand the community’ and ‘I am the community’ are two different things. We don’t need people who feel for us. We need people who are us.”
Public Advocate Jumanne Williams also favors this approach.
“I think with community policing, police should be reflective of the community that they’re policing,” he said. “It’s helpful. And it should be more community oriented. It’s not reflective yet in some of the areas…”
“I never say there’s a magic number,” he added. “I don’t think it has to be someone who exactly matches. But we look at the numbers and there’s a problem.”
Tucker doesn’t believe COs should be picked based on their race or ethnicity.
“Certainly, when you look at some officers who are white as commanding officers, you should speak to the community and they’ll suggest to you that it’s not important,” he said. “I happen to think that the COs, wherever they are, happen to be pretty stellar.”
Adams and fraternal groups representing black and Hispanic cops say for years the effort to change the force was hampered by a small pool of black, Hispanic and Asian officers available to rise through the ranks.
In 1979, the fraternal organization of black officers, the Guardians Association, sued the NYPD, alleging the civil service exam for patrol officer was racially biased. The Hispanic Society sued in 1980, making the same argument about the NYPD’s sergeant exam.
In 1981, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit as well, contending NYPD was discriminating against blacks, Hispanics and women in its hiring and promotion of police officers.
The NYPD settled in June 1981, modifying its promotion practices. Approving the settlements, Manhattan Federal Judge Robert Carter wrote optimistically the deal “assures that there will be more female, black and Hispanic police officers and sergeants on the NYC police force than before.”
Seven years after Carter wrote those words, 90 percent of the uniformed patrol officers holding a rank above captain were non-Hispanic white, 7 percent were black, 2 percent Hispanic and zero percent Asian. With captains it was even less diverse: 95 percent white, 3 percent black, 1 percent Hispanic and zero percent Asian.
”The numbers were dismal,” Adams said. “There was no pipeline. The pool (of candidates) was always small. NYPD has a very sophisticated mechanism to make sure that you would never have those individuals of color (at the top), and it starts early.”
Any applicant with a criminal record, even for low-level infractions, couldn’t make it into the pool as a patrol officer to begin the climb to the top, Adams said. “If you had a small pool, you never had to worry about a small pool becoming ranking members,” he said.
This problem persists for one group: black cops.
Today, the NYPD has fewer black patrol officers — 3,673 — than it did in 1998.
Meanwhile, the percentage of black detectives has remained about the same over the last 30 years, with about 16 percent in 1988 and today.
In 2017, the NYPD paid $700,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by three black detectives who alleged they’d been passed over for promotions given to less experienced white detectives.
The suit was backed up by a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission review of seven years of detective promotions. The EEOC found black detectives, as a group, served as Detective Grade 3 nearly two years longer than white detectives before getting promotions.
NYPD brass insisted race discrimination played no role in promotions and stated they “made a practical decision to settle this case with no admission of wrongdoing.”
Still, Tucker concedes the department has a ways to go to increase the number of African Americans in its ranks. He blames the problem on the longstanding history of poor relations with the NYPD that was aggravated by the rampant use of stop-and-frisk, which has sharply declined.
“There’s not been a great relationship between members of the African-American community and policing in this city,” he said. “That has improved measurably over time, but when you ask this question about a gap or maybe a slower pace, you have to take into account that that is the reality. They haven’t had a great experience with the police.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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