Out of the Blue: My Experience in the NYPD
Yvette Walton was a New York City police officer who served in the NYPD's notorious Street Crime Unit from 1993-95. After four Street Crime Unit officers killed Amadou Diallo in February, 1999, Walton testified in disguise at a City Council hearing on public safety about the elite unit?s tactics and racial profiling. Only thirty minutes after testifying, she was fired for "other reasons," but proceeded to win a court case against the NYPD for the dismissal and was reinstated with back pay. She is now retired.
This excerpt is from Walton?s forthcoming autobiography, Out of the Blue.
Chapter One: Police Academy
Brooklyn, July 1987
Every morning I had to get up so early, just so I could get to the bus stop and then to the train station, in order to arrive at the Academy on time. Ultimately we will be assigned to Brooklyn for driving practice, a two-week assignment, and I will need a car rather desperately. Please God let there be someone who can hook a sista up with a ride; if not, please let me be able to find and afford a little piece of car. Meanwhile, I trudge back and forth on the bus and the iron horse, early in the morning, wearing the rather obvious, yet stunning rookie uniform. Everybody in the neighborhood knows what the uniform signifies, so they stare at you while you walk down the street. They try to get all up in your business, whispering behind your back, pointing fingers, and some even snicker. The stares go on forever, the whispers too. Nonetheless, my confident stride propels me through all of it, because I know that I am going to make a difference in someone’s life. I dared to have this dream and I refuse to have it be transformed into a nightmare!
You see, growing up in some neighborhoods of the inner city, that type of outfit was not generally accepted by some of your peers. Nevertheless, the adults quietly cheered you on when you walked by, with their all-knowing smiles flashing your way, and sometimes an occasional wink of the eye. Nonetheless, to your friends, you were sometimes considered a "sell-out." Now let’s see, what exactly did I sell, definitely not my soul, not my self worth nor my self esteem, however I did make a rather substantial purchase when I put a deposit into my future by joining the New York City Police Department.
Upon entering the Police Academy, I got my own, very first apartment! Ain’t no stoppin’ me now! I’m moving on up and I’m gonna keep on pushin’— ’cause I’m a winner! Uh oh, flashbacks— look out!
Everything is simply happening so fast for me, but I would not trade it for anything in the world. I moved into my own apartment. My runs around the gymnasium floor were becoming stronger; I was developing into a lean and strong police officer. I am one of New York’s Finest! It simply cannot get any better than this.
The instructors in the Academy seemed to be pretty decent people, uh, I mean cops. (As my career goes on, I realize that the Department doesn’t consider police officers to be people, just "bodies" to be manipulated, controlled and dispensed of at will. You know, like robots, old model circuitry determined to be obsolete and then discarded into the trash.) However, there were times when I just had a problem accepting a few of the things that they were teaching us, especially in the Social Science class. This class was supposedly designed to equip us with all of the social graces we, as police officers, would need in order to understand and deal with the diverse population of the city, and effectively carry out our duties as law enforcement personnel with a minimal amount of adversity from the public. During this class, it appeared to me that someone had apparently dropped the ball, in a manner of speaking, because substantially positive aspects of the varying ethnic communities seemed to have been suppressed. Negative stereotypical habits of a few members of a group were magnified and implied to include all.
For example, in the city’s somewhat feeble attempt to demonstrate racial diversity training, one of the lessons they taught us was that Asian people, due to the atrocities they were forced to endure in their homelands, don’t and won’t necessarily trust the police, and that they have gangs within their communities who ride roughshod over everyone, the elderly in particular. Therefore, if a crime happened in their neighborhood, we should not expect any help from these citizens. They didn’t trust law enforcement in their own lands, which is why they came to the United States of America, for a better way of life and in the pursuit of liberty and happiness. They fully expected, and rightfully so, the fulfillment of those political promises they had only heard about, and to finally realize their dreams of peace and equality. No civil rights violations would befall them in America, as it sometimes happened in their country, or so they thought. However, if we, as police officers expected any assistance from them, we would be disappointed, because they wanted no involvement from us, in their lives. This was the first antenna to be raised up in my mind involving a minority faction in the city. Why?
