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Changing Police Culture, From Inside And Out


It's been said, but it's worth repeating, that relationships between police and the communities they are sworn to protect can be tense and difficult to maneuver. Now we speak with someone who has the rare experience of being on both sides of the issue and in the middle of it as well, as a young black man growing up in Queens, N.Y., then as a police officer for 20 years and now as a political leader. He is Eric Adams. He's now Borough President of Brooklyn, and he's with us now. Mr. Adams, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ERIC ADAMS: Thank you very much. It's good being on the program again.

MARTIN: Now, you know, a lot of people outside New York might know you because you've written quite movingly about experiences that you had both with the police and then after you became a police officer. And I want to start with a story that you wrote about in The New York Times a couple of years ago about your first encounter with the police when you were 15.

ADAMS: Yeah, at 15, my brother and I, we were both arrested. And you know, during the - what's called the arrest processing where you fill out the documents just in the, you know, in the middle of it, the two officers who arrested us took us downstairs, and they just assaulted us. And just for many days after, you know, it caused urination of blood. And it was just a very strange encounter that just remained with me throughout my life.

And, you know, as I always stated, I've thought that I put it behind me, but in reality, every time I saw a police vehicle or a police show, I relived it. It never went away, and so I felt that it was a demon inside. And the only way you can get that demon inside of you out is to go inside the police department and fight from within.

MARTIN: Well, exactly, exactly. That was going to - one of things I was going to ask you. I think a lot of people would be surprised that you then decided to become a police officer yourself. And what was your thinking about that?

ADAMS: It's interesting how two people can go through the same scenario and have two different reactions. My brother reaction was to live through the pain. I think he suffered from PTSD. And I just decided to turn that pain into purpose. It was - it became therapeutic for me.

MARTIN: Well, let me start with a piece. Let me talk about something that you wrote about in a piece that you wrote for The Times back in 2014.

And you said that (reading) it starts with acknowledging that the training taught in police academies across the country is not being applied in communities of color. After six months in the police academy, that instruction is effectively wiped out by six days of being taught by veteran cops on the street.

And then you go down to - and you say (reading) hours after coming out of the police academy, I was told something as a new rookie officer. You'd rather be tried by 12 jurors than carried by six pallbearers.

Do you really think that's the pervasive attitude even today?

ADAMS: Yes. That's the reality because the - that culture has never changed. And so we really can't expect for the thought processes to also change.

MARTIN: Well, what's the solution to that? I mean, because one of the interesting things that has occurred, like, for example, in the recent Baltimore case that a number of those officers are African-American. So what's the solution then? Many people say it's recruiting people who come from that same community. Is that the answer?

ADAMS: Combination and that's why I state the complexity of it. And many people don't want to have this very complex conversation. They want to line up at one end of the field or the other. They want to talk about police are all no-good. They're all racist. They all start out their day hating black people. And then, there's other - on the other end of the spectrum, that police could do no wrong.

We're not going to find solutions if we remain on opposite ends of the field. We have to come to the 50-yard line and realize that we're in this together. Let's take off those jerseys that define us as being on the opposite side. And let's strip down to our bare skin, so we can see that we're all human beings, and we need to come with a solution.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I have to ask about the shooting in Dallas. How do you respond to that?

ADAMS: You cannot become so frustrated over this issue that you believe you can use violence to carry out your reform. And that's why it's imperative that this very peaceful, respectful movement by young people who are the grandchildren of the civil rights era is carrying out their civil rights movement. It cannot be destroyed with violence.

MARTIN: That's Eric Adams. He's the Borough President of Brooklyn. He's a former New York City police officer. And we reached him at his home office. Mr. Adams, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ADAMS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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