Why A Black Teen Who Was Beaten By Police Decided To Join The NYPD Eric Adams joined the police department intent on reforming it. "If I was not a voice for change it would bother me," he says. He was on the force for 22 years. Now he is Brooklyn's borough president.


Why A Black Teen Who Was Beaten By Police Decided To Join The NYPD

Why A Black Teen Who Was Beaten By Police Decided To Join The NYPD

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Eric Adams joined the police department intent on reforming it. "If I was not a voice for change it would bother me," he says. He was on the force for 22 years. Now he is Brooklyn's borough president.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As a black man and former police officer, my guest, Eric Adams, has a dual perspective on racism and the police. In a recent New York Times op-ed, he wrote that there were days when he marched shoulder-to-shoulder with outraged New Yorkers chanting, no justice, no peace, after police shot and killed or brutally beat a black man.

There were evenings when he was policing the same protests, trying to keep the peace. And people would direct their anger at him, not realizing he'd stood with them just hours earlier. He says as a police officer, he tried to uphold the law while raising his voice to reform policing and make it better.

In 1995, he co-founded the reform group 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care. After serving 22 years, he retired as a police captain. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 2006. Since 2013, he's served as the Brooklyn borough president.

Eric Adams, welcome to FRESH AIR. In your recent op-ed, you wrote about the feeling you had when you were in uniform that some people saw you, a police officer, and they saw the uniform, but they didn't see the man wearing it. What do you think they saw when they looked at you and just saw the uniform, the cop?

ERIC ADAMS: I think that we're in a country of symbols. And that symbol and that reflection changes depending on what relationship you have with the law enforcement officer. If you were a victim of a crime and a law enforcement officer was there to provide, to nurture and to care or to save the life or you or your family, that symbol is different.

But if every encounter you've had with a police officer was a negative symbol, then when you see that uniform, that shield, that gun, it becomes a symbol of repressive behavior. And I think that's what people saw.

GROSS: So what does that - what did that do to you as a police officer when you felt that somebody looking at you saw you as a symbol of oppression?

ADAMS: If I was not very much a part of raising my voice for reform and change, it would have made me bitter like many black officers are. But because I spent so much time raising my voice to reform the police department, I understood that when people looked at the uniform, they did not see my face. They saw the uniform. And I did not take it personal.

I understood that the uniform came off and I was among those people who were still yelling, no justice, no peace, it's time for change. And so it was easy for me to adopt that understanding. But that is not what the overwhelming number of officers of color - many of them have bought into the police culture and they play very little, if not any role at all of moving towards reform.

GROSS: When you use the expression police culture, what are some of the things you have in mind?

ADAMS: Well, how we police in America. And that is at the heart of the problem. We police in America in communities of color and economically challenging community, we police based on the behavior of the numerical minority that is committing crime. That small percentage of people who commit crimes in a community becomes the methods that's used for the entire community.

And that's part of the culture of policing. The culture of using violence extremely quickly, teaching people a lesson, the Bull Connor mindset of are you eyeballing me boy? The thought that you cannot talk back or you cannot question the behavior, the theory of I would rather be tried by 12 than carried by six, meaning you would rather have a jury decide your decision than being carried in a coffin.

Taking precaution for yourself - if you had an encounter with a black person that's carrying a firearm, not trying to find out first if he's a law enforcement person with the right to carry a firearm or if he's a licensed person. So it's the culture of believing black equals crime. And that is how police is carried out throughout this entire country.

And that's the culture that we're fighting against to reverse.

GROSS: When you were a police officer and you would get a hostile reaction from someone because you are a cop and because you are seen as a symbol of oppression, how would that affect how you interacted with that person because you don't see yourself as that symbol of oppression? You know that you have always been a pro-reform cop.

And that's probably one of the reasons why you joined the force in the first place. But again, the other person doesn't know that. So what do you do to prevent that interaction from getting more contentious than it really needs to be?

