What happens to police reform when a police chief leaves? : Embedded The series concludes: we check back in with John Mueller after his resignation as head of the Yonkers Police Department. And we consider what his departure means for police reform efforts in the city at a time when tensions between police and some members of the community remain high.

Changing the Police: The Walk-Out

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just a warning before we get started. This episode has some strong language.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR.

JOHN MUELLER: So I just walk out?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Go for it.

MUELLER: OK.

(CHEERING)

MCEVERS: On April 29, 2022, something kind of surprising happened in Yonkers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Greet your family and the mayor.

MCEVERS: Police Commissioner John Mueller, who you have heard throughout this series, retired a year and a half before his term was up. The traditional retirement ceremony for cops in these parts is called a walk-out. As Mueller walked out of police headquarters for the last time, dozens of people - family and friends and colleagues and cops and community leaders and elected officials - were waiting for him in the parking lot. And then they do this thing where a police dispatcher reads out a tribute on the radio so all the cops around the city can hear.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Throughout his career, Police Commissioner John J. Mueller has rendered honorable and efficient service to the Yonkers Police Department.

MCEVERS: And afterwards, Mueller walks around, shakes hands, gives hugs.

MUELLER: All right, let me just move back in here and say hello.

MCEVERS: A lot of people say how sad they are he's leaving. After all, he was the commissioner who went to all the neighborhood meetings, stayed way past the time they were over, gave out his cellphone number and answered people's calls.

MUELLER: I'm sorry. It's going to take a while. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: And, yes, retirements are sad. But when it comes to police reform - remember, we talked about this in the first episode - when a big personality who is clearly a huge part of that reform leaves, then what?

Your real strong suit is that you have a way of convincing people and have a way of talking to people. And so I think the concern is, when the salesman is gone, who's going to sell all the stuff?

MUELLER: Somebody's going to have to sell. I don't - you know, I'm sure they will. I have absolutely no doubt. I think they're going to be fine with it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It won't be fine when John Mueller leaves. It could go back. Yonkers - there's a tendency, right? No one's watching the store. You really need to monitor to make sure it's being maintained.

MCEVERS: Coming up, two takes on Mueller's departure and an idea of how cops might do that thing we talked about so much in this series - find a way to account for the past. That's coming up after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK, we're back. John Mueller wasn't planning on retiring before his term was up in 2024, but he knew he was going to have to get a new job at some point. So he says when he got recruited for a good job that would be a step up for him, he went for it. He is now the chief of police at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates commuter buses and trains in and out of New York City.

Mueller's replacement as commissioner of the Yonkers Police Department is Chris Sapienza. He came up through the ranks of the department. He's a white guy. He's got 27 years on the job. Sapienza is quieter than Mueller, much less of a people person, I'm told. After Mueller walked out that day, Sapienza gave a short speech at City Hall and promised to keep up with at least some of Mueller's reforms.

CHRIS SAPIENZA: As far as hiring in the future, we're definitely looking towards a more diverse police department, and that's a priority for me. And as far as strategies, I do believe in community-based policing. Community policing is the one thing that's been proven to work. So we're going to stick with that and improve on those relations.

MCEVERS: It is, of course, too early to know if Sapienza will do what he says he's going to do. One thing that isn't changing is the DOJ. The Department of Justice will still be monitoring the Yonkers police, which means that list of reforms we told you about that Yonkers is required to make - it's now on Sapienza to complete the list, to end the DOJ oversight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So on the day of Mueller's retirement, after all the goodbyes were finished, we went and met him at his house. It's in this very suburban suburb called Pleasantville. He shows us around his garden.

MUELLER: I like to just stick with native plants. And...

MCEVERS: At one point, two little girls set up a lemonade stand across the street. Mueller buys us drinks and popcorn.

MUELLER: People walk by, you see? Like, it's a real sidewalk-type town.

MCEVERS: Eventually, we sit down. And we start by asking Mueller first about the DOJ.

Did you think about the DOJ in your decision, and would it have been nice to have had that chapter closed also?

MUELLER: I would have loved to have - yeah. No, that definitely - you know, I was hoping to get it done before I left. That was one of my main goals. And I think we're almost there. So, yeah, I - if I could do it all over again, I would have loved to have seen that through. But at the end of the day, we have all these things in place, and we have these accountability measures. Everyone knows what the rules are. They're following the rules, by and large. So I mean, that alone is a real achievement, I think, for everybody. And I think we are better 'cause of them. And I say that all the time.

MCEVERS: We know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We ask Mueller what he would have done differently while he was commissioner - a project manager to help implement the DOJ reforms faster - what he's most proud of - his relationship with the community. And then we ask about all those reforms we heard him talk about and watched him put in place. What's going to happen with them? The training center to train cops in de-escalation?