Although, as newly appointed and highly impressionable police officers, we were, to all appearances, even if halfheartedly, encouraged to attempt a level of harmony between "us and them," you couldn’t help but be made to feel that the attempt was insincere. My thoughts were that if the Asian community felt like this about law enforcement, and if the New York City police department knew it, then what could we do to alleviate that perception of fear? Were we earnestly soliciting recruits from this particular group of minorities, in order that our ability to communicate with them could be more effective and advantageous to us all?
My thoughts remained just those, thoughts. Had I dared to speak aloud about this perceivable "oversight" by the NYPD, or its skewed training and obvious recruitment deficiencies, for sure I would have been deemed an undesirable, by all police standards, because I dared to use my brain, without permission. In their terms, I would have been punished for being insubordinate. Consequently silence became my friend, and a level of skepticism grasped my hand ever so firmly. For the time being, I had to do what was necessary to get inside the department. And the way that was done, I quickly learned, was not merely to think right, but I had to also think White! But once inside, it was there that changes could be made. I had the desire, energy, and the wherewithal to help make it happen.
As for the Hispanic and Haitian communities throughout the city, we vulnerable and largely immature, newly appointed, law-upholding police officers were "influenced" to believe that these citizens or a large portion thereof, were primarily sorcery practitioners. Santeria was for the Hispanic culture and Voodoo was attributed to the Haitian culture. In addition, the Hispanics, in particular the men, liked to socialize in front of "bodegas," which they usually owned. There they engaged in an inexpensive and innocent method of communication between their fellow men, just as they sometimes did in their homelands. For some reason, this method of socializing was made to seem like lawlessness, due to a predisposed presumption of illegal activity.
Nevertheless, I saw such behavior every day when I lived in Harlem and the South Bronx, and it was rather comforting to me. The streets were alive and teeming with laughing, smiling and productively happy people. It seemed to me that these businessmen could be quite beneficial to the concept of community policing, and not sinister adversaries of the NYPD. As for owning stores, wasn’t that simply yet another example of someone fulfilling their dream and having the right to do so?
We were also taught that some of these Hispanic males suffer from a "fatal disease," called Machismo, which in some cases could prove to be somewhat detrimental to an officer, because it would cause the Hispanic male to become quite uncooperative with police officers. Therefore, we were told to be on the lookout for these "types," who have a real propensity for trouble! This was the second antennae to be raised up in our impressionable minds regarding a minority faction within the city. Why?
As for the Rastafarian populace of the city, it seemed that their "claim to fame," according to the NYPD, was to smoke marijuana, which had something to do with religion. In our law class, we were instructed on how smoking marijuana was illegal. Ironically enough, it would stand to reason that if the Rastafarians preoccupied all of their time with smoking an illegal drug, under the guise of religion, then we were supposed to be distrusting of them, because at any moment we should be expecting them to be breaking the law. These images were being planted firmly, and ever so deliberately, in our minds. Antennae number three.
In other Black communities, we were informed, broken family lives run rampant with these people, where the grandmother usually ends up taking care of and raising the grandkids. This, in most cases is usually because either the mother or father of the children (it was always children, not child) end up strung out on drugs or affected by alcoholism, sometimes even both. These afflictions thus render them unable or willing to accept responsibility for their offspring. So, either grandma takes them or they end up as "government property," belonging to the Bureau of Child Welfare (as I knew it to be named, back then), foster care, or if the child(ren) was lucky, adoption, but that was not likely.
Most Blacks, we were led to believe, lived in the projects throughout the city, and the remainder inhabited Harlem. However, a little qualification was thrown in— it was explained to us that there was a pocket of "respectable" Blacks who lived on what’s known as Striver’s Row. They were okay, or should I say tolerable? We now have antennae number four.