ADAMS: By clearly understanding where the person is coming from. And not - again, it's so important not to personalize the attack that you're receiving from people. I've had individuals call me everything from Uncle Tom to sellout to, you know, Negro to oppressor. And then when you show the right demeanor and show that you are not going to be absorbed by those name calling and understand that they're not calling Eric Adams names.

They're calling what the uniform represents. So your approach is different. Sometimes just making a sentence of support really disarm people. And often times, I would simply say, I thank you for standing up for me when I'm not wearing this uniform. That goes along with...

GROSS: So you're talking about patrolling police protests.

ADAMS: Exactly.

GROSS: I wasn't even thinking about that. But that's a really interesting point that you've had to patrol protests against police when your sympathies were probably at least partially with those demonstrators.

ADAMS: Without a doubt, more times than not. If it was demonstration against Amna Luima (ph), Diallo, so many others throughout the time, being at those protests and seeing the anger from people and just letting them know, you would be surprised how a simple comment of, you know, thank you for fighting for me when I'm not in this uniform, how much it changes the mindset of the person who believes that you don't know why they are there.

Because keep in mind, there were many fights that black police and Hispanic police had to fight within the police department to get their rights to exist within the police department. So the struggle didn't stop merely because we put on a blue uniform. Our fight continued.

GROSS: Did you have to fight for your own equal rights within the department when you joined?

ADAMS: All the time. I was denied access to the police department until my list that I was on - a list runs for four years. They kept postponing my appointment until finally, the Guardians Association, which was the fraternal organization of black police, sued the police department because they saw a pattern of black and Hispanic officers or recruits or candidates being pushed to the back of the list and then dying on the list.

And finally, a judge sued and forced them to hire our list. And throughout my tenure in the police department, we were, you know, targeted and had to fight for basic rights, even promotions. Of the promotional list I was on, Commissioner Kelly at the time attempted to terminate the list two names before my name until there was an uproar by the overwhelming number of white officers who were behind my name.

And then he had to reinstate it. And then walking out the door, there was an attempt to fire me until in their own department to trial, the judge ruled - out of the three charges they brought against me, the judge ruled two in my favor and one in their favor. So I was able to retire with my pension intact. So the career never stopped fighting.

And it was a continuous battle, which I was surprised that I was - I finished 22 years. I thought I would be gone in the first year because I was going in for a mission and little did I know that 22 years later, I was going to leave as a captain and walk out the door, not being thrown out the door.

GROSS: Clearly, you feel comfortable calling out individual cops who have either panicked or done the wrong thing and hurt or killed somebody as a result. And you were critical of certain policing tactics, openly critical of them, while you were a police officer. My impression is, and I know a lot of people believe this, that there's this attitude of you don't break ranks when you're a police officer.

You just stand behind what an officer has done. You support them or at least you don't criticize them in public. And I'd like to hear if you think that that's still the case and what you think of that kind of general attitude of, you know, we don't - we stand behind other cops. We don't break rank.

ADAMS: Police have two rights that even the president does not have, the right to take liberty and to take life. Those are dear to America. And we must ensure that the highest level of scrutiny and standard goes to anyone who is given that right. And that is why I critiqued and looked at how we were policing to say, if you're going to wear this uniform and this badge, you must be of the highest quality.

And where I saw that we were not moving in a direction where we ought to move, I was extremely vociferous about it while I wore the uniform because I was proud of it.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Adams. He was a New York City cop for 22 years and is now the Brooklyn borough president. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Eric Adams. We're talking about his dual perspective as a black man who protested police and also served as an NYPD officer for 22 years. He's now the Brooklyn borough president.

In 1995, when you were on the NYPD, you co-founded a group called 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care. What was that group?

ADAMS: Amazing group of 100 people, men and women, who shared the same philosophy that I did that we must provide public safety for the communities that we lived in and we must ensure that the police department reaches the standard that they treated everyone in the symbol that justice is blind and we were fair within our police agencies.

GROSS: One of the things that this group did was organize workshops for people on how to handle encounters with police. What to do if you're stopped in a car, what to do if a policeman knocks on the door and asked to enter and maybe search. Why did you think it was so important to have these sessions informing people of how to handle it?

