KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR.
To become a cop in Yonkers, you have to do a bunch of things. First, you have to take a written test. And then, if you score high enough, you have to take some physical tests - pushups, situps and running. So it's May 2022, and about a dozen potential police recruits are on a track at a high school in Yonkers. It's kind of like a track meet for adults. Half the runners are Black. Three are Latino. Three are white. Family and friends have come to watch. It's wet and cold, and the track is saturated from rain the night before. The timekeeper gets the group ready and gives them the rules.
UNIDENTIFIED TIMEKEEPER #1: This track - inside lane. Six laps - right? - from start to finish.
MCEVERS: The goal is to do a mile and a half and make it in a time determined by your age and gender.
UNIDENTIFIED TIMEKEEPER #1: Ready? Begin.
MCEVERS: One of the people cheering the runners is Shannen Hogue (ph).
LASHANNEN HOGUE: Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving. Let's go, young lady. Let's go. Keep moving. Keep moving.
MCEVERS: Shannen is a police officer. She also helps run a group called the Yonkers Guardians. It's the Black Police Association in Yonkers.
HOGUE: We cannot stop. We can slow. We cannot stop. Let's work. Let's work. Let's get this. Let's go. Let's go.
MCEVERS: After about 10 1/2 minutes, runners start crossing the finish line.
MCEVERS: But there's one who is struggling. Her name is Jessica Baker (ph). So to help her get to the finish line, Shannen and a bunch of the other Guardians start running with her.
HOGUE: Come on, Jess, let's go. Let's go, Jess.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Forward. Forward.
MCEVERS: Then, as Jessica is coming around the last corner, she just stops. She thought she'd crossed the finish line, but she hadn't. So Shannen and the other Guardians are like, don't stop, don't stop.
MCEVERS: Jessica gets herself back into a jog and manages to make it across the line. To pass this part of the police test, Jessica needed to finish in 14 minutes and 50 seconds. And her time...
UNIDENTIFIED TIMEKEEPER #2: 14:01.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.
MCEVERS: Fourteen minutes and one second. Shannen, who's out of breath from running with Jessica on that last lap, is pumped.
HOGUE: Couldn't have that. She worked too damn hard. Put in the work every single day. She never missed a session. She's overtime, extra time. Could not let her fail today.
MCEVERS: She goes over to Jessica and high-fives her.
HOGUE: That's for you, Jess. All day, all day.
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MCEVERS: And all of this - this running with people, helping them get to the finish line - it didn't just happen. It was actually part of a plan - a very simple, very straightforward plan to just get more Black people on the Yonkers police because right now, the Yonkers Police Department, like so many police departments around the country, does not look like the community it polices. Yonkers is 19% Black, 40% Latino, 6% Asian and 35% white, but the police force is overwhelmingly white.
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MCEVERS: Charlie Walker is a lieutenant on the Yonkers Police, and he's president of the Guardians. He's the one who came up with this plan. He says the only way to push the Yonkers police to be better is for people from the community to get on the force.
CHARLIE WALKER: To really effect progress, you have to be in that room with the power to make certain decisions. That's how things change.
MCEVERS: So that's what Charlie's doing. And in this episode, we'll watch him do it. We want to know, how do you get more Black officers on a force that for a hundred and fifty years has been very white? Like, what does that actually take? And then once you get more Black officers on, it's not like the problems are just over. So how do you get in that room to make the decisions, and does that actually make the police better? That's our show today, after this break.
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MCEVERS: OK, we're back. And I'm going to hand off the story to Dan Girma. He reported it, and he'll be telling it.
DAN GIRMA, BYLINE: When people in Yonkers say they want the police to reflect the community, they're talking about trust, trust that when there's an interaction with a cop - a traffic stop, a 911 call, whatever - that cop will be able to understand how they feel, relate to them. We got to see this play out one night in Yonkers.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: One of our lieutenants just pulled over a traffic stop down the block. We're going to go back and help, make sure everything's OK.