MUELLER: So that - those wheels are in motion, but, like...

MCEVERS: The 911 diversion program we talked about in the last episode.

MUELLER: The county set it up, and we've embraced it wholeheartedly.

MCEVERS: The procedural justice training to train cops to be more respectful and transparent.

MUELLER: That continues. You know, we have, you know, a contract, you know, with the company to teach...

MCEVERS: The Mom Summit, that program to identify kids who are starting to commit crimes and help them.

MUELLER: Wow. I hope that continues. I think it will.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: One of the things that if you talk to, you know, policing experts and people who study this stuff and who know more about it than I do, is that one of the things that really can hamper police reform is the fact that commissioners do move on. Sometimes, they get pushed out, right? Sometimes, they're going onto bigger and better things, right? And it's this feeling of two steps forward, one step back, you know?

MUELLER: Mmm-hmm.

MCEVERS: How do you sit with that? Like, how - surely you thought about that.

MUELLER: I have, but I think that would happen in NPR. I think it would happen with elected officials. I think it would have happened if this (ph) - you know, a CEO of Motorola or Amazon, you know? Like, you always run the risk of, you know, change for the worse when there's an adjustment. I think we're at a point - maybe I'm wrong, but I think we're at the point where it's embedded. Like, I think everybody realizes that this has real value.

MCEVERS: When Mueller says everybody, he means cops and supervisors up and down the system. To do this kind of reform, he says it takes a lot of people. And he believes they will keep doing that work.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "TALLTELL")

MCEVERS: One of the main things I wanted to ask Mueller about is this thing we spent a lot of time on in the series. How do you address allegations of wrongdoing in the past, the grievances many people in Yonkers still have that the police did wrong but were not held accountable?

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "TALLTELL")

MCEVERS: And so we asked Mueller if he's ever thought about something like a truth-and-reconciliation process for people and police to get together and talk. This is something that's actually been done in a handful of cities - LA, Las Vegas, Stockton, Calif., Rockford, Ill. And the idea is people who have been harmed are able to come forward and be heard by police and other officials. And then the two groups work together on a way to repair the relationship. Mueller, at first, is defensive about the idea of something like this happening in Yonkers, but you can see his wheels turning.

MUELLER: I - you know, I mean, listen, let's think about, like, the practicality of that because so many of the officers now - you know, just say pre-DOJ. So pre-DOJ was 2007. So anyone from 2006, there's almost no one who's still a police officer on patrol that lived through that or worked in that capacity or, you know, experienced that type of policing. So you're yelling at people that don't know anything about this.

MCEVERS: It's not just yelling at cops, I tell him. It'd be like those public forums that Yonkers had after George Floyd. And we talked about them in the first episode. People came forward, talked about their experiences with the police, in part, because the governor of New York mandated it. But this time, the cops would be in the room, too. And I tell him, it doesn't matter if the cops who did the harm aren't on the force anymore. And people who organize these sessions say it's more important for those who were harmed to be heard and for all police to hear them. At first, Mueller was like, oh, we already do this. But then, he's like, hmm, maybe we don't.

MUELLER: You know, I think the best way that you can do this, No. 1, is, you know, I think the relation we have with our community also helps us because we're in every single meeting everywhere. We have community council meetings. Anybody can come to and say anything - the things they said. But you're right, the cops aren't there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "TWO DOLLAR TOKEN")

MCEVERS: Let's say someone's cousin got beat up by a cop. And that cop is still on the force, and they see him every day on the street. And they're like, I don't know. Should I help that cop solve crimes? Should I go to community meetings? Should I go to these workshops? Probably not. But if there was something for that person, some way, some outlet for that person to not - to know that things are changing, to feel that things are changing, to not be afraid anymore, to feel like there's accountability...

MUELLER: And are you - is this something that happened 17 years ago? Like, how do you walk back? Do you...

MCEVERS: But if the person's still on the force, does it matter when it happened?

MUELLER: Are they on patrol? Are they - like, when they say they see them every day...

MCEVERS: It doesn't matter to them where they work.

MUELLER: Yeah. They're on the job, and...

MCEVERS: Right.

MUELLER: You know, I don't think...

MCEVERS: Or that - or even just, like - they're still getting a really good - nice pension. I mean, I think that gets to people. A person feels aggrieved. Like, somebody got a shot, and I didn't. And that will never be resolved in their mind, right?

MUELLER: Do you think that having this session would resolve it in their mind?

MCEVERS: I have no idea.

MUELLER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: I just wondered if you, now, given that you can sort of think - look at - look back - like, what could work?