ADAMS: Because you have to live life in the real and then take it to the ideal. And far too many people felt as though a black child, a black family, a black man should not have to be taught how to interact with the police because this is America and no one should have to be taught that.

GROSS: Like, everybody knows?

ADAMS: Right. And that's where people were wrong. Yes, you should not have to be taught that. But the reality is that people were losing their lives over not knowing what to do. And not only were they losing their lives over a physical encounter as in death, many people's lives were destroyed because they were being arrested for petty offenses.

And that caused people to lose their livelihood, spend time in jail. And so we wanted to give people some very simple instructions on how to survive an encounter with a police officer. So the goal...

GROSS: Give us an example of something that you found a lot of people didn't understand about how to deal with a police encounter.

ADAMS: Well, remember, police officers go through months of training. Here in New York City, it's six months. And they learn laws and rules. The public receives their understanding of an interaction from looking at "CSI Miami" or some police program. And so we had to bridge that gap. I believe that interaction, basic interaction with policing, should be taught in schools so that young people would know that.

But one of the biggest mistakes that people would have is when a police officer approached their car and asked for their drivers and license, and they would say, why are you stopping me? What was the reason you stopped? Keep in mind, that police officer don't know who you are. And his first order of determining if he's dealing with a dangerous situation is to de-escalate the situation and get the identification from the person.

If there's pushback, then all of a sudden, it heightens his concern and his tension. He needs to control that situation to the best that he can so he can carry out his action. And so we taught people - give the officer your driver's license and information, then start having a conversation of - officer, why was I stopped?

De-escalate the situation. Turn on the interior lights of your car. Let him see your hands. Do the things that are right. And that's why the shooting would off - when the gentleman stated I have a gun in the car. It's such a terrible shooting because he communicated with the officer, and he did it in a textbook fashion. And he still was shot. That should never happen.

GROSS: Did you find that, at some of these workshops, that some of the people, particularly young men, might have resisted the advice you were giving because it went against their idea of what they needed to do to be respected and to stand up for themselves as men?

ADAMS: Yes, without a doubt. And so what we would do - we would do role reversals. We would allow them to be the cop. And we would be the passenger in a car. We would be the person who was behind the door that's being served a warrant.

We would be the person that's stopped on the street because when they were able to carry out the function of the police officer and see what it is to throw their hands around, to walk past someone, they - when they saw the frustration and how difficult it is - and one scenario, we will have them stop someone walking down the street. And they didn't control the scenario, and the person would pull out a gun and shoot them. It gave them a true perspective of - it is not a cut and dried situation. And they understood more, after completing those forums, of how the most important thing you can do as a civilian is to de-escalate the encounter, bring a level of comfort so everyone walks away not being arrested, not being harmed, not being killed.

GROSS: I believe you retired from the police force before cell phones and body cams and dashboard cams played the kind of role that they play now, where you see them on cable news all the time. And we're watching over and over, you know, police who have shot people. So what's your impression as a former police officer and now borough president in New York City - Brooklyn borough president about the role those cameras are playing and whether they're helping or hurting police in doing their job.

ADAMS: Who would have thought that Steve Jobs would have such an impact on policing in America?

GROSS: That's an interesting point. I never quite thought of it that way (laughter).

ADAMS: (Laughter) For many years, people of color were talking about being shot, being brutalized, being arrested. And it was ignored because - I always borrow from Jack Nicholson's comment in "A Few Good Men" when he said that you really don't want to know the truth - the reality is that much of America did not want...

GROSS: And if I can quote precisely - you can't handle the truth (laughter).

ADAMS: Exactly.


ADAMS: (Laughter).

ADAMS: And a lot of America, for the most part, wanted to drive their car in their manicured lawns and just wanted to know that you dealt with the crime whatever - whichever way you wanted or had to. But when the those photos and images came into their living room, the reality is that when people had to see it, when they had to see someone shot in the back, when they had to see someone choked out, when they had to see someone being beaten, it forced them to say - wait a minute. Something is wrong here.