GIRMA: We're riding along with two Yonkers police officers, and we pull up to an intersection downtown. Cops have pulled over four men in a car for allegedly making an improper right turn. A handful of officers are standing around the car, some kind of sedan with tinted windows. Pretty soon, a lot more cops arrive - like, over a dozen. Turns out a high-ranking officer is the one who made the stop, so other cops come to back him up. One officer is talking to the people in the car. And the conversation - it gets tense fast.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Rear passenger, why are you so nervous? You're breathing very heavy back there.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: You're breathing very heavy back there. I'm serious. I'm looking at him. I'm looking at his chest. He's breathing very heavy. I'm a little worried.
GIRMA: Another officer asks the passenger for his ID, but he doesn't want to give it.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: All right. So you're going to go that route? You're not going to give me your identification?
GIRMA: At this point, one cop is shining a flashlight into the car. The driver and passengers are Black, but there's only one Black officer at the scene, Sean Berry. He's also standing by the driver's window. A white officer asks if he can see the hands of one of the passengers. And that's when Sean steps in. He starts talking to the driver. Turns out he recognizes him.
SEAN BERRY: Boss man, you know me. You know I know you. We good. You good. Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Fifteen to 20 different guns around me - that's what I'm worried about. You feel me?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #4: Nobody's got a gun out.
BERRY: Look, boss. Boss. Boss. You know me. We good. Yeah, we good. We good. We good. We good. We good. It's not that. You good. You Gucci. It's just - yeah, yeah.
GIRMA: Sean does what the other officers aren't able to do. He calms the driver down.
BERRY: But, you know, we drive by all the time, I show nothing but love.
GIRMA: Eventually, the cops do give the driver a ticket for the wrong turn and a warning for the tinted windows and a loud muffler. And the car drives away.
Being the only Black officer in a situation like this - it can be a burden. Because you can de-escalate the situation, now you're expected to. Charlie Walker, the head of the Guardians, says this is one big reason why he's pushing to get more Black officers on the force.
WALKER: Yeah, if you speak to any Black officer, there are plenty of times where you go to a scene, whether it be a traffic stop or, you know, a domestic - or any interaction with the public where representation matters, people who look like you matter.
GIRMA: One morning, we had breakfast with Charlie to talk about how he came up with this plan to get more Black cops into the Yonkers police. He's been an officer in Yonkers for 19 years, but he's kind of fell into this career by accident. Charlie grew up in School Street. It's a public housing complex in Yonkers - actually, where the rapper DMX was from. He moved there when he was 5, after his father died of cirrhosis. He tested well but was in trouble a lot at school. It was only in his junior year of high school that Charlie says he began to take school seriously, maybe even try for college. That lasted until, in his senior year, his mom died of cancer. After that, he had to take care of himself.
WALKER: Chef Boyardee was my friend for a long - that was my staple for a long time.
GIRMA: What was your favorite one?
WALKER: Raviolis. It was either that or just I didn't eat.
GIRMA: Charlie graduated high school and got some jobs - bartending at Red Lobster, working in a hospital and as a school safety officer. Then he took something called the civil service test. He wanted to be a firefighter, but the police called him first. And he got hired in 2003. When Charlie joined the force, there were only a handful of Black officers. He was an outsider, and people let him know it. One incident really got to him. He'd been on the job a few years.
WALKER: There were some shootings. There was, like, different blocks beefing with each other. A friend of mine got caught in that, and they did a raid on his house. And they found some old pictures. And there was a picture when we went to Great Adventures, like, years before I was a cop.
GIRMA: So the cops had found this old photo of the guy whose house they raided, and Charlie is in the photo, too. Later...
WALKER: I go back to the precinct one day, and the picture is stuck to my mailbox. And I'm pissed. I'm like, who the hell - what message are you trying to send to me?
GIRMA: To Charlie, this was offensive. Why was it wrong for him to know the people he was policing? And what were the other cops trying to say? You're one of them, therefore, we can't trust you. Charlie's experience as a Black officer in the Yonkers Police - all the discrimination he faced - well, Wilbert L. Cooper, a reporter at The Marshall Project - he says it's pretty common. I reached out to Will because he's been reporting on the experience of his own family, many of whom are police officers in Cleveland.
WILBERT L COOPER: My uncle - he came on to the department in 1957. When he was on the department, he experienced the otherness and alienation of being Black within the department. They had this thing called throwing a shoe, which was basically, when a white person would be partnered up with you, they would do anything not to work with you. A lot of times, white officers wouldn't speak to them at all, wouldn't offer any mentorship or training. And my uncle self-described his role on the department as being a token.