But the most intriguing lesson was the one about some segments of the Jewish community, and the "socially scientific" situation that we needed to be kept abreast of as police officers, in order to serve that community properly. We were taught that when they are observing their religious practices— such as not being able to use electrical objects within their homes— we might be called into duty. Now if we, as police officers, were afforded the opportunity to work in the particular communities, not only were we fortunate or lucky, but we must have had a "hook" (i.e. someone to vouch for you and be instrumental regarding your departmental assignment(s), or someone who could alleviate or diminish your punishment; during your career, by way of making a phone call on your behalf). See, you might receive a radio-run to respond to a home in these communities, asking that you, as a police officer, turn off their lights for them. First, I wondered to myself, how would they be able to seek your assistance, if the operation of appliances at certain times is forbidden? Secondly, if they know that the "time" is near, then why don’t they turn everything off themselves? Oops, I did it again; Britney, it’s me girl, now I know what you mean! I just cannot help but use my brain to think of things that are right, instead of what’s White. I really need to check myself, because they can banish me into the great abyss of nothingness, without a second glance. I must remember to keep my thoughts in my mind and not let them pass my lips. April 19, 1999, oh well, too late!
This is not to say that I would begrudge anyone their right to practice their religious beliefs, just as no one should be denied their right to freedom of speech, but come on, I took the job to catch "bad guys," not to operate electrical appliances or switches. I would be remiss not to include the fact that, as told to my Academy class, some of the Jewish religious leaders were allowed to even sign in the Precinct’s Command Log, and to obtain a copy of each officer’s assignment for the day. It was further intimated that if these Jewish "representatives" did not want or like a particular officer who was assigned within their realm of the city, they were afforded the opportunity to reassign said officer and replace him with one of their choosing. If it happened to have been a female officer assigned, through some "mistake" of the precinct personnel, heads might roll. Females in authority were not tolerated or acknowledged, in fact they were considered to be unequal to the men. This was all told to us in the New York City Police Academy, when we were vulnerable and highly impressionable, newly appointed police officers— you know, New York’s Finest! There goes antennae number five! Why?
As impending police officers in training, we were now considered well equipped with extremely pertinent information that was considered instrumental to the performance of our duties. All of the antennas did cause a few of us to marvel at the anecdotes attributed to each of the city’s minority communities, though we dared not question it.
Wait, oh my goodness, now how could I have possibly forgotten the Irish residents of this fair, and I use the term loosely, city? After all, they practically invented the New York City Police Department. I mean, as told to my academy class, that’s where the term "paddy wagon" came— the Irish derivative of the name Patrick. While they were sometimes described as a rowdy bunch, due to the level of their alcoholic beverage intake, way back then, they managed to migrate to the United States, during the course of the Potato Famine; with sometimes nothing but the clothes on their backs. Yet through all adversity, they managed to lift themselves up in society and through the ranks of the police department, thereby making something of their lives. Ultimately, they garnered real American hero status.
The "blanket" stereotypes that were given— or perhaps should I say, the "enlightenment" that was bestowed upon— us as future conveyors of Truth, Justice and the American Way, seemed to be indicative, in my mind, of small groups of people in each ethnicity, not the entire races. But it was somewhat difficult in a way, and certainly from the outset, to believe that the department, the greatest in the world, which pays its officers zeros, would mislead us so brazenly.
But while my mother looked after my children for me while I attended the Academy, it was not because I was a junkie or alcoholic. I, like some Irish, Asian, Hispanic, Black and Jewish folks, managed to lift myself up and out of what is known as the ghetto. Each ethnic group, due to socially economic strife, has its own "ghetto." However, quite a few people within those ghettos make something of themselves, just like so many others before and after them have done, and continue to do, in the varying regions where the working class citizenry live in this city.
Me, I became one of New York’s Finest! Additionally, as soon as I completed my academic training as one of New York’s Finest, I got my children back and resumed my responsibility as their mother. Were it not for their grandmother, my mother, my dream might have never become a reality. THANKS MOM!
For additional information on this manuscript, please contact Williams Cole via email: [email protected]
Walton was an NYPD officer who served in the Street Crime Unit from 1993-95.
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