And so body cameras are so important. And it is amazing that the same police agencies and organizations that push against body cameras would go at a crime scene and look for any video that they have to solve the crime to tell the true picture and the true story. And then the information shows, overwhelmingly - one chief of police study showed that in - over 80 percent of the time when cameras are involved, it exonerated the cops who did the right thing. So the tool is a good tool, but law enforcement culture is afraid of change. And it's afraid of anything that will scrutinize their action and behavior.

The arrogance of - don't question us because we protect you - is a thing of the past. Steve Jobs made everyone now a director of a movie that could determine what the end of the script would be.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Adams. He was a New York City cop for 22 years and is now the Brooklyn borough president. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Eric Adams. We're talking about his dual perspective as a black man who protested police and also served as an NYPD officer for 22 years. He's now the Brooklyn borough president.

My understanding is that one of the reasons why you became a police officer is because when you were 15 you were beaten by police. You were arrested. You'd done something wrong. I - you'd broken into a place. And I don't know the story behind it, but, I mean, you broke the law.

You did something wrong. That didn't mean you should have been beaten. You were beaten to the point where you were pissing blood for about a week. So what did that do to you in terms of hating the police or wanting to become one?

ADAMS: My brother and I were both arrested together, and we were both abused together, and the police officers who arrested us did not hit us all over our body. They just kicked us in our groin repeatedly. And as you indicated, it caused the urination of blood for, you know, almost seven days.

And my brother left there hating cops, said he wanted nothing to do with cops. I left there with the belief that it was behind me. It was a bad encounter.

But as life went on, I realized that every time I saw a police vehicle, every time I watched a police show, every time I heard a siren, I relived that. And it never goes away.

And so I understood that there was a demon inside me. And the only way I can get it out is for me to go in, and going in meant becoming a police officer. And so that is why I went in with such an aggressive mindset of reform because I thought that if I spent a year, a year and a half, if I survive there long, of being extremely vocal that it would start the process.

And so I was angry. I was hurtful. But it became therapeutic for me that I was standing up for what I thought was right. And it allowed that demon to come out. And I feel I became a whole person because of that.

GROSS: So what was it like the first time you put on a police uniform and you looked at yourself in the mirror in that uniform that you had previously come to hate?

ADAMS: It was - it was life changing because you're right. You put on that uniform and you look in the mirror and you realize that when you put that uniform on you are also putting on the uniform of pain, the uniform of hate, the uniform of disgust. You're putting on the uniform that represented exploitation of people.

You're putting on a uniform that represented some of the partnership between the Klan and the hanging of black men. You're putting on the uniform of those who participated in some of the most horrific historical actions against the people that you were a part of. And then you're putting on that uniform that personally attempted to break your manhood.

And you look there - you look at it and you ask yourself, is this something you really want to do? And it took a while before I realized that, yes, you have to do this. This is the right thing to do. If I would not have done that, if I would not have gone through the fear of wearing that uniform, I would still be walking around a broken person.

GROSS: So when you did put on the uniform and become an officer, what did your brother think?

ADAMS: He felt that, you know, I betrayed what we stood for. Like many young black men, he felt that it was the wrong thing to do. He harbored a lot of hate and not only my brother but the young men I grew up with. Everyone felt that you become a sellout.

And that was part of what we wanted to change. We wanted to change the mindset that when you protect and serve your community you're not selling out. You are allowing other young people to get out of the way of violence, the way of police abuse.

And over time, when people saw how vociferous we were, it was a complete change of mindset. They understood that, hey, you can become a cop and not have to give up your soul in the process.

GROSS: Eric Adams, thank you so much for talking with us.

ADAMS: Thank you.

GROSS: Eric Adams served on the New York Police Department for 22 years. He's now the Brooklyn Borough President.


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with the showrunner of HBO'S comedy series "Veep," David Mandel, and comic Mike Birbiglia, who directed the new film "Don't Think Twice," check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Theresa Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

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