GIRMA: It's because of racism like this that, starting in the 1930s and '40s, Black officers started forming organizations just for them. The Yonkers Guardians were founded in the '60s, and around the same time in Cleveland, Will's uncle helped revive another group called The Black Shield.
COOPER: Their focus was on what they were dealing with inside because they were catching hell. They were called subversives, malcontents. And there was a very clear sense of the racism that they experienced as officers being intimately connected with the racism that Black people experienced through the institution of policing.
GIRMA: In Yonkers, Charlie didn't join the Guardians immediately. But six years into the job, he got posted to the Community Affairs Division. It's the part of the police department that deals with recruitment. And he began to realize just how big a diversity problem the force had.
WALKER: I started looking at the history of the department, how many applicants we were getting, how many were actually Black and just seeing the numbers. And they were dismal (laughter).
GIRMA: So Charlie started asking about this. Why are there so Few black recruits? He eventually went to the guardians. And they told him that Black recruitment had been a problem in Yonkers for decades. In fact, in the '80s, Black officers in Yonkers and other neighboring cities actually sued over discriminatory hiring practices. It was part of a wave of lawsuits in cities across the country, including, says Wil Cooper, in Cleveland. There, the result was a legally binding agreement with the government requiring reform.
COOPER: And they were able to get a consent decree filed that forced racial hiring quotas.
GIRMA: And the Yonkers police were given a consent decree, too, one they had to follow. And the departments actually got more diverse while the decrees were in place. But once they expired, things quickly reverted back. Across the country, police departments are still mostly white. In fact, in the cases of Cleveland and Yonkers, Black recruitment actually got worse. When Charlie Walker saw the recruitment numbers and learned about this long and troubled recruitment history, he went to the mayor and the police commissioner at the time and told them straight out...
WALKER: Here's the problem. You guys are in power. How are we going to do something about this?
GIRMA: And Charlie says, they reply, yes. There is a problem here. But there's not much we can do to fix it.
WALKER: You know, at first, it's disappointment. Then it's anger.
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WALKER: Then it's acceptance of the fact that certain people aren't going to prioritize what you believe is as important or as high on your personal list of priorities. Then you kind of had to take it into your own hands and say, OK. What are we going to do?
GIRMA: The answer for Charlie was the plan. It worked this way. Charlie, at first alone and, eventually, with the help of the guardians, would go into the Black community and find candidates for the police. Then he'd help those candidates prepare for the entrance exam. But he wouldn't stop there. If someone passed the exam, then Charlie would help them get ready for the next part of the process, like the physical test. And it started working. The number of Black officers hired in the 2010s almost doubled compared to the previous decade.
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GIRMA: But even with all this work, their ultimate goal, getting the same percentage of Black officers on the force as Black people in the community, still seemed out of reach. Right now, there are 45 Black officers on the Yonkers Police Department, about 8% of the force, for a city that's 19% Black. Then in 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Suddenly, people across the country started demanding change. And the Yonkers police started to change their thinking about recruitment, started to agree with Charlie, who by now was president of the guardians. In the spring of 2021, they finally launched a big diversity recruitment drive.
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UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #5: The Yonkers police is hiring.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #6: And we want you to take the test.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #7: We are looking for a diverse group of men and women to help keep Yonkers moving forward.
GIRMA: It was called Be the Change, like be the change you want to see in the world. And it urged people to sign up for the upcoming police entrance exam.
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JOHN MUELLER: To download an application.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #8: Be a hero.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #9: Be a hero.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #10: Be a hero.
MUELLER: Be a hero. Be the change.
GIRMA: To Charlie, be the change wasn't the greatest message.
WALKER: I would have liked help us to be the change (laughter), right? Is acknowledging that we need to do a work. And it's a collective.
GIRMA: But he'd take it. Charlie's hope was the program could help with one of the biggest obstacles to Black recruitment, the entrance exam, a statewide test that all aspiring officers take. For decades, Black candidates have scored a bit lower on the exam than white candidates. The state has actually audited the exam for potential biases. In Yonkers, Charlie has tried to convince city leadership that if they widen the pool of candidates, the force would get much more diverse much more quickly.