MUELLER: I think - I don't know if the feelings are that deep, that it's beneficial to, you know, get those two groups together. Maybe it's more beneficial to say as a department, we understand what happened with you. And we - you know, I'd like to bring you in and show you what we're doing differently now. I don't know. And I - it's funny because most of the time when you throw a problem at me, 'cause I've been doing this for 30 years, I can say, oh, you do this or that. Like, I don't know how you do that. That's a tough one. That's, like, a level four brain twister, you know? It really is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: If you had to end this documentary, how would you end it?

MUELLER: End it in terms of, like, how to close it out? So...

MCEVERS: How would you end it?

MUELLER: How do you end it? We've been together for a year - right? - about that, and it's been a rather tumultuous time for everybody. But I'm going to tell you this. I'm going to make a prediction that we are entering into a golden age of policing in America.

MCEVERS: What he means is he thinks the Black Lives Matter movement that has put a spotlight on policing and pushed police to reform has made lasting changes. Even though crime has gone up in some cities and towns around the country, and we're hearing a lot of calls to refund the police, he says police actually won't go back to the old ways of stop and frisk and mass arrests.

MUELLER: These last couple of years, obviously, we've gone back the opposite way, where cops are much more hands off. So I think we're going to find our balance between those great strategies of keeping crime low, but also be much more mindful of how those strategies impact the community and getting rid of the worst of them. So I think that's where we're going to - we're settling in now to a balance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: A few days later, I went to see Karen Edmondson. Remember, she's the former head of the NAACP in Yonkers whose work collecting people's complaints about the police resulted in the DOJ coming to investigate in 2007. And remember, at first she didn't trust Mueller because he came up through the ranks of the Yonkers police, and she figured he must have been part of that past of misconduct. But then she watched his reform, and she came around.

KAREN EDMONSON: Mueller really made an effort to try to work with the community. And he has a special, innovative gene that he's not - whether you agree or disagree with him, that he's not locked into position. He's very open.

MUELLER: Her worry is there just won't be another John Mueller, which she pronounces as Mueller, and that that will set the department back.

EDMONDSON: I don't know if we're going to have someone with the combination of street-savvy community engagement and that thinking out the box, the innovative ideas. I don't see that happening.

MCEVERS: Karen's not happy with how fast the mayor of Yonkers appointed Mueller's successor. She would have liked a long, careful public search. But she says she is willing to see what the new commissioner will do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: I tell Karen about our reporting in this series and how we found people who were still scared to come forward and make complaints against the police. And I ask her about a truth and reconciliation process for Yonkers. And even though she's out of the game now - Karen is no longer the head of the NAACP; she has a job in publishing - she says if Mueller were still around, she would push him to find a way to get cops in the same room with people in the community.

EDMONDSON: Some way of saying to the police officers, we're not attacking you, but for you younger people, these are real lives - right? - 'cause now we have a new generation of cops, and we just want - these are real lives you've affected, and that in order to make your job easier, we need you to say we weren't the ones. We hear you. We're going to make sure that moving forward, we don't make these same mistakes. That's all. It's like me saying to you, I want reparations. And you're going to say, oh, my God, my family wasn't even here. Like, but I'm sorry, and for my generation and my kids and my friends, we'll make sure this doesn't happen again.

MCEVERS: Mueller, of course, is gone, and Karen can't push him to do this, but she does still have ideas for Mueller's successor.

EDMONDSON: Honestly, me, I would be ballsy, and during police graduation, bring someone from the outside and these people and say you're all new officers and just have a segment of the program where it's, like, healing and this is how we're going to move, 'cause that's when you're going to get people's attention. For you new graduates, for - 'cause we know their uncles, cousins, fathers are going to be sitting in the audience that are all cops too - and say we've made great strides. These are the things that happened in the past. These are the people. There are real lives here.

MCEVERS: And, Karen says, the police need to make more assurances to people that they won't be punished for coming forward.

EDMONDSON: Like, someone has to address why people are still fearful. The police department has to publicly assure people there won't be retaliation on my watch. The mayor has to say that, say I - take my word. There will be consequences if there is retaliation. That's all.

MCEVERS: One last thing Yonkers can do, Karen says, is something she's been pushing for all these years, but it still hasn't happened - a civilian review agency. More than 100 cities in the U.S. have these. It's like a board of directors that oversees the police. It's appointed by the mayor. The board sets policies, oversees operations, sometimes reviews complaints by people in the community. That way, Karen says, the city of Yonkers and the police department could build on all of the reforms they have already made, communicate those reforms to people and go from there.

EDMONDSON: It's a two-pronged approach. It's - this is where we are today. This is the progress we've made. And we're here to make sure that we don't regress. That's what it should be, right? It should be part listen, it's not all bad. But we're here to make sure that we don't go back, which is really my thing. We don't want to go back.