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GIRMA: But, he says, the leadership has a lot of reasons why that won't work. They'd have to lobby to change state policy. They're not allowed to make a quota. The head of the police union at one point even said Charlie's plan was equivalent to changing the rules for, quote, "subsets of people."
WALKER: You don't even understand how ridiculous that statement is. And I just don't think they get it. And I think it's benign neglect.
GIRMA: Finally, with the be the change recruitment drive, there seemed to be an acknowledgement that something needed to be done about testing. The program did more than just urge people to take the test, it also offered free prep classes and had current cops sponsor candidates and pay their test fees. During the city's annual Juneteenth celebration at a big park on the river, recruitment was in full swing. Two Black officers were working the crowd. Lashannen Hogue, who you heard earlier cheering at that running test, and Sean Berry, who you also heard earlier at that traffic stop.
BERRY: How are you doing, my love? Come take one of these right here. We're giving away free pizza. You guys want one? Come over here, man.
BERRY: Come take this test, man.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I'm good.
BERRY: What you mean you good? Why you got on that...
GIRMA: Shannon and Sean are set up far off to the side under a small tent, trying to get people passing by to sign up for the test. They talk up how good the base pay is, over $70,000, and promise they'll help applicants with test prep, cover the test fee. But people just aren't interested.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I'm not taking one of these.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I'm not going to apply.
BERRY: Come take this test, man. Cut it out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I don't want to.
BERRY: How much money do you make that's more than me. I want to know.
GIRMA: As the afternoon wears on, it's pretty clear that a lot of people don't want to be police officers. Many won't even look their way. The murder of George Floyd remains a huge blow to the already strained relationship between Black people and the police.
HOGUE: This recruitment season has been a little more tough than before. The climate hasn't necessarily helped with recruitment this year.
GIRMA: Later in the afternoon, a woman named Shaniqua (ph) stops by the tent. And their conversation gets to the heart of the recruitment problem. Shaniqua asks Sean, what's it like being a Black officer in Yonkers?
BERRY: I'll tell you straight up, it's very hard.
SHANIQUA: That's the root of - we got to get to the root. You know what I'm saying?
HOGUE: Being a Black officer in Yonkers, I think, is like being a Black officer anywhere, right? You're going to run into adversity. It ain't going to be sweet.
SHANIQUA: I'm just saying, it's so outnumbered.
HOGUE: Yeah. Yeah.
SHANIQUA: I think that's why enrollment may be so low is because when you come up in these communities, you don't see cops that look like you.
BERRY: Somebody eligible and a viable candidate like you, you don't want to take it.
SHANIQUA: Because of those things.
HOGUE: So what do we change?
BERRY: What would you change? Yeah.
HOGUE: How will it change?
BERRY: If not you, who?
HOGUE: How will it change?
BERRY: If not now, when?
SHANIQUA: That's the burden, right? That's a lot.
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GIRMA: Shaniqua's right. Changing the police - it is a burden, especially when it's people who feel they've been mistreated by police who are now being tasked with changing the police. But still, there are some people in Yonkers who are willing to try, who decide to go all-in on Charlie's plan.
MCEVERS: After the break, we'll follow some of them through that process. We'll see what challenges there are once a Black candidate actually becomes a cop, and we'll ask some bigger questions about whether Charlie's plan to get more Black candidates on the force and more Black officers in positions of power actually makes the police better.
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MCEVERS: OK, we're back. And here's Dan again.
GIRMA: Danielle Santos (ph) grew up in Yonkers. And she learned early that in Yonkers, the police are people you try to avoid.
DANIELLE SANTOS: It was just one of those things that it's just like, keep away. Keep your distance so that you're safe, so that you're good.
GIRMA: But even though she's grown up keeping cops at arm's length, she did have thoughts about becoming one herself. She had five aunts in the NYPD. And as a single mother, becoming a cop would bring Danielle a lot of financial stability. Right now, she works two jobs - in sales at an Apple store and as a school aide at a local K-12. And Danielle always felt that she had a connection with the Yonkers Police Department. It's a connection that goes back to her mother.
SANTOS: My mom passed the test for Yonkers police and was going through the process of becoming an officer. And my grandmother and her sister talked her out of it. And they just - they said to her, like, listen, you know, you're a single mother. You're all that your daughter has.
GIRMA: Her mom was also a single mother when she was trying to become a cop. And relatives would say things like, what would happen to your daughter if something happens to you?
SANTOS: That's very dangerous. If something happens to you, she's not going to have anybody. So my mom decided not to do that.
GIRMA: That story stuck with Danielle. And when the George Floyd protests sprang up across the country, including in Yonkers, she started having even more doubts about whether she should join the police.
SANTOS: Like, you know, am I betraying my community by becoming a cop, or am I going to be someone who actually gets on the force and makes a difference?
GIRMA: In 2021, when Yonkers began it's Be the Change recruitment drive, Danielle started seeing posters about the police exam all over the city. And she felt like there's got to be a reason for all this.
SANTOS: You know, when you see something so much and it's in your face, I was like, this is a sign. You know, it's something that I feel like I have to do. My mother passed away - it's going to be three years in July. So I wish she was here now so I could kind of discuss with her, like, what she was going through with that process when she took the test. And my mom busted her ass to make sure that we were good. And I want to do the same for my son, but I want to do it in a way where, you know, I'm getting something back from it.
GIRMA: Finally, Danielle decided she'd do it. She tried to become a Yonkers cop. In September of 2021, she took the police entrance exam. After you take the test, you have to wait for months to find out how you did. So Danielle waited. Until...
SANTOS: I got a call saying that, you know, this is the Yonkers Guardians, and we're reaching out because we're having a meeting.
GIRMA: The Guardians member tells Danielle she has scored well enough on the test to go to the next stage of recruitment and that the Guardians are inviting Black candidates like her to get together and talk about what's next. Danielle had never heard of the Guardians. She didn't even realize there were Black cops in Yonkers until she saw one make a speech at the George Floyd protests. At the time, it had rubbed her the wrong way.
SANTOS: I kind of feel like they made him stand up there like a pawn - you know, kind of like, oh, speak to your community. That's kind of how it came off because then when you're walking the streets and you're being patrolled, you don't see any officers that look like him.
GIRMA: But Danielle wanted to meet these Black cops she'd never seen. So one rainy winter evening, she drove over to a community center on the north side of town.
WALKER: My name is Lieutenant Charles Walker. Everyone you see here tonight is an officer, and some are retired officers. I'm going to go real quick and introduce them.
GIRMA: In all, there were 12 Black officers and two retired Black officers in the room.
SANTOS: Seeing them all there on Tuesday, you know, all of them lined up at the front of the room, it looked like "The Avengers." I've never seen so many Black cops in Yonkers, ever.
GIRMA: Charlie Walker promises the candidates, the Guardians are going to be there for them.
WALKER: We teach a class on test prep, which some of you had attended, but we also see you the entire way through. There's not enough of us on this job. Our intent is to get all of us on this job.
GIRMA: It's kind of amazing, frankly - the amount of outreach, finding candidates, the phone calls, prepping for that test, then finding the ones who scored well, getting them all in a room at the same time to tell them that the support isn't over. We'll help you train for the physical. We want you to join us. Other Black police organizations in the U.S. have also taken on the task of diversifying the forces they serve. Will Cooper says that it's because they have to because, for years, police departments haven't.
COOPER: I think that's the key thing that is maybe on one side, inspiring, but also maybe a little troubling about this is that we see a lot of the same sort of tactics and approaches going back into the '70s.
WALKER: I think what it signifies is that it's definitely an ongoing battle.
GIRMA: It's a battle that Charlie Walker and the Guardians intend to keep fighting because it has made a difference. It's why Danielle is here. It's also why Steven Burton (ph), another candidate, is here. Steven wasn't even trying to become a cop. Then, one day, out of the blue...
STEVEN BURTON: I just got a phone call from a police officer saying, hey, you registered for this Be the Change. And I was like, I have no idea what you're talking about.
GIRMA: What's Be the Change? I didn't sign up for anything. But Steven didn't hang up the phone, kept talking with the officer, learned that Yonkers was trying to hire more Black people to the police department. And it caught his interest.
BURTON: I didn't really see, like, a lot of minority cops in this department. And that's one of the things that I really would like to see.
GIRMA: Steven grew up in the Bronx and had many experiences with the cops, mostly white ones.