MCEVERS: There's just one more thing we want to talk about, something that recently happened in Yonkers that made some people say that police department is already going back now that Mueller is gone. Other people had the opposite opinion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yo, yo, y'all bugging.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm recording. I'm recording.

MCEVERS: It's this video that went viral. It shows a Black woman who has been tackled to the ground and is being handcuffed by two white police officers. It's happening right outside a juice bar in Yonkers that's owned by a well-known rapper named Styles P. Styles P at first is telling the woman not to resist arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STYLES P: Yo, sister, loosen up. Loosen up.

MCEVERS: And then he and the woman who's recording all of this - they're both Black - start yelling at the cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's a girl, by the way. And I got you on camera. I hope you got me on camera.

STYLES P: You's (ph) a whole b****.

MCEVERS: Styles P later apologized to his followers, saying that while he believes it's important to step up when you see something wrong, you don't want to escalate a situation and make it more dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They antagonized that girl - not guys. They don't antagonize guys. Y'all antagonize dyke girls. Girls, f***ing girls. A f***ing girl. A f***ing girl. A f***ing girl, n****.

MCEVERS: Anyway, the next day, the Yonkers police released their own video of the incident from one of the cops' body cams. It shows the cops approach the woman and ask for the registration of her moped. The cops later said she had been driving the moped erratically, and they say reckless driving of mopeds and scooters is the No. 1 quality of life complaint in Yonkers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Doesn't that make sense? This is crazy.

MCEVERS: So the cops talk to her for a while. And then the woman runs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're not getting away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Stop. Why y'all trying to (inaudible). Why are you trying to take my bike? Come on, I'm (inaudible). I'm not resisting arrest. I'm not resisting arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: You're under arrest.

MCEVERS: And that's when they tackle her to the ground, and out comes Styles P and the rest of it.

(SOUNDITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STYLES P: Yo, he's a b****.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Back up.

MCEVERS: What's interesting about this is the way people reacted. Like with so many things these days, it was like there were two totally different versions. Online, people were praising Styles P for stepping in and saying the cops were way too rough with the woman. And several people from Yonkers sent the video to me like, see? See how the cops treat us? On the Yonkers Police Facebook page, people were praising the cops. Yonkers Police Union posted this on its official Facebook page. Please watch this video. Please see the s*** that Yonkers cops face on a daily basis. Please see the incredible amount of patience and fortitude they have doing the toughest job imaginable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Dan Girma and me and edited by Jenny Schmidt, with help from Bruce Auster. It was mixed by Dan and by Lee Hale. It was mastered by Gilly Moon. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. Our researcher is Tracy Brannstrom. Our fact-checker is William Brennan. Our lawyer is Micah Ratner. Our boss is Anya Grundmann. Big thanks to Nicole Beemsterboer and Neal Carruth. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. Thanks also to Jonathan Alvarez, Stuart Barksdale Sr., Ruth Baldwin, Kendall Carter, Gary Certain, Maddie Cheatham Walker, Debbie Cohen, Ken Davis, Primitiva Diaz (ph), Tasha Diaz, Frank D. Dimitzio, Sabian Evans, Ray Fitzpatrick, Shadi Gilchrist, Christina Gilmartin, Mark Juliano, Akeem Jamal, Damon Jones, Jeanine Cava, Donell Kate McCall, Bowan Gum, Randy McLaughlin, Annalise Morales, Walter Nichols Sr., Tom O'Connor, Michael Orth, Lucria Ortiz, Jeanine Peraza, Brian Pettifer, Dean Palatoplis, Elias Sage, Geraldine Sealey, Jonathan Smith, Vinny Tilson, Eileen Torres, Samuel Walker, Rose Webber, Chuck Wexler, Jen Wang and Anna Young. We also want to say a big thank you to our home away from home in Yonkers, Boujie Brews.

And now just a couple of corrections for the series. In our first episode, we said that Danny Sullivan confronted Police Commissioner John Mueller at a vigil for rapper DMX, but it was at a police recruitment event. In our second episode, we said we found that since the DOJ started investigating Yonkers in 2007, the city settled 102 lawsuits totaling nearly $6 million. There were 102 lawsuits, but 95 resulted in settlements, and seven were the result of jury verdicts. And the total payouts by the city was closer to $5.5 million.

That's it for this series. And before we go, I've got just one more announcement. The speed is going to change. It will no longer be a place just for stories by me and the EMBEDDED team. It's actually going to become a place to showcase great reporting and limited-run series from the whole NPR universe. So stay tuned for some cool stuff and for more stuff more often in this feed. Subscribe if you haven't already, so you won't miss anything. Leave us reviews. Tell your friends. Follow us @nprembedded on Twitter. Find us on Facebook. And thank you, as always, for listening. We could not do this without you.

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