BURTON: Whenever I got pulled over or got stopped by police officers, the first thing they asked me is, where are you going, or whose car is this? It's always an aggressive tone with police officers.
GIRMA: After that phone call with the Yonkers cop and thinking about his own experience, Steven ultimately decided that if he wanted things to change, he should do something about it.
BURTON: I didn't think I would ever even want to be a police officer. The driving factor behind it all is just wanting to see change in the system because it starts with police officers.
GIRMA: So Steven took the police exam and scored really well. And he got a call, like Danielle, to come meet the Yonkers Guardians. Near the end of the meeting, the possible recruits were invited to ask questions.
WALKER: Any of you want to come up and ask any of the officers any questions, now?
GIRMA: Steven was the first to raise his hand.
BURTON: Once you get hired and you go through the academy and everything - right? - and you do your year probation, how long does it take to be - after patrol, to be in a specialized unit?
WALKER: I like the ambition. I like the ambition. I like the ambition. I like ambition.
GIRMA: It's actually an important question. How do cops, and specifically Black cops, advance in their careers? That is a hard question to answer because the truth is Black officers face some big obstacles after they make it onto the force. Right now, as a lieutenant, Charlie Walker is the highest-ranking Black officer in the Yonkers Police. In fact, according to the Guardians, lieutenant is the highest that any Black officer has reached in the history of the department. And only three officers, Charlie included, have ever reached it. No Black captains. No Black chiefs. No Black commissioners.
To officers like Sean Berry, the lack of Black people in positions of power is pretty discouraging. Right now, Sean is just a police officer - the lowest rank. But his goal is to make detective, a promotion that's very competitive. To help his chances, Sean joined his precinct's anti-crime unit. And he's been getting support from a senior Black officer who had the same goal as Sean.
BERRY: He was one of the people that took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, and now he's a detective.
GIRMA: This is something that happens a lot in police departments - an older cop helping someone early in their career. But Sean says there are still plenty of cops who are put off by the help he's getting from his fellow Black officers.
BERRY: Like, I've heard that for me a lot. Oh, the Guardians are pushing his career forward. Like, come on, bro.
GIRMA: And Sean notices the struggle Black officers go through when it comes to advancing. In fact, when he first became a cop, he was told just not to expect to get certain jobs.
BERRY: When I first got here, I remember the conversation was actually with a Black officer. I said, you know, how do you get to this place? And the Black officer looked at me and he said, man, you ain't going there, bro. Unless you're connected, you're not going there. A lot of us are nervous or we feel like - I don't know the exact - we feel like, you know, they're not going to look out for me. It's not going to be me. It's going to be somebody else. But if we had two lieutenants, a captain, you know, who's Black, I would assume he's going to look out for people that look like him.
GIRMA: Charlie Walker believes there are still lots of systemic problems that keep Black officers from advancing. One is the selection process for certain jobs. To become a detective, for instance, an officer has to be chosen by a panel. It's called the Detective Selection Board. That panel has no Black officers on it. When Charlie asked for that to change, the department said no.
WALKER: You have Black officers that have no faith in that process at all.
GIRMA: Another problem - testing. Cops who want to reach high rank positions - sergeant, lieutenant, captain - they have to take promotional exams. And Black officers are having trouble competing with other officers. And this isn't just a Yonkers issue. Promotions have been a particular problem for Black police across the country. Some police departments have even been sued and forced to investigate the promotional exams for potential biases.
All this got us wondering, why can't Yonkers offer testing support for the promotional exams in the same way it's offering support for new recruits taking the entrance exam? One day, we visited police commissioner John Mueller and we asked him, what if you made something like Be the Change but for promotions? Mueller said that they aren't comparable. He says everyone has the same opportunity to get a higher rank once they're on the force. It's up to those officers to want to advance. And even if he wanted to change the process, Mueller says, he doesn't have that kind of power.
MUELLER: We don't control how we promote. It's state civil service law. I can't change the law. I can't say I want to uplift African American lieutenants and I want to make them captains if they don't score high enough. And it is an imperfect system. It is.
GIRMA: Mueller thinks that if you get more Black cops on the ground level, the entry level, it will trickle up to higher positions in the department over time.
MUELLER: Like, the first step is you get, you know, a diverse class of officers coming in, right? Once they come in, now you have more people that are of color that now are eligible to take the sergeant test. And then more people of color that are sergeants to take the lieutenants test and so on and so forth.
GIRMA: We asked Will about this. Is Mueller right? Can a bottom-up approach work?
COOPER: I think the real question is, how can we overcome this deliberate effort to limit the power of Blacks within a police department? Having a targeted approach for promotions, even though that is one that might be the most hotly contested, it's important because if all the people in supervisor-type roles don't look like you, you may have less of an ability to tap into that informal mentorship relationship that somebody else would.
GIRMA: There's another thing that we need to talk about. Obviously, one of the big goals of diversifying the police is to make departments reflect the communities they serve. But if that happens, there's an assumption that police will be able to do their jobs with less force. But studies show that diversity and safety is a bit more complicated than just adding more Black officers. Some data says it can only make some things better, like use of force, but not other things, like shootings. We asked Will about this, too. If having more Black officers on a police force does not make the police safer, what's the point?
COOPER: When we talk about these bigger systemic issues with policing, policing has limited tools. You know, what can police do? They can detain you. They can use violence to stop a situation. Like, they don't have that many tools. And so I think for people who really want to see a deeper, systemic kind of change with policing, it might be too much pressure to put on Black officers. It's sort of like basketball. You know, you can put new players on the court, but the rules of the game remain the same. But on the other hand, I do think that there are instances where Black officers can make a real impact.
In Cleveland, there was an incident where Black nationalists and police officers got into a shootout in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland that kind of spilled over into a bigger disturbance in the city. And the mayor at the time was a Black man named Carl Stokes. And he decided, I'm only going to send in Black officers. The choice really cost him his political career because there was still some property damage and stuff that was done. But when you really think about that situation, it was a resounding success because no one else died. And for him, that tradeoff was worth it.
In his memoir, he says something like, I just didn't believe that Black officers would go in there and kill Black people. That was his conviction. That was his decision. Black officers might care about their community in such a way that would drive them to go above and beyond. That's not totally changing policing or totally revamping the system in one way, but there's value to that.
GIRMA: In May 2022, the first batch of recruits helped by the Yonkers Guardians took the physical test. Danielle, the single mom who was on the fence at first about becoming a cop, decided to defer the physical. You can do that for up to a year if you feel you aren't ready.
SANTOS: I deferred because my run time is not where it's supposed to be. I'm conflicted. I think it's more of a mental thing at this point.
GIRMA: So for now, Danielle continues to work at the Apple store and as a school aide as she trains for the run. Steven Burton was ready, was on the track the day of the running test. And Shannen Hogue, one of the leaders of the Guardians, was on the sidelines cheering him on.
HOGUE: Good, Steve. Good, Steve. Good, Steve. Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving.
My nerves. I feel like this is me. I feel like I'm out here right now - serious.
Keep moving, sir. Keep moving. You got this. You got this.
GIRMA: As he reached the final straight, Shannen and the other members of the Guardians were waiting for him at the finish line.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Come on, Steven. Let's get it, Steven. Get it. Get it. Get it.
GIRMA: When Steven crossed the finish line, he let out this emphatic yell.
BURTON: Oh, yeah. Finally did it. Made it under 10:30.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Yes.
GIRMA: Steven had to finish his run in 12 minutes and 53 seconds, and he smashed that number. In fact, all 15 Guardians candidates who took the physical test that day passed it. Every one of them will be a Yonkers police officer.
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MCEVERS: Coming up, what Will was just saying about how policing has limited tools.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: She needed help mentally. She didn't need to be punished.
MCEVERS: That's our next episode.
This episode was reported, produced and mixed by Dan Girma. It was mastered by Robert Rodriguez and edited by Jenny Schmidt, Leslie Eaton and Bruce Auster. We had production help from Nick Fountain, Lee Hale and Annie Iezzi. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. Researcher is Tracy Brannstrom. Our fact-checker is William Brennan. Our lawyer is the great Micah Ratner. Our boss is Anya Grundmann. Big thanks to Nicole Beemsterboer and Neal Carruth. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. We will be back with more from Yonkers next week. Meanwhile, subscribe if you haven't already and leave reviews. Tell your friends about us. Follow us @nprembedded on Twitter. Thanks for listening.
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